MMA: Junior Dos Santos
The Anderson Silva-Nick Diaz "superfight" is 185 days away.
That should be enough time to determine whether we’re actually going to call it a "superfight" to begin with. We’ve spent years talking about potential superfights in the UFC, but did we ever actually define what they were? We didn't, did we?
Whatever: Superfight status or not, Silva versus Diaz is something you want to watch if you’re a fight fan. Their personalities go a long way in that, but it’s also a fight that just feels different.
At a time when the UFC sometimes airs two cards in one day, different is welcomed.
It's definitely not your average UFC pay-per-view main event. There is no title involved, nor are there any recent wins involved. Both are 0-2 in their respective last two fights.
But this is a matchup that doesn't really care. The stakes feel high, although they’re hard to define. Maybe superfights don’t need UFC titles involved.
In the spirit of this matchup, here are five non-title "superfights" we could all get into. Will any actually happen? Probably not. But that's actually fitting. If there is one attribute about a "superfight" we know of, it's that they rarely come together.
No. 5 -- Nate Diaz versus Matt Brown, welterweight
Right? I mean, right? What if the UFC had announced, "Diaz versus Brown," and when you got to the fight poster it was a picture of Nate? How many pieces would your mind blow into? After Brown lost to Lawler, there was no better opponent for him than Diaz, but he was destined for Silva. How about his younger brother fight Brown instead? We already admitted none of these fights are likely going to happen, but now that this one is out there, I really want it.
No. 4 -- Glover Teixeira versus Junior dos Santos, heavyweight
So many bungalows would be thrown. Both guys don’t go down easy, but they put guys down easily. The exchanges would be nuts. If one of them switched gears and went for a takedown, it would be Teixeira -- but him taking dos Santos down is doubtful. So, what we’re looking at here is a guaranteed stand-up between JdS and Teixeira. Let that marinate for a minute.
No. 3 -- Urijah Faber versus Frankie Edgar, featherweight
Bump Faber back up to featherweight (although a teammate fight between him and Dillashaw would be a good time, too). This one writes itself. The prefight barbs would be as cordial as it gets, but the skill level in the cage would be off the charts. I’d rather see this fight over Faber vs. Masanori Kanehara.
No. 2 -- Anthony Johnson versus Alistair Overeem, heavyweight
Former teammates -- sort of. No one at the Blackzilians camp seems too broken up about Overeem’s decision to bail earlier this year. Johnson said he has no “beef” with Overeem but claims he was never part of the team. This all sounds like something we could exploit and magnify by placing the two in the same room with cameras and microphones for several weeks.
No. 1 -- Conor McGregor versus Donald Cerrone, lightweight
In Dublin. Cerrone would somehow commandeer a Bud Light party submarine for him and his buddies so he could still make a “road trip” out of it. Would Cerrone smile at the weigh-in and carry that carefree aura we’ve seen lately? Or might this kind of moment bring out the Cerrone that screamed expletives after knocking out Charles Oliveira in 2011 or who ran over Jamie Varner in a grudge match in 2010? Both of these guys are down to fight whomever, whenever. McGregor is a big 145.
The silver lining in not getting Jose Aldo versus Anthony Pettis in 2013: We get it in 2014, instead.
Fate apparently knew what it was doing last summer, when it scrapped a scheduled featherweight title bout between the two in August due to a Pettis injury. As good as that fight would have been then, it’s matured into a blockbuster event now.
Instead of Pettis temporarily dropping to 145 as a challenger, you have Aldo moving up to make a champion/champion fight. It gives Aldo a chance to chase history, as he would become just the third UFC fighter to win titles in multiple weight classes.
All things considered -- storyline, fighting styles, mainstream appeal -- Aldo versus Pettis is the second-best fight the UFC could promote right now, in my opinion. What’s the first? And what other fantasy matchups would I love to see? See below.
(Note: This list includes only fighters currently signed to the UFC.)
10. Junior dos Santos versus Alistair Overeem, heavyweight
From a competitive standpoint, this is probably the weakest option you’ll find on this list. They are heavyweights, anything can happen, etc., but it would be real hard to pick against dos Santos in this matchup. There is a history here, though, as you might recall. The two were supposed to fight for the title in May 2012 before Overeem failed a surprise drug test. It’s one of those fights that sells itself.
9. John Dodson versus Joseph Benavidez, flyweight
Two of, if not the best finishers in the flyweight division. Dodson’s lead pipe of a straight left versus Benavidez’s club of an overhand right -- and everything else these two do well. This fight would fly under the radar as far as casual fans are concerned, but with Demetrious Johnson proving to be so far ahead of the pack, this actually might be the most compelling matchup in the division.
8. Ronda Rousey versus Cat Zingano, female bantamweight
There is no concrete timetable for Zingano's return, but unless the UFC signs Invicta FC featherweight champion Cris Justino in her absence, the title shot should be waiting for her. Obviously, Rousey must get by former U.S. Olympic wrestler Sara McMann on Feb. 22 first. This fight was (and still is) intriguing due to Zingano's athleticism and finishing ability. Her strength and explosiveness will help in scrambles with Rousey, and she only needs a short window of opportunity to change the course of a fight.
The first encounter in 2004 was just perfect. Diaz taunting Lawler to the point referee Steve Mazzagatti tells him, “no more talking.” Lawler complaining of a groin kick and Diaz accusing him of faking right in the middle of the fight. The step back counter knockout for Diaz. Little brother Nate Diaz with the bowl-cut, running into the cage afterward. How can anyone not want to see this again?
6. Renan Barao versus Dominick Cruz, bantamweight
Sorry, but I can’t seem to let this one go. As good as Barao looks right now, is he as good as Cruz was in 2012, when he first went down due to injury? You could argue either side of that. Whenever Cruz comes back, I say make this fight. Why not? He’d almost come in with low expectations on him. Everything to gain, little to lose. A “tuneup” fight would actually probably put him under more pressure.
5. Jon Jones versus Daniel Cormier, light heavyweight
Extremely marketable fight, obviously. I have a suspicion plenty of people will pick Cormier to win this matchup, but realistically, if they had to bet the farm on it, they’d change the pick to Jones. When the chips are down for reals, at 205 pounds, you don’t bet against Jones -- even though it would be real tempting to do it with Cormier.
4. Lyoto Machida versus Vitor Belfort, middleweight
Belfort’s offense versus Machida’s defense is one of the most tantalizing battles we could hope to witness in the UFC this year. Chris Weidman is the undisputed king at 185 pounds -- he wears the crown -- but in terms of just a good, old-fashioned, definition of the term “fight,” nothing is better at middleweight than Belfort versus Machida.
3. BJ Penn versus Conor McGregor, featherweight
The two losses to Frankie Edgar became personal for Penn because he despised the way he performed in them. So even though we can all think of better matchups for him than a third meeting with Edgar, he deserves a chance at that redemption. Win or lose, a matchup against the loud, cocky, talented new kid would be outstanding to watch start to finish and it would generate plenty of interest.
2. Jose Aldo versus Anthony Pettis, lightweight
Already discussed this one. Probably my favorite fight here, stylistically. In addition to having the physical tools to match Aldo (which is quite rare), Pettis has the mentality. He’s not a guy who might just “survive” Aldo -- he’ll push him, even in the first round. And that’s something we all want to see.
1. Jon Jones versus Cain Velasquez, heavyweight
This is it. The No. 1 fight the UFC can promote, currently, post-Georges St-Pierre/Anderson Silva. No other matchup could generate as much pay-per-view revenue, and with good reason. Jones is the pound-for-pound best, while Velasquez is considered the “baddest man on the planet.” Both dominant champs would have to adjust for the other. For Jones, it would be a shot at his GOAT quest -- capturing the most iconic title in mixed martial arts. It’s unlikely to happen this year, with Velasquez currently sidelined and Jones focused on light heavyweight, but as long as both keep winning, people will talk and debate this matchup.
Mir (16-8) will try to end a three-fight losing streak when he meets Alistair Overeem during the main card of UFC 169 on Saturday at the Prudential Center.
Regardless of the outcome, Mir, 34, says he can't even fathom this fight could be his last, and he's less than convinced the UFC would cut ties with him should he lose.
The former heavyweight champ is comfortable heading into the matchup, despite his recent skid. In fact, he views his losing streak differently than some others.
