UFC 146 preview: Dos Santos vs. Mir

Nearly 20 years since its inception, the Ultimate Fighting Championship will hold its first all-heavyweight card Saturday in Las Vegas, headlined by a showdown for the prestigious heavyweight title pitting hard-hitting Brazilian champion Junior dos Santos against decorated former titleholder Frank Mir.

In other marquee matchups, former UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez welcomes former EliteXC champion Antonio Silva to the Octagon, while former IFL king Roy Nelson takes on late replacement Dave Herman.

Quality heavyweight prospects round out the main card as unbeaten sensations Shane Del Rosario and Stipe Miocic face off, plus Stefan Struve tries to deal Lavar Johnson his first UFC loss.

All the action takes place Saturday at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in the fight capital of the world, and here’s more on what to expect:

Main Card (on pay-per-view):

Junior dos Santos (14-1) vs. Frank Mir (16-5)

Initially expected to feature a highly anticipated headliner between the champion Dos Santos and former Strikeforce juggernaut Alistair Overeem, a number of changes to the card triggered by Overeem failing a pre-fight drug test has led to Mir stepping in as the No. 1 contender. The fight isn’t what the UFC brass had planned, but Mir should provide a considerable test nonetheless.

Dos Santos, 27, is undefeated in the UFC with victories over the likes of Fabricio Werdum, Stefan Struve, Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic, Gilbert Yvel, Gabriel Gonzaga, Roy Nelson and Shane Carwin. Most recently, Dos Santos became the UFC heavyweight king with a shocking first-round knockout of previously unbeaten champion Cain Velasquez this past November.

A Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt armed with the most lethal boxing in the heavyweight class, the pupil of Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Luiz Dorea has taken the mixed martial arts world by storm.

Nicknamed “Cigano,” the heavy-handed Brazilian boxer will be seeking redemption after Nogueira’s two setbacks against Mir, including a submission loss this past December in which the legendary former Pride heavyweight champion succumbed to a kimura with Mir breaking his arm in the process.

Dos Santos epitomizes what it means to be a well-rounded mixed martial artist, as he overwhelms opponents with a brutal boxing base while utilizing a strong sprawl to keep the fight upright against seasoned wrestlers, evidenced by Carwin’s inability to take him down when they crossed paths one year ago.

Dos Santos has yet to showcase his ground game in the UFC, but fans can rest assured he has the tools to hold his own on the mat and effectively scramble out of bad positions. Mir is likely the most dangerous submission specialist in the division, so Dos Santos would be wise to keep the fight standing rather than give Mir a shot of winning where he is most dangerous.

Mir, 32, a two-time heavyweight champion, currently holds the record for most heavyweight wins in the UFC with 14.

The Las Vegas native is riding a three-fight winning streak, including a knockout of “Cro Cop,” a submission of Nogueira and a decision over Roy Nelson.

Mir has put on a significant amount of size since his losses against powerhouses Carwin and Brock Lesnar, which only makes him more dangerous if the fight hits the canvas.

A Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt under Ricardo Pires, Mir has improved his striking by leaps and bounds since his early UFC run, completely dismantling Nogueira in their first fight in 2008 before dropping highly touted striker Cheick Kongo in 2009.

Still, Mir will want no part of Dos Santos’ boxing game. The 1998 Nevada State wrestling champion found success with his takedowns in his decision win over Nelson last year, a tactic he will need to replicate against the menacing Brazilian banger.

Mir has had made no secret about his intention to pull guard in an attempt to force Dos Santos to grapple with him. The strategy makes sense, but Mir will need to be equipped with a backup plan if Dos Santos can avert his desperation.

If Mir can secure a dominant position on the mat, Dos Santos will be entering his realm of fighting. The task is easier said than done, however, and Mir will surely be outclassed if he’s forced to exchange punches with one of the sport’s elite strikers.

In assessing familiar foes, Mir struggled to cope with Carwin’s superior strength, while Dos Santos had little trouble keeping Carwin at bay and picking him apart with strikes.

Most of the advantages in this fight lie with the champion, who will press the pace and stalk his adversary around the cage. Mir will hang on for as long as possible, but a violent combination of strikes will seal his fate in the second frame.

Verdict: Dos Santos via KO, Round 2