Now close to three months removed from his first ever TKO loss, Junior dos Santos is at a crossroads. The former UFC heavyweight champion has twice been beaten by the reigning champion Cain Velasquez in dominant fashion. Clearly, something needs to change.
Offensively, dos Santos is a wrecking machine against opponents that cannot take him down. He throws very hard punches and can close ranks quickly to attack with uppercuts, straights and hooks, all of which can end the night quickly.
In many ways, he is like a heavyweight version of Chuck Liddell. The difference is that Liddell was better at takedown defense and getting back to his feet.
Dos Santos is the closest thing Velasquez currently has to a true rival. That means he might be squaring off against the American Kickboxing Academy (AKA)-trained fighter again if he wins his next two or three fights.
This gives him time to make the necessary changes needed to improve his chances of reclaiming the title. With that in mind, there are two things he needs to work on—the first of which is takedown defense.
By now, future opponents know that a takedown-heavy attack is going to improve their chances at winning. Granted, there really isn’t anyone at heavyweight better at takedowns than Velasquez, but that doesn’t mean they won’t make the attempt.
It’s far better for their health to continually try to take dos Santos down as opposed to simply standing in front of him like a punching bag—that just spells disaster.
In addition, attacking with takedowns helps their chances of landing punches while dos Santos is in transition from defending the takedown to engaging on the feet. Velasquez was able to batter dos Santos badly on the feet for this very reason.
Thus, training hard to take his takedown defense to a new level is probably high on his camp's list of priorities for his next fight. Given that all of his upcoming fights could be seen as hard practice for a fourth bout with Velasquez, takedown defense is a priority now, not later.
The better dos Santos becomes at stuffing the takedown, the harder it becomes to catch him in transition with strikes. Liddell was so at ease with his takedown defense that he could slip fluidly into striking exchanges at the drop of a hat. To imagine dos Santos enjoying this kind of advantage is frightening for anyone in the division—even Velasquez.
Secondly, dos Santos needs to correct the awful habit of dropping his hands as he moves away, especially when his back is against the cage.
In both of his last two losses to Velasquez, dos Santos dropped his hands against the cage many times. The result was brutal—Velasquez blasted him with hard punches that left him staggered or on the floor.
Some believe this was simply because he was tired from defending the takedowns, thus they say he needs to work on his conditioning instead of keeping his hands up. While conditioning is a factor for everyone, sliding away with one's hands down and chin up is more of a tactical error than a deficiency in conditioning.
What seems more probable is that dos Santos, with his eyes swelling, wanted to keep his field of vision as clear and unobstructed as possible. Dropping one's hands at this point is akin to trying to disarm a bomb that has already gone off.
Dos Santos has spent so much of his career as an offensive fighter that employing the subtleties of defense may honestly be uncomfortable. Jake LaMotta was like that; when against the ropes, he often ate needless punches simply because anything else seemed to be admitting that he was on the defensive.
This was especially true in his six fights with Sugar Ray Robinson, of which LaMotta lost five.
Like Velasquez and dos Santos, LaMotta and Robinson were the only true threats to each other at that time in their careers. LaMotta continued to needlessly eat punches in these fights, and his refusal to admit he wasn’t “the boss” in every exchange left him badly battered.
It would be wise of dos Santos to avoid going down this path. Chances are he will face Velasquez at least one more time, and the only boss history will recognize will be the man who walks out of the cage in victory.