"I kind of know no matter what, it's not going to be my last fight," Mir told ESPN.com. "I'm still younger than a lot of the guys in the division.
"There are two ways I would consider retirement. One is losing to guys who are not top-level competition. The other is if I started losing where it's like, 'OK man, you were knocked out viciously and staring at the rafters.' I won't endanger my health."
Mir is steadfast in his belief that neither of those scenarios is currently playing out. He still shakes his head at referee Rob Hinds' decision to stop his most recent bout against Josh Barnett in the first round at UFC 164 after he absorbed a knee along the fence.
The other two losses -- to Daniel Cormier and Junior dos Santos -- were disappointing for Mir, but not inexcusable. And in no way evidence that his career is over.
"I'm sorry if those three losses aren't killing my ego," Mir said. "Let's see, the losing streak started with Junior dos Santos, the No. 1 heavyweight in the world at the time. Then I lost to Cormier in a pretty boring fight and then to Barnett, which to me was a no-contest because the fight had a very controversial stoppage.
"Look at who I've fought. I should retire? Wow. We'd only have five guys in every weight class, because everybody else would need to retire."
The Nevada State Athletic Commission requested Mir undergo additional brain tests for precautionary reasons last year when the UFC initially wanted to book his fight against Overeem at UFC 167 in November.
Mir agreed and says he passed every exam with no issues, although the fight was eventually moved to February anyway.
The delay actually produced several benefits, none bigger than the addition of former UFC heavyweight James McSweeney (12-11) to Mir's camp. McSweeney, who fights out of Las Vegas, has trained alongside Overeem in the past.
"McSweeney is a guy who was trained by the same trainer as Alistair," Mir said. "I really don't think I could find a better person to simulate him."
In addition to McSweeney, Travis Browne (16-1-1) was a part-time presence in Mir's camp. He was in Las Vegas for the final week of preparations before Mir flew to Newark. Browne (16-1-1) knocked out Overeem at UFC Fight Night 26 in August.
Like Mir, Overeem (36-13) is also battling a losing streak, having been stopped in consecutive fights by Antonio Silva and Browne. But as far as an opponent to try and bounce back against, Mir says he hasn't exactly been given a gimme fight.
That can be a problem when you're a former champion who sells tickets. A nice easy win over a no-name opponent might have been a good way to boost confidence. Mir claims, however, he's happy the UFC never steered him that way. The losses have made him grow as a martial artist.
"I prefer this route that I've taken," Mir said. "These hardships have made me stronger."
This time, perhaps people will take Fabricio Werdum more seriously when he steps into a cage with the universally recognized best heavyweight in mixed martial arts.
Simply put, Werdum, 36, is a much more dangerous fighter against UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez than he was when he stunned Fedor Emelianenko in 69 seconds with a triangle choke in 2010.
"Fedor fought 10 years without losing," Werdum told ESPN.com while his wife translated from Portuguese to English. "I showed the world I could do it. But it's important for me that my fans, my family, my friends and my team believe in me."
This past summer Werdum forced iconic Brazilian heavyweight Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira to verbally tap because of an armbar, becoming the only man to submit Pride's two heavyweight champions. The win, he and his team felt, was enough to warrant a crack at the UFC title. They waited, and Saturday night, after Velasquez trucked through Junior dos Santos to score a fifth-round technical knockout, UFC president Dana White confirmed that Werdum would get his chance.
“He's going to want to take it to the ground,” White said of Werdum during the UFC 166 pay-per-view broadcast. “It makes this fight really interesting. Stylistically, we will see who has the better stand-up, and if it goes to the ground, I think for the first time that is a dangerous, dangerous fight for Velasquez.”
Werdum and his head trainer of six years, Rafael Cordeiro, said they expect to be comfortable wherever the fight takes them.
"Fabricio worked hard for a long time," said Cordeiro, who helped develop Anderson Silva, Wanderlei Silva, Mauricio Rua and a host of other stud Brazilians. "He expected this fight. I think this fight against Cain fits very well for him."
Having twice seen Velasquez demolish dos Santos, who knocked Werdum out early in the first round of a contest in 2008, some fans may find this confidence hollow. Velasquez (13-1) has proved to be a monster in the Octagon. The UFC champion's stamina, pace, power and ability to transition between striking and grappling is in stark contrast to so many heavyweights who came before him, save at least one notable Russian.
For Werdum, it all feels understandably familiar.
When the 6-foot-4 Brazilian entered MMA in 2002, Pride in 2005 and UFC in 2007, he was known primarily as a weak-punching jiu-jitsu convert. Werdum still can't punch as concussively as dos Santos, but he may be a more threatening striker.
"I think today he's a complete fighter," Cordeiro said. "His stand-up is better than 'Cigano' at the moment because Cigano just throws punches. Fabricio today throws punches, knees, kicks. And his jiu-jitsu is amazing. I think we have a good, good chance to take this belt and win this fight.
"If the guys exchange, Fabricio has a long reach. Long arms. Long legs. We can work this, too. If the fight goes to the ground, we feel really comfortable about that. It's really hard to punch Fabricio in the face on the ground. If you try to do this, for sure, he'll submit you. He has amazing skills. We feel really confident about this fight.
"For me, it's a pleasure to work with guys like Fabricio. The guy works hard to put his life in our hands to develop his game."
Werdum watched Saturday as Velasquez "broke Cigano's strategy one more time," and chalked it up to a "perfect" fight by the UFC king, whom some suggest should rank as the sport's best big man ever. Validation of that would come with victories and time -- a defense over Werdum would give Velasquez the record for consecutive UFC heavyweight title defenses at three.
"He never got tired," Werdum said of the champion. "He never blew his power. He's very consistent fighting and grappling. He did what he wanted. When Cigano wanted to box, Cain took him down. He was always playing opposite of what Cigano thought.
"I believe that he won't change his strategy and the way he fights. For sure he'll want to stand up with me, but he'll also try to put me on the ground."
Werdum, a world champion jiu-jitsu black belt, isn't "afraid to strike with [Velasquez] because I'm not afraid to go to the ground with him. I trust my guard. I can sweep from half-guard or guard.”
Werdum expects interactions leading up to the fight to be cordial, as they were when he challenged the great Emelianenko. Werdum is mindful of the opportunity in front of him, especially as he holds down three jobs with the UFC. Fighter, first. Ambassador to Latin and South America. And a voice on the Spanish-language UFC broadcasts, which he hopes to continue after his fighting days are done.
"If I can submit Cain, it's going to be awesome," Werdum said. "I'll try. I have this in my mind. I want to break records. I want to submit Fedor, submit Minotauro, then submit Cain Velasquez. That would be awesome for my career."
Should he pull it off, Werdum would take up space in rarefied air. He wouldn't go so far as to entertain the idea that victories over Emelianenko, Nogueira and Velasquez make him the best heavyweight of his generation, though. That's up to fans and media, he said.
For now, Werdum’s focus is on more attainable things. Like shocking the world once more.
As UFC president Dana White put it a couple of weeks ago while speaking in Las Vegas, everybody is “high” after a great fight. It can be difficult to put things in perspective.
Well, we were all high in Houston after UFC 166. It was a great night of fights to witness live, capped by a dominating performance by the heavyweight champ.
So, even though I thought this on Saturday, I wanted to come down before I wrote it. And I did. I flew back to Las Vegas and did some yard work on Sunday. Watched my fantasy football teams go down in flames. Played with the dog.
And through all of that, the same sort of nagging thing came up every time I thought about the UFC 166 main event: What was Junior dos Santos doing?
To be perfectly crystal clear here: I am not taking anything away from Cain Velasquez's performance. He is a violent, emotionless machine turned up to its highest setting in the cage.
White believes Velasquez is the greatest heavyweight in the world, capable of defending the UFC belt more than twice (the current record for consecutive defenses) -- a belt, he says, that has been “always up for grabs.” I agree with him.
But this entire heavyweight trilogy was built on the idea that Velasquez and dos Santos were, at least to an extent, evenly matched. Now that we’ve seen 10 consecutive one-sided rounds for Velasquez, it obviously doesn’t feel like that anymore, and my first question is: Why?
The answer I consistently come to is Velasquez was willing to adjust. The common theme in combat sports is the best part of having a rival is that it forces you to grow. Velasquez grew during this trilogy; dos Santos didn’t.
