UFC heavyweight championship: Cain Velasquez (c) vs. Junior dos Santos
In a colossal clash for the UFC heavyweight belt, Brazilian juggernaut Junior dos Santos challenges undefeated torchbearer Cain Velasquez in the UFC’s first event presented live on FOX.
Not only are these men the top dogs in the UFC, they epitomize the evolution of a marquee division in mixed martial arts.
In the sport’s infancy years, the heavyweight class was dominated by Oleg Taktarov, Dan Severn, Mark Coleman, Gary Goodridge and David "Tank" Abbott. As the sport grew, the quality of fighters improved. Superior mixed marital artists like Frank Mir, Tim Sylvia and Randy Couture assumed control of the division on North American soil, while some of the greatest heavyweights of all time were born in Pride.
The great Fedor Emelianenko, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Josh Barnett and Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic redefined what it meant to be a heavyweight. After epic battles in Japan, these men proved heavyweights can be athletic, fast and downright destructive.
Fast forward to the year 2011 and the landscape has changed drastically. The once invincible Emelianenko is on a three-fight losing streak and Cro Cop has likely stepped into the cage for the last time.
When dos Santos and Velasquez enter the Octagon on Saturday, they’ll utilize every weapon in their vast arsenals to cement their place atop the heavyweight ladder. Today’s modern heavyweight gladiators are no longer one-trick ponies. They possess wrestling pedigrees, crushing strikes, crafty submissions and an uncanny ability to adapt to anything thrown their way.
With that being said, Saturday’s showdown on FOX is not only the most meaningful heavyweight fight of all time, it ushers in a new era in the rapidly evolving sport. Dos Santos and Velasquez could very well be the most talented heavyweights in MMA history and with the largest viewing audience ever, fans will witness a collision course between two of the baddest men on the planet.
The 29-year-old Velasquez (9-0) is coming off successive first-round stoppage victories over Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Brock Lesnar.
Since the former NCAA Division I All-American made his UFC debut in April 2008, Velasquez has dominated the competition, including other notable wins over Cheick Kongo and Ben Rothwell. The disciplined champion has shown few weaknesses in the Octagon, dominating foes with his array of tricks.
Anchored at the famed American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose, Calif., Velasquez has polished his skills working alongside Javier Mendez, Bob Cook, Dave Camarillo and Strikeforce World Heavyweight Grand Prix finalist Daniel Cormier. The Guerilla Jiu Jitsu brown belt has effectively showcased his improved striking abilities, while staying true to his bread and butter as a collegiate wrestling standout.
There are few traits to criticize about Velasquez. His work ethic is stellar, his ability to learn is unquestionable and his results are self-explanatory. However, the California native of Mexican descent may be in for the fight of his life against the division’s supreme pure boxer.
The 27-year-old dos Santos (13-1) is also unbeaten in his UFC campaign, coming off one-sided decision wins over Roy Nelson and Shane Carwin.
After suffering his only professional loss — a November 2007 submission at the hands of Joaquim Ferreira on a Brazilian card — dos Santos has steamrolled his opposition with relative ease.
A brutal uppercut sent Brazilian jiu jitsu ace Fabricio Werdum crumbling to the canvas in dos Santos’ UFC debut, which he followed up with flawless finishes over Stefan Struve, Cro Cop, Gilbert Yvel and Gabriel Gonzaga.
The Team Nogueira product currently holds a brown belt under his master "Minotauro," but heavy hands and accurate punching are his most menacing assets. Like the titleholder, the Brazilian challenger has been outstanding since joining the UFC, which leaves little room for negative interpretation.
The slight edge in striking likely belongs to dos Santos, whose hands pack dynamite in every punch. But Velasquez is no slouch himself, though his defensive stance and counter-punching will be pivotal. Velasquez was rocked numerous times during his 2009 bout with Kongo. His improvements since then are well-documented, but the American powerhouse can’t afford to eat too many clean shots from the Brazilian knockout artist.
Conversely, Velasquez will have an advantage in the conditioning and wrestling departments. Dos Santos was visibly tiring in the latter stages of his 2010 fight against Nelson, an imperfection Velasquez can exploit as this title bout progresses into championship rounds. There are few wrestlers with Velasquez’s pedigree in the heavyweight division, which could allow him to dictate where the fight takes place. But dos Santos has demonstrated remarkable improvements in his takedown defense, evidenced in his win over Carwin, a former NCAA Division II heavyweight champion, this past June.
With all the ingredients in play, this fight will undoubtedly deliver the goods. Much like Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar were able to propel the UFC into the mainstream with their classic battle on "The Ultimate Fighter 1 Finale" show on Spike TV, this heavyweight encounter has all the makings of a quintessential matchup to thrust the world’s fastest growing sports league to superstardom on FOX.
Dos Santos will need to put on the performance of his life to dethrone the determined champion. With a strong game plan that revolves primarily around his sharp boxing prowess, a new champion could be born. Dos Santos will look to break Velasquez down with body shots as the fight progresses before putting him down with a late flurry.