Cain Velasquez vs. Junior Dos Santos 3: What Went Wrong for the Challenger?

James MacDonald@@JimMacDonaldMMAFeatured ColumnistOctober 20, 2013

Oct 19, 2013; Houston, TX, USA; Junior Dos Santos (blue gloves) fights against Cain Velasquez (not pictured) in the world heavyweight championship bout during UFC 166 at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Richardson-USA TODAY Sports
Andrew Richardson-USA TODAY Spor

The third chapter in the Cain Velasquez-Junior dos Santos saga came to a close last night at UFC 166 in Houston, Texas.

Have you recovered yet? Those of you in America can count yourselves lucky that the card concluded at a somewhat reasonable hour.

Those of us in the United Kingdom were still bouncing off the walls from sheer adrenaline at 6 a.m. But I digress.

Both champion and challenger combined to put on an exhibition of mixed martial arts at its most compelling.

Technique? Check. Endurance? Check? Athleticism? Check. Heart? Check ad infinitum.

All that being said, even the most charitable observer would be hard-pressed to argue that the bout was anything besides a one-sided shellacking.

Velasquez dominated in the kind of fashion ordinarily reserved for pro wrestling squash-matches.

So what went wrong for the challenger?

In the build-up to UFC 166, dos Santos and his team made every effort to chalk up the result of the second fight to overtraining, but last night’s thrashing left no doubt in anyone’s mind that Velasquez is simply the better fighter.

Dos Santos’ problems appear to be more fundamental than he is, perhaps, willing to admit.

While the second and third fights differed in some important ways, they were strikingly similar for the most part.

Going into last night’s event, most observers surmised that the Brazilian could significantly close the gap on the champion if he was able to improve his cardio.

To his credit, dos Santos’ gas tank did look like it had undergone an overhaul. This not only allowed him to carry his power into the later rounds, but it also allowed him to keep the fight standing—for all the good it did.

Surprisingly, the biggest problem for “Cigano” was actually his footwork.

Unlike many MMA fighters who have been hailed as great boxers, such as Nick Diaz, dos Santos’ footwork is normally one of his biggest assets.

As a natural counter-puncher, he is adept at creating angles and employs lateral movement in order to maintain his distance.

Velasquez certainly deserves much of the credit, but the Brazilian seemed to forget how to move his feet for most of the fight.

Rather than circling away from the cage, dos Santos continually retreated in straight lines and allowed the champion to trap him up against the fence, where most of the damage was done.

As soon as the fight turned into a clinch-battle up against the cage, it was like ice skating uphill for “Cigano.”

The champion was able to control dos Santos’ upper body with superior grappling and, crucially, head positioning.

The former champion wasn’t permitted enough space to bring his power to bear. Velasquez was content to beat him up with short strikes, occasionally separating just long enough to land three or four power shots.

As the sport has continued to evolve, the cage has become more of a weapon than a simple barrier between fighter and spectator.

In particular, the clinch battle against the cage is now one of the most important aspects of mixed martial arts. Indeed, it is so counterintuitively complex that it almost seems like a martial art in and of itself.

Unfortunately, many fighters struggle with this aspect of the sport. We need only look at Frank Mir’s most recent outings to understand how crucial it is to excel in this area.

While his issues are not as acute as Mir’s in the clinch, dos Santos looked similarly lost when pushed up against the cage last night.

It’s hard to imagine how dos Santos can possibly compete with Velasquez in the future unless he is able to address this hole in his game.

The good news is that he has time on his side. Dos Santos and Velasquez may yet meet for a fourth time, but based on what we witnessed last night, it won’t be any time soon.


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