Here’s the column I wrote after dos Santos knocked out Velasquez in their first meeting. The topic I chose that night was about the look in Velasquez’s eye that told me he’d get better.
Read his quote after that loss: “I didn’t pressure enough. The game plan was to pressure. I waited far back too long. I was playing dos Santos’ game. It was my fault.”
Another common saying in combat sports is that you learn more from a loss than a win. Why does it feel as if Velasquez learned more from a 64-second loss to dos Santos, than dos Santos learned in a 25-minute beating in their second fight?
Here’s what Javier Mendez, Velasquez’s head trainer, told me two days before the third fight went down at Toyota Center.
“Junior is hungry; he’s better,” Mendez said. “He’s going to be prepared for this one. Ask Cain, he’ll tell you. We’re expecting a new and improved Junior. More motivation and better tricks. If his camp is as good as I think they are, they’re going to be better at everything.”
And here’s what Velasquez said: “I think his biggest adjustment would have to be his pace. He won’t be backing up. He’s going to be more aggressive. I think that’s what we’re looking at, is him being more aggressive.”
I should be crystal clear about another thing here: Dos Santos is the No. 2 heavyweight in the world. That’s better than No. 3, No. 4 and all the rest of them. He showed incredible heart last weekend (and in the previous Velasquez fight, for that matter). He still knocks out 80 to 90 percent of the division on any night.
Velasquez is unique, though, and dos Santos didn’t treat him that way. My opinion is dos Santos actually fought better in the second fight than he did in the third. If he made any adjustments, someone tell me, what were they?
At UFC 155, dos Santos absorbed 210 total strikes, according to FightMetric. Seriously, 210 heavyweight strikes. Many of those were on the feet. In between rounds, dos Santos’ corner told him he had to keep his hands up.
I asked dos Santos if he would keep his hands up in the third fight, or continue holding them at his waist, as he’s preferred to do his entire career.
“No, I don’t plan to keep my hands up,” dos Santos said. “I like to keep my hands a little low. That’s my way to fight. When the guy attacks me, I can see the moves better.”
That’s true. When a slower guy, or a guy who doesn’t throw multiple punches at a time like Velasquez, attacks, maybe dos Santos can see it coming better. But this was Velasquez. It’s strange that in the second fight, the corner yelled at him to get his hands up, but didn’t train him to do so from the start for the third fight.
He was taken down 11 times in the second fight and only twice in the third, so one might say: “There you go, he improved his wrestling.”
Velasquez attempted 20 fewer takedowns in Houston than he did in Las Vegas, though. Realistically, a better way to look at that statistic is that Velasquez learned he didn’t necessarily need to take dos Santos down to win the fight. He was actually able to control him better with an underhook against the fence than top position.
Even in the first round on Saturday, dos Santos showed no urgency to get away from the fence. He backed himself into it at times. Part of that was Velasquez cutting off the cage (and no doubt, Velasquez tires out an opponent quickly, which makes it harder to get away from him), but the point is, dos Santos knew all of this.
It’s possible that even if dos Santos had made adjustments, Velasquez still would have beaten him -- but we don’t really know, because dos Santos was the same guy every time.
After Velasquez dominated the middle fight, dos Santos had excuses. As far as excuses go, they were A-plus. Most observers will ignore any self-pitying comments, but having muscle fibers in your bloodstream and going through a divorce -- OK, that does sound rather difficult to fight through.
It appears, however, dos Santos believed in those excuses too much. Maybe he thought that showing up and being the same old dos Santos was more than enough to knock Velasquez out a second time. Hopefully, he’s learned better.
HOUSTON -- As everyone knows, any great real-life sports moment can be summed up by an equally great sports-movie quote.
For this weekend’s UFC heavyweight trilogy fight between defending champion Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos, the quote has to come from Will Ferrell’s NASCAR classic, "Talladega Nights."
“If you ain’t first, you’re last.” It becomes a rule of thumb for Ferrell’s character, Ricky Bobby -- the last thing his father says before running out of his adolescent life.
Saturday’s heavyweight title fight features, without question, the most dominant big men in mixed martial arts today. They are 1-1 against each other and a combined 18-0 against the rest of the division, including 15 finishes.
As talented as they both are, only one will leave the Toyota Center as champion. The other, the one who takes second, might feel like he finished last.
“I think the casual fan will remember the last fight between them and forget the ones before,” said Javier Mendez, Velasquez’s head coach.
“From my observation, [in trilogies], the guy who wins the last fight is the winner. Muhammad Ali was the winner [over Joe Frazier]. Arturo Gatti was the winner [over Micky Ward]. The casual fan only remembers the last fight.”
So much is at stake at UFC 166, well beyond the normal stuff that comes with every title fight. History won’t be made on Saturday; it will actually be rewritten.
Excuses are a dime a dozen in the fight game, but dos Santos and Velasquez each has good ones when it comes to their first two meetings.
When dos Santos (16-2) starched Velasquez with a right hand just 64 seconds into the first fight in 2011, Velasquez was secretly nursing a serious knee injury.
When Velasquez (12-1) -- as UFC president Dana White put it Thursday -- “destroyed” dos Santos in a five-round rematch last year, the Brazilian was finalizing a divorce and dealing with rhabdomyolysis, a potentially fatal condition caused by overtraining.
There’s no real way of knowing how much those circumstances played into the first two results, but that doesn’t matter. Perception beats reality every day in combat sports. Saturday’s winner will have “proved” his loss to the other was a fluke.
It’s why Mexican boxer Juan Manuel Marquez turned down a massive payday this year to fight Manny Pacquiao again. Who cares if he retires 1-2-1 against Pacquiao? Marquez will feel forever vindicated by the crushing knockout he scored in the rivalry’s finale last year.
It should be mentioned that Saturday might not even be this rivalry’s finale. Mendez has confidently predicted a fourth (and perhaps even fifth) fight, as has dos Santos.
Of course, a fourth fight isn’t guaranteed, and by the time the UFC wanted to promote one, the heavyweights could be well past their respective primes anyway.
“I think it will be settled for a while,” Velasquez said. “I won’t say we won’t fight in five years or so. That’s a possibility. But it will be settled for a while.”
Both Velasquez and dos Santos, when asked to identify the greatest heavyweight martial artist of all time, named former Pride champion Fedor Emelianenko. The Russian heavyweight once went 28 consecutive fights without a loss.
Even in the UFC’s heavyweight division, where no champion has consecutively defended the belt more than twice, Velasquez and dos Santos are viewed as talented enough to produce a long winning streak.
Only one of them, however, can do it with a belt around his waist. And as Reese Bobby said, “If you ain’t first …”
“It’s really hard to ignore how huge this fight is,” Mendez said. “This is the biggest trilogy in the history of the UFC, and it may very well be the biggest trilogy of all MMA.”
As talented a fighter as Junior dos Santos has proved to be inside the Octagon, there was always a noticeable defect in his game: He was predictable.
It was no secret that the minute dos Santos stepped inside the cage, punches would start flying. And for a long time, there was nothing his opponents could do about it. They’d just take their beatings like men and collect hefty paychecks for their efforts.
“There was nothing any heavyweight could do to prevent dos Santos from using his fast hands, footwork and power to dismantle them. A dos Santos knockout victory had become commonplace. He was so successful at employing this approach that there was no incentive on his part to change it. Besides, toting that UFC heavyweight title belt around served as a constant reminder that he was doing things correctly.
I was too predictable in the cage. Everybody knew that I was coming in there to knock them out. I always relied on my boxing skills and avoiding the takedown.” -- Junior dos Santos, on what went wrong in his second bout against Cain Velasquez
Comfortable with the relative ease in which he was winning UFC bouts, dos Santos prepared for each fight by following the same training camp routine -- hit the pads, spar, and fine-tune his footwork, his head movement and his takedown defense.
Going to the ground in a mixed martial arts fight was an absolute no-no for dos Santos. His prefight strategy never changed: Keep it standing and everything would turn out just fine.
Then he signed to fight Cain Velasquez a second time. Dos Santos entered that fight extremely confident; he had overwhelmed Velasquez in their first meeting -- winning by first-round knockout in November 2011 to capture the UFC title belt.
But the rematch, in December 2012, proved to be very different. Velasquez attacked dos Santos nonstop for five rounds. He hit dos Santos repeatedly in the face with powerful right hands, followed by lefts to the body.
