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My advice to Junior dos Santos
This Saturday night at UFC 166 in Houston, Texas, the biggest heavyweight UFC fight in history is taking place. No. 1-ranked former champ Junior Dos Santos takes on the current champion, Mexican-American Cain Velasquez to complete their epic trilogy.
The first fight didn’t last long. JDS landed a beautiful right hand that knocked down Velasquez early as he followed with a series of rights on the mat to stop the fight in the very first round. The second fight was very different. Velasquez used forward pressure, head movement, wrestling and a brutal pace to beat up JDS for 25 minutes. It was the performance Cain needed to defeat Dos Santos. Cain corrected his previous mistakes and was able to drag JDS into deep water early with a right hand and a pace that was aimed at seeing Dos Santos drown. While there may have been times when JDS’s body wanted to give up, his heart simply wouldn’t allow it to sink. It was one of the greatest displays of heart I have ever seen in the Octagon. No matter how many times Dos Santos was taken down or battered, he refused to give up and still sought out the KO until the final second of the championship fight. Now, let's discuss what kind of adjustments Dos Santos must make to win this historical rubber match.
Velasquez mauled JDS for five rounds in their second matchup.
The 29-year-old Brazilian is the most athletic heavyweight fighter on the planet. The way he moves, his strength and his speed is a notch above everyone else in the division. He will need these attributes to battle against the inhuman conditioning of Velasquez. The key to the success of JDS will be his footwork. Dos Santos must stay mobile and circle to his right to avoid that Velasquez right hand that dropped him in Round 1 of the rematch. As he circles, he needs to keep his hands high and mix in feints to confuse Cain. Feints will make it much more difficult for a fighter like Cain to find his timing.
JDS also needs to utilize the jab to keep Cain on the outside. The lack of jab in the second fight allowed Cain to close the gap and get off on his punches and utilize takedowns. The jab is also a great measuring tool that has allowed JDS to find his range in the past, especially in combination with his devastating uppercut. There were times when JDS threw the uppercut without setting up the jab and he paid for it with counters from Velasquez. By utilizing the jab, dos Santos can keep Cain on the outside and force him to take bad takedown attempts from the outside. The jab will also help JDS get off one of his favorite strikes: the right cross. He sets it up well with the jab but then side steps to his right to find an angle where he will throw the cross or overhand right. JDS caught Cain with this punch in their first fight. He has to be patient and use his jab to find these angles.
Velasquez would be a much easier opponent if it weren’t for his excellent high-volume striking game. He combines it extremely well to set up entries into takedowns. From there, Cain uses motion and chain wrestling extremely well. By that I mean, Cain combines his second and third attacks very well to help finish his takedowns moving from high crotch to double leg to body lock takedowns. Cain does this best when he has room to drive through his opponents in the center of the cage. It is very important that dos Santos counter those takedowns when Cain does get in on his legs.
Velasquez retrieved his UFC heavyweight championship belt at UFC 155.
To help him with the technical counters and defensive wrestling aspects of the fight, dos Santos has hired Russian-born, Canadian 2012 Olympian Khetag Pliev to help him with his training. Normally, it takes years of repetition to become an excellent wrestler that can compete with the likes of Velasquez. Dos Santos has a few things though that will help him become a much better wrestler than he was in the first fight. First, he is an excellent athlete who is capable of learning very quickly. He already has years of experience learning the defensive aspects of wrestling with his past training camps and now adding in tips from Pliev and focusing on drilling and sparring, dos Santos can really make things more difficult for Cain on Saturday night. The wrestling we see in MMA is quite different than traditional wrestling. Countering wrestling in MMA is difficult but certainly less complex than a straight freestyle wrestling match. Perfecting the fundamentals and adding strikes into the equation can even the playing field for less-experienced wrestlers.
Another important tactic that will help dos Santos is circling close to the cage. Cain’s style of wrestling attacks requires motion and space, and the cage can be used as a great equalizer. Despite being exhausted, dos Santos used the cage relatively well in the second fight to stop takedowns. It was in the center of the Octagon where he struggled most. With the cage at dos Santos’ back, Cain will run out of room to finish his style of takedowns. Being the larger, stronger man, dos Santos also needs to use the Octagon to rest and pace himself. From there, JDS can tie up Velasquez and look for a referee break that will force Cain to try for a takedown again and again.
Improved footwork and feinting will help JDS avoid another beating at UFC 166.
Finally, it is important that JDS look to strike to the body. JDS is a master knockout artist but must attack the body of Velasquez, especially in the early rounds. Throwing shots at the head allows a takedown expert like Velasquez to change levels and attack the legs. If JDS throws jabs and crosses to the sternum or stomach of Velasquez, it makes changing levels and takedowns harder for the champion. Knowing that it is highly unlikely for Velasquez to tire on his own, body shots are a great way to take the energy away from even the most conditioned fighters. Staying at eye level with the shorter Velasquez will also help his chances. It will force Cain to change levels even lower and as we know in MMA, every millisecond counts for reaction time. The higher dos Santos stands the easier it is for Cain to attack his legs.
UFC 166's main event is not an easy fight for either man. And this is why we're all looking forward to the completion of this amazing trilogy between two of the best heavyweights to ever put the UFC gloves on.