Undefeated as a professional mixed martial artist. 88.9% of his wins are by knockout. And he is the holder of the sport’s most prized possession – the UFC heavyweight championship.
Cain Velasquez is, without question, the baddest man on the planet. He holds that distinction for now, at least.
On Saturday night, Velasquez will make the first defense of his heavyweight crown against the man many think is perfectly suited to dethrone him, Junior dos Santos. It is a marquee matchup between fighters who have the potential to make an unforgettable fight together.
We broke down the challenger’s keys to victory yesterday. Now, it’s time to focus on the champion.
Velasquez is a former elite-level collegiate wrestler. Dos Santos is likely the division’s best wrestler. Many will instantly assume, therefore, that the champion needs to focus on takedowns. I disagree.
Velasquez would be well served putting the challenger on the ground and pounding away. No doubt about that. But getting the Brazilian down is a monumental task. Bum rushing him at the opening bell won’t work. Using feints or haphazard strikes as an opening to change levels for a single-leg probably won’t work well, either. Dos Santos expects him to do just that, so he will be well prepared.
That is why I believe Velasquez needs to come out looking to lay some wood on the feet. He needs to beat dos Santos at what he does best, and that is when the door will open for takedowns.
The key to successfully laying wood on the feet against dos Santos begins and ends with leg kicks. That is something Velasquez does as well as just about anyone in the division – Pat Barry excepted.
The champion uses a full hip turn when he fires right kicks to an opponent’s lead leg and body. As a result, his kicks land with tremendous speed and power. Dos Santos’ stance, which employs a wide base, shoulders almost perpendicular to his foe and weight sitting down, is well suited to firing savage right hands at absolute full force. But it is not great for checking leg kicks.
Velasquez can take advantage of that by using leg kicks like dos Santos uses his jab, both to set the range and exact damage. After landing a couple of kicks, the challenger will be more focused on checking them, which means leading more with his fists and finishing combinations with a hard kick to the lead leg. Even the best kickboxers in the world struggle to effectively defend leg kicks thrown at the end of fistic combinations. And Velasquez is masterful at finishing up combinations with leg kicks.
A series of fast, hard leg kicks will rapidly sap dos Santos of his power because he won’t be able to fully plant and fire onto his left side. A damaged lead leg also greatly reduces lateral movement and the ability to slip punches, particularly since dos Santos prefers to avoid flying fists by shuffling straight back.
Of course, Velasquez needs to be mindful of the challenger’s massive power. Rushing in foolishly, even if dos Santos is limping on one leg, is a recipe for disaster. Velasquez knows that. He won’t make that mistake. He will, instead, attack behind combinations, thus forcing dos Santos to continue defending, rather than planting to return full-force fire.
But that isn’t the end of the analysis. There is also a standup tendency that the champion should be able to take advantage of.
Dos Santos has a habit of throwing jabs and lead right hands to the body. They are almost always thrown in isolation, though sometimes he will shoeshine with a second or third body shot. I have not yet witnessed dos Santos following up those body shots with a shot to the head in the same salvo of punches.
Body shots are probably the most underutilized punches in MMA. But leading with them is a very dangerous proposition. It is almost always safer to finish a combination with a shot to the body because an opponent is busy defending his head. Leading to the body doesn’t typically produce the same “cover up” reaction as do shots to the head. An opponent, therefore, is more often in prime position to counter upstairs.
Velasquez has excellent hand speed and tremendous reflexes. Knowing Javier Mendez, I’m sure they worked extensively in camp on countering dos Santos’ tendency to lead to the body. If it is a lead right, Velasquez should instantly uncork a left hook. If his foe leads with a jab to the body, the champion should let his right hand go. In all instances, Velasquez’s counters should be in the form of punches in bunches.
However the fight unfolds, Velasquez should remain aggressively patient. He is at his best when he is coming forward pressing the action. But Velasquez should not feel any urgency to try and win the fight in the early rounds because this guy has a gas tank that would make the Energizer Bunny salivate. He is legendary for his ability to fight with the pace of a welterweight seemingly without ever getting tired. We don’t know if the challenger’s gas tank is similarly deep. That means drag him into the deep end of the championship rounds and see if he can swim.
Of course, all that is designed to create an advantage for Velasquez on the feet so that he can eventually get the fight to the ground, which is where dos Santos, despite his brown belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu under the Nogueira brothers, is at his least dangerous.
Don’t get me wrong, Velasquez can win this fight by knockout. Anyone doubting that statement needs to pull up his fight against Antonio Rodrigo “Minotauro” Nogueira. But the safest route to victory against an apex predator like dos Santos is to put him on his back and keep him there. As mentioned, dos Santos knows the takedowns are coming, so Velasquez likely needs to get loose on the feet before he will be able to get the fight to the ground.
The question, of course, is does Velasquez really have the standup to best dos Santos? We will all find out soon enough.
• 29 years old
• 6’1, 240 lbs
• 77-inch reach
• 9-0 overall (7-0 UFC)
• 88.9% of wins by KO/TKO
• 11.1% of wins by decision
• No career submissions
• Knockout of the Night in 3 of 7 UFC fights
• Current layoff is 385 days
• Longest layoff of career is 490 days
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