When the final horn sounded, dos Santos was unrecognizable. His face was badly swollen and bloodied. Dos Santos had taken a massive beating in losing his title belt by a lopsided unanimous decision and returned home to ponder what went wrong.
He had trained the way he always did: The sparring sessions were as intense as usual, and his punching power and speed weren’t lacking. There was no reason for dos Santos to believe he would be overmatched by a man he had dominated one year earlier.
But he was overmatched, and, looking back, it was the best thing that could have happened to dos Santos. It was the long overdue wake-up call he needed.
That beating has remained fresh in dos Santos’ mind ever since. It’s as if the rematch happened yesterday. Dos Santos has watched the fight over and over and remembers every detail of the beating he received. And it will be visible in his mind Saturday night when he faces Velasquez a third time at UFC 166 in Houston.
Most fighters would try desperately to erase such a nightmarish experience, but not dos Santos. The former UFC titleholder embraced the outcome of that second meeting and has used it to change his ways.
“You learn more when you lose a fight,” dos Santos told ESPN.com. “I learned a lot from that loss to Cain Velasquez. It was really bad to see myself in that position, getting beat for five rounds. That was very bad for me; I didn’t like it. I won’t let that happen again.
“I was too predictable in the cage. Everybody knew that I was coming in there to knock them out. I always relied on my boxing skills and avoiding the takedown. But one of the things I and my team learned is that we have to use all of our weapons all the time to win a fight.”
Boxing will remain an important part of dos Santos’ fight plan; it remains his greatest advantage inside the Octagon. But he intends to also employ wrestling, jujitsu and Muay Thai -- if need be. That, however, is all the information he is willing to divulge.
Dos Santos is no stranger to wrestling, jujitsu or Muay Thai, he has just failed to use them regularly in his UFC fights. There was not much need for them previously. Velasquez taught him that those disciplines are just as important -- and dos Santos got the message.
“I have more experience now,” dos Santos said. “I learned a lot from my other fights. Now I’m better prepared for my fights, and mentally I am ready.
“I’m feeling very good about this fight. I’ve worked very hard on my strategy, my stand-up skills, my ground skills, all my skills, everything. I’ve trained in every area, all my skills. It’s very important for this moment.
“That fight taught me a lot, especially about my training. I did a lot of things wrong in that fight. I made a lot of mistakes, and I paid the price for that.
“I watched that second fight with Cain a lot. I couldn’t do a lot of things in that fight. I was giving him a lot of space. I can’t let that happen again, I have to put more pressure on him.”
Although dos Santos expects to reclaim the title, he will never return to being the fighter he was before that rematch with Velasquez. At 29 years old, he says he is still growing as a mixed martial artist -- physically and mentally. With each camp, he learns new techniques in all disciplines, including boxing.
Dos Santos changes a little every day. His body continues to grow and get stronger. He is mentally more mature; dos Santos has a better understanding of the fight game now. He is more well-rounded today than he was a year ago.
The former heavyweight champion has developed into a mixed martial artist. He isn’t predictable anymore.
ESPN Stats & Information
A trilogy is defined as a series of three novels, movies, etc. that are closely related and involve the same characters or themes.
On Saturday, UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez completes his series of three bouts with Junior dos Santos in Houston. The third battle sold out in less than three days and could set the Toyota Center record for highest-grossing event, already held by the UFC.
The event also will mark the 10th trilogy completed solely inside the UFC Octagon. Depending on how the fight goes, it could take its place among some other notable UFC trilogies.
Randy Couture versus Chuck Liddell (UFC 43, UFC 52, UFC 57)
Randy Couture already had won two UFC heavyweight titles when he stepped down in weight to challenge Chuck Liddell for the interim light heavyweight title at UFC 43 in June 2003. Liddell was 11-1 and coming off a brutal head-kick knockout of Renato Sobral. Couture landed four of five takedowns and outstruck Liddell 46-22 in significant strikes to win the title by third-round TKO. The two men met again in April 2005 at UFC 52 after both served as coaches on the debut season of “The Ultimate Fighter.” Liddell won the rematch, knocking out Couture 2:06 into the first round to win the undisputed light heavyweight title. Their third matchup took place at UFC 57 in February 2006 with Liddell still champion at 205 pounds. Liddell controlled the fight, landing 18 head strikes, including the final blows to a downed Couture to win by TKO in the second round and retain the title. Both men were eventually inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame (Couture in 2006, Liddell in 2009).
Georges St-Pierre versus Matt Hughes (UFC 50, UFC 65, UFC 79)
Another Hall of Famer, Matt Hughes, was involved in two trilogies inside the UFC Octagon. Hughes landed on the losing end of both at 1-2, and while his trilogy with BJ Penn was memorable, it’s his rivalry with Georges St-Pierre for the UFC welterweight title that is remembered. At UFC 50 in October 2004, former champion Hughes faced a young 24-year-old from Canada in St-Pierre for the welterweight title. With 1:14 left in the first round, Hughes gained his second takedown of the fight and eventually secured an arm bar on St-Pierre, forcing a tapout with one second remaining to become a two-time UFC welterweight champion. Hughes made two defenses of the title before meeting St-Pierre again at UFC 65 in November 2006. St-Pierre outstruck the champion 45-10 and landed a devastating head kick and punches to win the title by TKO in the second round. December 2007 was the final battle at UFC 79. Hughes and GSP once again fought for a vacant interim title, as undisputed champion Matt Serra was out because of injury. St-Pierre landed three takedowns and finished Hughes via arm bar in the second round. That fight remains St-Pierre’s second UFC victory by submission in 20 fights. Hughes was inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame in 2010, before finishing his second trilogy with Penn and retiring in 2011.
Frankie Edgar versus Gray Maynard (Ultimate Fight Night 13, UFC 125, UFC 136)
At UFC Fight Night 13 in 2008, two undefeated lightweight prospects took to the Octagon in Frankie Edgar (9-0) and Gray Maynard (4-0, 1 NC). Maynard used his Michigan State wrestling background to score nine takedowns on "The Answer," winning 30-27 on all scorecards. Fast-forward to New Year’s Day 2011 and Edgar was the reigning and defending UFC lightweight champion. Maynard was still undefeated and the No. 1 contender to Edgar’s title when they fought at UFC 125. Edgar was knocked down three times in the first round and on the verge of losing to Maynard again, this time for the title. But the New Jersey product fought back valiantly, outstriking Maynard 85-46 for the remaining four rounds to earn a split decision draw. The third fight was inevitable and took place at UFC 136 seven months later. Maynard was again the aggressor, outstriking Edgar 24-11 in the first round and earning another knockdown against the champ. As with the second fight, Maynard slowed and Edgar battled back. In the fourth round, Edgar landed 21 significant strikes to 5 for Maynard and finished "The Bully" with punches to the head. The fight was stopped at 3:54 of the round with Edgar winning by TKO and retaining his UFC lightweight title. Edgar moved to featherweight in February 2013 and Maynard will face Nate Diaz at "The Ultimate Fighter 18" finale in November of this year. While it is their third fight, the first on the "The Ultimate Fighter" is not considered an official bout.
Ken Shamrock versus Tito Ortiz (UFC 40, UFC 61, “UFC Fight Night: The Final Chapter”)
Vendetta. Bitter Rivals. The Final Chapter. Those were the titles of the trilogy fights between Ken Shamrock and Tito Ortiz and did they ever fit the descriptions. After 1999 victories over Lion’s Den fighters Jerry Bohlander and Guy Mezger, Ortiz berated the Shamrock camp with taunts and T-shirts, enraging the "World’s Most Dangerous Man." Shamrock also was in the middle of a pro wrestling career, but made his Octagon return at UFC 40 in November 2002 to challenge Ortiz for the UFC light heavyweight title. In what was arguably one of the pivotal moments in UFC history, Ortiz dominated the former UFC Superfight champion in significant strikes 74-12, and takedowns 3-0. The fight was stopped in the third round by Shamrock’s corner, and Ortiz retained his title. Shamrock would be inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame the following year, but his career was not over. The two crossed paths again in 2006, not as opponents in the cage, but rather coaches on Season 3 of "The Ultimate Fighter." Verbal spats arose and the two men again faced off at UFC 61 in July 2006. Shamrock started strong, but Ortiz secured a takedown and landed elbows in the guard. Referee Herb Dean controversially stopped the fight at the 1:18 mark, giving Ortiz his second victory over Shamrock. The third fight was in October 2006 at UFC Fight Night: The Final Chapter. Ortiz landed a takedown 40 seconds into the fight and finished Shamrock with strikes 2:23 into the fight. Ortiz would be involved in one more trilogy during his UFC career, losing the final two bouts of his trilogy with Forrest Griffin. The third fight ended his UFC career on the same weekend he became the eighth fighter inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame.
