"I got into this sport to be champion. Now that I'm not, it's all that’s on my mind. It's all I think about." - Cain Velasquez
As clocks and calendars run out of time for 2012, the UFC is serving up its biggest and baddest main event this side of the New Year. On December 29th, at UFC 155 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in the fight capital of the world, Las Vegas, Nevada, two titans will tangle with about 10 pounds of gold on the line to determine who is the heavyweight king of the Octagon. If that wasn’t enough to whet the appetite, it’s a rematch of arguably the most talked about title fight from last year, which broke the UFC’s network barrier when their first tussle aired live and free on FOX. And, it’s basically the best “striker vs. grappler” pairing available, featuring two absolute beasts.
Everyone and their in-laws saw what happened at UFC on FOX in November of 2011. The highly anticipated showdown between then-champion Velasquez and then-challenger dos Santos was almost over before it started. Both men entered the Octagon nursing unmentioned injuries, but were ready to battle anyway with the world’s attention weighing on their shoulders. It only took 64 seconds and one powerful blow to knock the crown off Velasquez’s head and find a new home on dos Santos’. It was surprising, shocking, and exciting, but now, these two giants are set for another go around for the belt again.
In the lead-up to this championship clash at UFC 155, both Velasquez and dos Santos took time for their busy training schedules to talk to the ever-inquisitive MMA media Wednesday afternoon. Much of the conversation was centered on the assurance that both champion and challenger are not injured for this second scrap for the strap. Besides the fighters’ being healthier heading into this rematch, many, including and especially the fighters themselves, are expecting it to be a longer fight. Honestly, how could it not?
“I think every fight is different, so I’m sure this fight will be different than the other,” tells dos Santos. “I think the first fight was very fast, but I learned some things in that fight. I think this fight will be longer because that fight was too fast.”
No one is hoping for a more prolonged performance than the former UFC heavyweight champion Velasquez. Prior to UFC on FOX, the 30-year-old Mexican-American from Salinas, California was undefeated and dominant in all seven of his Octagon outings. The two-time All-American wrestler from Arizona State University had become a winning fixture in the cage with his unstoppable takedowns and his vicious ground and pound. Watching Velasquez run over his previous competition, it seemed all but written in stone that he would wear the belt and wear it for years to come.
“I got into this sport to be champion,” says Velasquez. “Now that I'm not, it's all that’s on my mind. It's all I think about.”
In the original meeting, fight fans didn’t get to see the Velasquez that they had heard so much about or had seen in his run to the title, but it was certainly on full display at UFC 146. In May, both Velasquez and dos Santos solidified their places for this event, winning in the fashion we’ve all come to expect. Velasquez blew the doors off of Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva with a 3:36 TKO stoppage in the first, leaving Silva bloody and bewildered in Velasquez’s return to ground and pound form. Meanwhile, the champion dos Santos kept his headlining bout against former UFC heavyweight champion Frank Mir as a striker’s duel and scored a TKO in the second.
One wants it on the floor and the other wants it standing; it’s as simple as that. “I know how he fights,” states Velasquez. “He wants to remain on the feet; he's good at boxing. I want to fight my fight, which is a lot of pressure and a lot of offense.”
A year removed from the thunderous overhand right that put him on top of the food chain, dos Santos is enjoying his time as champion and the perks like signing a sponsorship with Nike. The 28-year-old, heavy-handed heavyweight from Santa Catarina, Brazil has a lot to smile about these days as dos Santos cleared out a division on his way to the title and, for the most part, only has rematches with former felled foes in his future. While a couple opponents have taken dos Santos the distance, none have been able to amount any significant offense in any of his nine Octagon appearances, including the one against Velasquez. More or less, if ain’t broke, keep winning by staying upright.
“It’s the same game plan,” explains dos Santos. “My first game plan everyone already knows is to keep the fight standing. That's what I like to do. I think he is going to come hungrier for this fight. He is going to try and take me down and use his ground and pound. My strategy is the same for this fight and I'm prepared to win. I'm a very confident guy. I think that's part of my strength. I will give my best to follow my strategy inside the Octagon.”
Although the champion rarely visits his ground game in the cage, in the gym dos Santos is a newly minted Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt. And while the only real evidence UFC fans have seen of dos Santos’ non-striking abilities were in a few extremely well-executed takedowns against Shane Carwin in the later rounds of their bout, most opponents have yet to force dos Santos into a situation where he’s needed to use anything other than his elite standup. As all fights start on the feet, the onus is on Velasquez to take dos Santos out of his comfort zone and show us how the champion fares off his back.
“Cain is an excellent wrestler,” asserts dos Santos. “He puts pressure on his opponents all the time. I will have to use my takedown defense and boxing skills. I know Cain's game. I know his strategies. If he can take me down and be able to hold me down there, then I'm definitely ready to have my first submission victory. It doesn't matter what happens, I think I will knock him out again.”
On December 29th, the UFC counts down to the New Year with a colossal collision between champion and challenger, as dos Santos defends his title against Velasquez. Whether it goes to the unlikely last minute or barely makes it out of the first like last time, there is no better way to close out 2012 than with the guaranteed pulse raising excitement of this heavyweight headliner.