Velasquez and dos Santos will fight for the third time this Saturday to finish the 11th trilogy in UFC history. Will this be the last? Unlikely. Here are some potential UFC trilogies for each division you may see in the coming years.
Heavyweight: Frank Mir versus Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira (2 fights): Mir needs to beat Alistair Overeem or he might face a release after fighting in the UFC since 2001. Nogueira is at the tail end of his career and Mir was the first man to make "Big Nog" submit in his MMA career.
Light heavyweight: Lyoto Machida versus Mauricio Rua (2 fights): This would require one fighter to move weight classes, most likely Machida back to 205. They split the first two over the title and a third battle could certainly go either way.
Middleweight: Anderson Silva versus Chris Weidman (1 fight, 1 upcoming): If Weidman wins at UFC 168, there won’t be a third fight. But if "The Spider" is victorious, you’d have to think either Weidman gets an immediate rematch or can work his way back to the title before Silva's contract runs out.
Welterweight: Carlos Condit versus Martin Kampmann (2 fights): While Condit certainly looked sharp against "The Hitman" in earning a TKO victory, Kampmann will always be lurking in the welterweight picture. He’d have to pull off two or three wins in a row somewhere along the line if he's to face "The Natural Born Killer" again.
Lightweight: Nate Diaz versus Gray Maynard (1 fight, 1 upcoming): Matt Wiman and Mac Danzig have fought twice, but Wiman won both, which essentially puts that out. Technically this will be the third fight of Diaz versus Maynard (they fought on TUF 5), but officially two on their fight records. Still, a Diaz win at the TUF 18 finale could make a third official fight very interesting.
Featherweight: Cub Swanson versus Dustin Poirier (1 fight): The odds gets a little longer starting at 145 because of the recent UFC addition, but these two should be in the division for a while. Swanson is currently ranked sixth and defeated eighth-ranked Poirier by unanimous decision in February.
Bantamweight: Michael McDonald versus Sergio Pettis (0 fights): With Jose Aldo probably moving to lightweight and Renan Barao to featherweight, bantamweight trilogies look bleak. Michael McDonald is 22 and Sergio Pettis is 20 ,so with success, they’ll be around a while. The question is if the younger Pettis’ future is at 135 pounds or 125.
Flyweight: Demetrious Johnson versus Joseph Benavidez (1 fight, 1 upcoming): By year's end, these men will have fought twice. If Benavidez wins the rematch at the TUF 18 finale, expect these two to finish the rivalry in mid to late 2014.
Women’s bantamweight: Ronda Rousey versus Sara McMann (0 fights): Rousey-Tate would be the obvious choice because they will have fought twice by year's end, but Tate has to win at UFC 168. Many see McMann's wrestling as the key to beating Rousey. Whoever beats the No. 1-ranked women’s fighter certainly would have to face "Rowdy" Ronda again.
In the week leading up to Jon Jones’ sixth UFC title defense last month, how many of you would have traded in Alexander Gustafsson for Daniel Cormier?
Fifty percent? Higher than that. Sixty percent? Seventy?
Despite being told about 7,849 times how tall and long-armed Gustafsson was, few predicted he would give Jones all he could handle through five rounds in Toronto. If you did predict it, a sincere congratulations. And safe flight back to Sweden.
Cormier, though -- he’s an unflattering 0-0 at 205 pounds, but many had pegged the undefeated heavyweight as the most intriguing challenge to Jones’ title reign.
At least, up until that Gustafsson performance. As much as Cormier enjoyed watching UFC 165 as a fan, the light heavyweight contender inside him knew what the close fight meant: He is most likely no longer the most attractive Jones opponent.
“You know what, man, after the way Gustafsson fought him, I think the interest has gone down a little bit,” Cormier said, on a potential title fight against Jones.
“I think it’s all a matter of who can challenge Jon. When a guy looks so dominant, people look for a guy who can challenge him. I was that guy. Now Gustafsson is that guy.”
Nevertheless, Cormier (12-0) is headed to Jones’ light-heavyweight world regardless of what happens in his next fight, a heavyweight tilt against Roy Nelson at UFC 166 this weekend.
As popular as Cormier has become, and in such meteoric fashion, he doesn't fit the description of a fighter who needs a dominant performance, but that’s kind of the case here, considering Cormier's title aspirations.
Fact is, he’s not a shoe-in to just immediately face Jones at light heavyweight anymore. On top of that, his UFC debut against Frank Mir earlier this year was, although one-sided, a little disappointing to Cormier and his fans.
“I could use an impressive fight,” Cormier said. “For me, it would be great to go out and have the type of performance I expect out of myself.
“If I have the type of performance I hope to have next week, I’m going to get up there and ask for (a title shot) again. I’m going to continue knocking on that door and hopefully someone answers it. If not, I’m going to ask for a real important fight in the 205-pound division.”
As a 5-to-1 favorite, Cormier is widely expected to get a win over Nelson (19-8) -- but making a huge statement against him becomes more difficult.
It’s hard to say whose highlight DVD would sell better: Nelson’s right hand’s or his chin’s.
He’s only been knocked out once (and never in the UFC), a crazy feat considering the following: In Nelson’s last fight, Stipe Miocic landed 106 strikes on him. The year before that, Fabricio Werdum tagged him 91 times. Prior to that, Junior dos Santos hit this man an astounding 130 times.
Cormier says he’s mentally prepared to deal with an opponent who refuses to go down, but he also says a good chin is like a carton of milk. It eventually goes bad.
“Every person, every tough guy you’ve ever seen fight, whether it’s in boxing or martial arts who is known for having a great chin -- there’s an expiration date on that,” Cormier said.
“There’s a number these guys can take. What if the last one from Stipe Miocic was the one that was one too many? Maybe the expiration date on Roy’s chin was up in Canada [Miocic fight]. Maybe mine are the ones he can’t take.”
ESPN Stats & Information
UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez will face No. 1 contender Junior dos Santos on Saturday for the third time in the past two years. The fighters have split the first two matchups.
In the co-main event, third-ranked Daniel Cormier fights at heavyweight for possibly the final time when he takes on Roy Nelson.
Here are the numbers you need to know for the fights:
8: Velasquez has eight UFC victories by KO/TKO, most by any heavyweight in company history. The 8 KO/TKO wins are tied for fifth all-time. Tied for second on the heavyweight list is dos Santos with seven.
11: In their last fight, Velasquez secured 11 takedowns on dos Santos, a career high for the former All-American from Arizona State. Before that fight, opponents had taken down dos Santos twice in 17 attempts (88 percent defense). Velasquez lands an average of 6.5 takedowns per 15 minutes.
5: Both fighters land over 5 significant strikes per minute in UFC fights. Velasquez is first with 6.50 significant strikes per minute while dos Santos is 7th at 5.46 significant strikes per minute. They are 1st and 3rd respectively in the UFC heavyweight division all-time (Stipe Miocic 5.48).
3: There have been three title fights in UFC history to take place in Houston. Champions Frankie Edgar and Jose Aldo retained their titles at UFC 136. The biggest upset in UFC history also occurred in Houston as Matt Serra defeated Georges St-Pierre for the welterweight title at UFC 69.
4: Of the 15 men who have held a version of the UFC heavyweight title, four have defended the title two consecutive times. Randy Couture defeated Pedro Rizzo twice in 2001. Andrei Arlovski defended an interim title against Justin Eilers and then the undisputed title against Paul Buentello in 2005. Tim Sylvia defeated Arlovski for the title, and then defended against him and Jeff Monson in 2006. Brock Lesnar defended his undisputed title against interim champions Frank Mir in 2009 and Shane Carwin in 2010.
10: Velasquez vs. dos Santos III will be the 10th trilogy in UFC history. Of the previous 9 to be completed, only one has taken place within the UFC heavyweight division (Sylvia vs Arlovski). As Velasquez did against dos Santos, Sylvia lost the first fight and his interim title at UFC 51, but then won it back at UFC 59 in the second matchup. In the final installment less than three months later, Sylvia was victorious again at UFC 61.
26: Cormier has landed an average of 26 more significant strikes in each of his nine UFC/Strikeforce fights over his career. In his last fight, he outlanded Frank Mir 59-24 en route to a unanimous decision victory. Cormier has never been outstruck in any of those nine fights. Nelson was outstruck in his last fight by Stipe Miocic 106-23.
4: Knockout of the Night awards for Nelson, tied for second most all-time and 1st among heavyweights. All four of those victories were in the first round as well as nine of his 12 career KO/TKO wins. Cormier has five victories by KO/TKO, three of which occurred in the first round.
One question I get just about every week on the Friday chat was some variation of this: Which UFC champion will fall first?
For the past year, it’s been easy to imagine that none of the current champions would ever lose again, given the state of the matchmaking. Not with Ronda Rousey fighting Liz Carmouche, and Georges St-Pierre fighting Nick Diaz, and Jon Jones fighting Chael Sonnen, and Anderson Silva fighting Stephan Bonnar with no belt in the balance, and Dominick Cruz not fighting at all.
With landslide favorites in these matchups, the answer was always Junior dos Santos. Heavyweights have never been good at holding on to the belt. Then it became Cain Velasquez, when he beat Dos Santos. That is, until Velasquez was resaddled with Antonio Silva, whose odds the second time were longer than his gangly reach. When that happened, the question of who would fall first came back around to its usual futility.
The real question was: Who would get Matt Serra’d first?
For the past year, it wasn’t that the UFC champions were being catered to and protected, so much as the matchmaking lacked imagination. Or the matchmaking had too much imagination, because it required the open-mindedness of our disposable income. There was not enough genuine threat, due to circumstances (injuries), limitations (shallow heavyweight division) and cash-out gimmickry (Sonnen). Aside from a few exceptions -- Gilbert Melendez versus Benson Henderson, say, or any Demetrious Johnson fight -- for a long time we had main events that looked and felt more like potboilers.
Just activity for the sake of activity, with low-flame drama.
Yet here we are in mid-2013, and a champion has fallen. Anderson Silva, the longest-tenured, most unthinkable of the titleholders with his 16-0 record in the UFC, lost to Chris Weidman spectacularly at UFC 162. There’d be no such thing as “eras” if they went on forever. Now the Silva era hinges on the rematch in December. How are those for stakes?
If that wasn't novel enough, after a long dry spell of pretenders getting shots on whims and shaking limbs, suddenly it looks as if Silva could be just the first domino to fall. Most of the title fights slated to take place in the second half of 2013 pits a challenger who looks and feels like an actual threat to the throne. Suddenly we can imagine a world where Johny Hendricks is posing for magazine articles with the belt slung over his shoulder, know what I mean?
Think about this: By the end of 2013, we might have recast our pantheon of UFC champions. Hendricks is a legitimate threat to St-Pierre. So is the barely talked about John Moraga over flyweight champion Johnson. Dos Santos could reclaim his title against Velasquez, just the same as Silva could reclaim his belt against Weidman. These fights are booked and happening (pending health).
Rousey will be the odds-on favorite to beat Miesha Tate, just as Jose Aldo will loom large over Chan Sung Jung -- but Anthony Pettis beat Benson Henderson once, what’s to say he can’t to it again at the end of August? Especially in his hometown of Milwaukee?
Romanticists might point to Alexander Gustafsson as a viable challenge to Jon Jones, but that one is more wait and see. Yet Gustafsson feels like Ares in there against Jones after fostering our collective beliefs for so long over Sonnen’s chances.
By the end of 2013, our pound-for-pound lists may become a weekly Etch-a-Sketch. This is how it was drawn up in the Ultimate Fighting Championship -- to stake the best fighters in the world against the people who the matchmakers think could beat them. That’s how this thing works best. Champions, after all, are made to be vulnerable.
And it’s refreshing to look over a slate of upcoming fights and genuinely have no idea how things are going to go. It’s better, when asked a question like "which UFC champion will fall first," to counter with: "A better question is -- which one will still be champion this time next year?"
Under normal circumstances, Werdum would spend the final few days before fight night relaxing, while his handlers rehash the game plan’s finer points.
But the fight slated to take place Saturday night, in the UFC on Fuel TV 10 main event, is anything but normal. Werdum is returning to his native Brazil to face a fellow countryman and a legend in mixed martial arts -- Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira (or "Big Nog" for short).
Heading into this fight, Werdum is excited. Don’t mistake his excitement as a sign of nervousness, however. He is eager to get in the cage against a man he respects immensely.
“Winning this fight will definitely be a big step forward for me in the division,” Werdum told ESPN.com. “But the fact that it’s Big Nog, who is a big guy in the division and who has made a lot in history and continues to make history in the UFC.”
Werdum is convinced this fight will strengthen his case for a title shot in the not-too-distant future. But a victory Saturday night serves additional purposes for the 6-foot-4, 250-pound fighter.
This is a showcase bout for Werdum, who is in his fighting prime. No longer just a jiu-jitsu practitioner, the 35-year-old is equally confident in his striking skills.
It’s a major reason he expects to win impressively while exacting revenge on Nogueira. The two fought July 1, 2006, in Pride FC. Nogueira defeated Werdum by unanimous decision.
I'm more of a professional fighter. I really took the time to perfect myself in all areas. Back then, I was just a jiu-jitsu fighter. Today I'm at a more advanced stage in my career.” -- Fabricio Werdum, on being a more complete mixed martial artist ahead of Saturday's rematch with Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira
But that was then. A lot has changed since, and just about all the changes favor Werdum.
“I’m a lot more experienced now,” said Werdum, who is 16-5-1. “I’m more of a professional fighter. I really took the time to perfect myself in all areas. Back then, I was just a jiu-jitsu fighter. Today I’m at a more advanced stage in my career.
“Back then, when I first fought Big Nog, he was at his peak; now I’m at my peak.”
Werdum might be at his professional and physical peaks as a fighter, but Nogueira isn’t ready to concede anything in either area. At 37, and with 42 pro fights under his belt during a 14-year span, Nogueira remains convinced he can make one more run at the heavyweight title.
He had a solid camp and says his body feels terrific. Nogueira is prepared to push Werdum to the limit Saturday night.
Nogueira (34-7-1) intends to neutralize the excitement Werdum claims to feel heading into the fight with additional motivation he will get from the love showered on him by the Brazilian fans. The determining factor Saturday night, according to Nogueira, will be experience.
“I have more experience than him,” Nogueira said. “And physically, I am in very good shape. I know I can push more in this fight. But I am more experienced than him.
“The people [want] to see who is the better fighter or who is the better coach. It’s extra motivation for me to fight in front of them. He is a very tough guy, but the people motivate me to do better.
“I’ve fought this guy before. I’ve felt him body to body, what he is. He’s strong, he pushes, and he has a lot of tricks in jiu-jitsu. I know he’s improved, but so have I. I know it’s not an easy fight, but I believe in myself.”
Nogueira, however, is going up against a more refined Werdum, who wants to become the UFC heavyweight champion. Before, during and after each training session, Werdum is thinking of the day when UFC president Dana White places the heavyweight title belt around his waist.
A victory Saturday night might catapult Werdum in position to face the Cain Velasquez-Junior dos Santos winner. But an official date for Velasquez-dos Santos III has yet to be announced.
“I really hope I don’t have to wait long for the next fight,” Werdum said. “I want to fight as soon as possible. But I also want to fight for the belt as soon as possible.
“If the UFC says ‘you can fight for the belt, but you will have to wait awhile,’ I will keep training and keep waiting. But if they say [a title shot] is not in your near future, then I will fight whoever they want me to fight.”
The thing about Mike Tyson was that everybody saw him coming. From the opening bell it felt as if his opponents were fighting from check, trying to avoid the savage exchange that would end, inevitably, in a violent checkmate. He was cageside for UFC 160, and to this day his celebrity transcends the fight game. When the MGM Grand flashed him on the screen, the place filled with that same old familiar apprehension and awe.
The thing about TJ Grant is, nobody saw him coming, apart from a few Nova Scotia residents and prelim connoisseurs. Grant came into his fight with Gray Maynard as a slight underdog. He had won four fights in a row at his new weight of 155 pounds, but in a standing-room only division of elites, he was a sort of fringe. When he crashed Matt Wiman’s momentum in January, the UFC saddled him with Gray Maynard, who had to drop out of a more profiled fight with Jim Miller because of a knee injury. In the interstices, things changed. Anthony Pettis volunteered for a fight with Jose Aldo at 145 pounds, Gilbert Melendez lost to Benson Henderson and Miller fought (and lost to) Pat Healy.
Somehow, Grant’s fight with Maynard became a conditional sort of No. 1 contender bout.
And did he ever make the most of it. Grant stood toe-to-toe with the hard-hitting Maynard, and ate a heater that made his ears ring. But then he got his in. He rocked Maynard with a shot that sent him reeling. As he reeled on the fence, Grant smelled blood on the water and slammed a knee into Maynard’s head. He then pursued him with a flurry of big shots that dropped Maynard for good. The win was emphatic enough for Dana White -- on the fence about whether Grant should get the shot or not, given his perpetual prelim residence of yore -- to put Grant’s odds of fighting for the lightweight belt next at “100 percent.”
You know who else liked it? Mike Tyson. There was something in Grant’s kill-switch that rang home for him. Though Junior dos Santos’ late spinning wheel-kick knockout of Mark Hunt went in for frills, Grant’s KO of Maynard was a blood-dimmed tide. So, when White got ready to award dos Santos with a bonus check for knockout of the night, Tyson inserted that it should go to Grant. And so it did.
And so the next title shot does.
FIVE QUESTIONS ANSWERED
Can things be different for Bigfoot this time?
Of course! He lasted a full 17 seconds longer with Velasquez the second time through, but once again the referee was prying Velasquez off of him while screaming “that’s enough already!” Silva didn’t agree with the stoppage, but at that point in the fight his resistances were down to nothing.
Can Hunt KO dos Santos?
He came awfully close to proving that he could, but could never square the follow-up shot to dos Santos’ chin. To his credit, he ate a couple of harrowing shots himself, and still managed to last into the final minute of a three-round fight with a crusher like “Cigano.”
Is there still wonder to Wonderboy?
Let’s put it this way, what Stephen Thompson did to Nah-Shon Burrell was passable, but it wasn’t spectacular. Yes, he whizzed a couple of kicks by Burrell’s head (and landed a couple, too), but it was more of a grind than anything. In our basic Wikipedia sense, though, a win’s a win.
Is Cain Velasquez the greatest heavyweight champ ever?
This question was posed before the fights somewhat purposefully prematurely. Though it can be asked with a little more timeliness now, the win over Silva realistically only proves that he can guard against complacency. If he works JdS over again, like he did last time? Gentleman, start you coronations!
Does KJ Noons belong in a fight with Donald Cerrone?
That was a licking that Noons took at the hands of Cerrone, yet he hung around long enough to hear the judge’s scorecards tell him what we already knew -- no, he didn’t belong in that fight with “Cowboy.”
FIVE NEW QUESTIONS
Ready for the big trilogy?
Junior dos Santos took Cain Velasquez’s belt back in 2011 with such an effective, tree-felling punch that it was almost unspectacular. Velasquez responded with a five-round battery to reclaim that belt. Now, with a couple of obstacles out of their way, it’s time for dos Santos/Velasquez III. Can you dig it?
Where does Hunt go from here?
There’s no shame in the way Mark Hunt lost. There was a moment in that first round where he had dos Santos staggered and was very close to cueing the knell with a couple of bombs that just missed. What now? Could roll out Hunt versus Josh Barnett or Hunt versus Antonio Silva or, eventually, Hunt versus Roy Nelson, and there’d be no complaints.
Teixeira as contender?
With his submission of James Te Huna, Glover Teixeira is now 4-0 in the UFC, and 19-0 going back to 2005. If that doesn’t scream “Geronimo!” in the UFC’s light heavyweight division, nothing will. But with the logjam right now, Teixeira -- no fool -- requested a fight with the winner of Rashad Evans/Dan Henderson next. Sounds good to us.
Can you see the Forrest, through the trees?
In the aftermath of UFC 160, Forrest Griffin announced his retirement, and Dana White announced that he and Stephan Bonnar -- the seminal figures who socked each other into our collective consciousness back in 2005 at the original TUF finale -- would be inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame. (Slow clap).
Is Nurmagomedov the next big thing?
The idea of Khabib Nurmagomedov missing weight might have had Dana White hissing like Nosferatu in a beam of sunlight, but what a nihilistic thing he did to Abel Trujillo. Twenty-one takedowns is a company record. By this time next year, we might be talking about Nurmy as a threat to whoever’s holding that lightweight belt (hopefully challenging him at something other than a catchweight).
STOCK UP/STOCK DOWN
TJ Grant -- He may have looked like a woodwork contender before Maynard, but afterward he looks like a viable challenge to Benson Henderson. Nova Scotia did not shrink from the spotlight.
Donald Cerrone -- You know how you make people forget the time you got your liver kicked up through your diaphragm? By doing what Cerrone did to KJ Noons. Looks like Cowboy has another run in him.
Mike Pyle -- Before we start talking about 37-year-old Mike Pyle ossifying before our eyes, we might want to wait for the judge’s decision. Was it a generous scorecard in his split decision victory over Rick Story? Definitely. But that’s four in a row since losing to Rory MacDonald at UFC 133.
George Roop -- Got to hand it to Roop. He took his lumps early against Brian Bowles, but he’s resilient -- all 6-foot-1, buck-thirty-five of him is resilient.
Antonio Silva -- When a loss is this one-sided (again), you begin to question the sincerity of the wins to get there. For instance, what happens if Travis Browne hadn’t been hurt, or if Alistair Overeem hadn’t been cocky?
Gray Maynard -- What a tough stretch for the “Bully.” He was 11-0-1 heading into 2011, but has since gone 1-2-1. The lone victory in that was the bizarre game of pursuit he played with Guida. For now, Maynard’s title aspirations took a bigger hit than anything specific Grant hit him with.
Brian Bowles -- It had been 18 months since we last saw Bowles, and the WEC champion looked good for that first round. Then the hatch opened up, and Roop was dropping wiry dispatches on him from Tucson.
MATCHES TO MAKE
For Silva -- A battle with Mark Hunt, or a cruel encounter with Josh Barnett.
For Teixeira -- Truthfully, if Dan Henderson gets by Rashad Evans at UFC 161, a Teixeira/Hendo fight might require fire marshals and riot units.
For Velasquez -- That third and most coveted bout with Junior dos Santos, and a chance to become the UFC’s greatest heavy.
For Donald Cerrone -- How fun would a scrap be between Cowboy and Gilbert Melendez?
For Khabib Nurmagomedov -- Think he could do what he did to Abel Trujillo against Gray Maynard? Only one way to find out.
Guess what happened Saturday night: Velasquez defended his title for the first time, and he needed only 1:21 to knock out Antonio Silva. And dos Santos, who took Velasquez’s title the first time before giving it back in December at UFC 155, knocked out Mark Hunt spectacularly to bring the two biggest forces in the heavyweight division back together again.
So, is it safe to talk about Velasquez-dos Santos III without reservation?
“Yes, it makes all the sense in the world,” UFC president Dana White told ESPN.com. “They are without a doubt the two best heavyweights in the world, and that fight needs to happen again. When you talk about trilogies, if there was ever a trilogy, this is a trilogy. The first fight, dos Santos knocks him out in the first minute or whatever. Cain comes back and completely destroys him in the second fight, and now we see what happens in the third.”
Adding to the heat between the two are the countries they represent. A huge Mexican faction was in attendance at the MGM Grand on Saturday night to watch Velasquez do work, while chants of “Cigano” broke out from the Brazilian fans on hand during dos Santos’ fight. “Cigano” is dos Santos’ nickname, which means “gypsy" in Portuguese.
“I’ve had some fights where we’ve done the third fight and people say, 'Alright, enough already,'” White said. “This fight, people won’t say that. People will be pumped for this fight. It’s a big Mexico-versus-Brazil rivalry and two big heavyweights who can bang, who can knock people out, who can go to the ground, and they both beat each other in devastating fashion in their first two fights.”
White is already in full trilogy mode and was beaming that the rivalry could commence. All of this comes as a relief to dos Santos, who said his mindset in his last meeting with Velasquez wasn’t right.
“It was way different [in tonight's fight],” dos Santos said. “My mind was 100 percent confident. It’s hard to come back from a loss, but I believed so much in God and I trusted myself and I always try my best.”
Both guys were putting everything they had behind their punches, and the thing teetered on the verge of ending. Both Hunt and dos Santos had moments when they put the other in peril. But in the third round, with Hunt slowing down and bleeding from several places, dos Santos threw a spinning wheel kick that crashed into Hunt’s forehead. Dos Santos put him away with a big right hand on the ground while the crowd reacted to the unthinkable thing they just saw. It was UFC 160's fight of the night.
“I trained that [kick] a lot in my training camp,” dos Santos said. “I don’t feel very comfortable to use that using it in my fights because all the time my hands work very well. But this time, I saw the moment to use it and it was perfect. Thank god for that.”
With Velasquez, it was second verse same as the first. He needed only 1:04 to beat Silva last Memorial Day weekend when they fought. This time through, it took 17 extra seconds, but the moment felt the same.
“I just came in, I threw a left jab and caught him with the right hand and missed with the hook,” Velasquez said. “But I caught him on the ground with some ground-and-pound, and that was it.”
That was it, indeed. He handled his business, got his first title defense and is now glancing over his shoulder at dos Santos -- yet again. The rivalry will commence. And when you look at the first two fights and how they went down, there’s really no telling how things will go.
“That’s what’s so fun about the heavyweights,” White said. “The heavyweights can finish the fight at any moment and everybody at the edge of their seats waiting for it to happen.”
But even back then, he wasn’t done losing. There were all those losses in Japanese promotion Dream. First it was Alistair Overeem. Then it was Melvin Manhoef at Dynamite!! 2008. Then to Gegard Mousasi. All five of his losses were first-round finishes, either by knockout or armbar. He was 5-6 when the UFC, having failed to buy him out of the inherited contract, finally relented and threw him in the Octagon.
Know what he did then? He lost again. This time in 63 seconds to Sean McCorkle, now late of the UFC. To say his UFC beginnings were inauspicious would be an understatement. And that makes what’s going on with Hunt right now nothing short of remarkable. To be in title contention two years after sporting a 5-7 record in an organization where people generally have career winnings around 75 percent just doesn’t happen.
Yet here were are. Hunt faces Junior dos Santos Saturday night for the chance to fight for a title.
“I think it’s one of the coolest stories in sports right now,” Dana White told ESPN.com. “We didn’t want to bring him into the UFC. He was older, he was on a losing streak, so we just said, ‘We’ll buy your contract out. You don’t have to fight, we’ll just pay you.’ He said, ‘no, I want to fight in the UFC and earn my money.’ And we said no. So he got his lawyer involved, and we went back and forth, and we said, ‘Fine, OK. Let’s do it.’ Now the guy goes on this tear and he’s fighting the in the co-main event against the former heavyweight champion in the UFC.”
Good thing Hunt had legal representation out there in New Zealand. His resurgence is a story that involves brute power, heart, exhaustion, dual visas, cake, public outcry, cosmological eyes and, in all fairness, a dose of luck. For instance, he’s filling in for Alistair Overeem at UFC 160 this weekend. A timely win over dos Santos takes him one step closer to becoming the most unlikely contender the heavyweight division has ever known.
“It would make sense that the winner of this fight gets the next shot,” White said. “It’s a fun fight, and it’s an interesting fight. If you break this fight down, Mark Hunt probably has the bigger punch and the better chin. But, Junior decides to take this fight to the ground, he definitely has the better wrestling and jiu-jitsu.”
In any case, if we’ve learned anything, it’s that you can’t write off Hunt. Can he continue to buck the odds and fell dos Santos as he did Stefan Struve and Cheick Kongo? Hey, that’s why they take off their shoes. So that we can find out.
Barnett back in White’s good graces
Not long ago, when Josh Barnett submitted Nandor Guelmino to begin his “Warmaster” second phase, he fell into character when discussing his future.
“I just want to keep killing and keep killing and wading in pools of blood and guts until there’s nobody left to kill anymore,” he told MMAFighting's Ariel Helwani on that final Strikeforce card. When pressed about which promotion that sort of pillaging could fall under, he said, “It doesn’t matter, I’m a mercenary. Something will come up. Somebody will need somebody’s head taken off and they’ll call me up. In a perfect world, I’d fight everywhere.”
That obviously didn’t pan out to specification. The UFC, which has been contentious with Barnett going back many years, offered him a contract a couple of months ago that Barnett turned down. On Wednesday, upon realizing the market for marauders of Barnett’s stripe (and price tag) was tremulously weak, Barnett signed a multifight contract with Zuffa.
Now it’s a case of bygones being bygones. The last time Barnett fought in the Octagon was in 2002, at UFC 36, when he beat Randy Couture for the heavyweight title. That’s when things got ugly. He was subsequently stripped of the title when it was revealed that he tested positive for steroids.
“Josh and I have had a very interesting past,” White told ESPN.com. “He’s one of these guys who doesn’t really care about much. He’ll fight over here, he’ll fight over there. But we made an offer to him. He didn’t take the offer and went around and shopped for a while, then came back and said, ‘I want to sign with you guys.'"
Wrote Barnett on his Twitter account, “The enemy has returned. I’ve signed w/ the UFC & no heavyweight is safe. They’re all due a lesson in violence from the Warmaster.”
A perfect first opponent for Barnett is Frank Mir, and there are indications that this is the direction the UFC is headed.
Grant granted a second life (and making most of it)
Usually when Gray Maynard steps in to fight as a lightweight, he’s the massive 155-pounder in the cage. That was especially true in his series with Frankie Edgar. It won’t be that way against TJ Grant, a former welterweight who has reinvented himself in the lower weight classes, going a perfect 4-0 heading into Saturday’s tilt.
Just as he was heading into his fights with Evan Dunham and Matt Wiman, Grant is understated in how he has turned things around, but he does make one key distinction. “I’m getting to fight guys my own size,” he says.
And realistically, when you look back at Grant’s opponents at 170 pounds and where they are now, that’s a big factor. Guys such as Dong Hyun Kim and the UFC’s No. 1 contender at welterweight right now, Johny Hendricks. Remember -- Grant gave Hendricks all he could handle at UFC 113 before Hendricks earned the majority decision.
“I’m glad to see Johny Hendricks doing so well,” he told ESPN.com. “We had a close fight, and it was a good fight, very entertaining. I got a lot of experience fighting at 170, and win or lose -- we all learn from losses, right? Blah blah blah. But it’s true. And if you stay humble and you have the right people talking to you and have a good mind for it, you should learn more from losses than wins, and that’s what I always try to do. Every fight is a learning experience.”
As for fighting Maynard in a title eliminator, Grant says that he has toiled a long, long time to end up in this spot.
“At this point in my career, Gray’s the toughest,” he says. “He’s tough. He’s polished and he’s a veteran. He’s not raw in any way -- he’s definitely the most talented fighter I’ve fought at this time in my career. I’m ready for it. I’ve got 25 fights to get me to this point. I’ve got all the experience I need, and all the skills I need to be successful. I’m ready to rock and roll Saturday.”
WAR, what is it good for?
Nick Diaz has plans to start up his own Stockton-based fight promotion -- the ominously titled WAR -- which has drawn anything from smirks and raised eyebrows to genuine curiosity and support over the past week.
So, what does one of the game’s more notorious promoters, Dana White, have to say about Diaz and his latest foray?
“Good luck Nick,” White says. “Obviously it looks very fun from the outside, and it looks easy like you’re printing money. It’s anything but. The fight business is a very tough business that you have to be married to 24/7, and it’s not as fun and easy as it looks.”
Though White was fairly withheld in how he addressed WAR, he did say that the door is open for Diaz if he elects to keep fighting. Diaz, of course, is right now sort of conditionally retired -- meaning he’ll only fight again if it’s against somebody that piques his interest enough, somebody like Anderson Silva or a rematch with Georges St-Pierre.
It’s not likely he’ll get either of those, but ...
“If Nick wants to fight all he’s got to do is pick up the phone and call,” White says. “He’s under contract. If the promotion thing doesn’t work out he can come back and fight.”