Remember when Mark Hunt could have been the next contender for the heavyweight title? When everyone fantasized that the heavy-handed, iron-chinned Samoan might have challenged Cain Velasquez? It would have made an extraordinary narrative; the nigh-unbeatable champion facing a one-dimensional specialist who had improbably salvaged his career at the last possible opportunity with the ability to put anyone’s lights out. It’s the stuff movies are made of.
In this case, reality is better.
No disrespect to Mark Hunt or what he managed to achieve, but it’s a good thing Junior Dos Santos put him down with that spinning wheel kick. There is no better fight to make in the heavyweight division than Dos Santos vs. Velasquez. With Daniel Cormier dropping to light-heavyweight, none even come close. Velasquez and Dos Santos are the two best heavyweights by a considerable margin, each with the tools, the experience and the will necessary to defeat the other. Their story doesn’t depend on any degree of improbability, appeal to sentiment or require any context beyond this simple truth; that they are the epitome of their profession striving to attain a title beyond the title. They are attempting to lay claim to the title of the best heavyweight of their era, to establish the successor to The Last Emperor.
While both Dos Santos and Velasquez are well-rounded and durable, those qualities manifest themselves in different ways. Dos Santos is more fluid in his stand-up, hits with more power, and moves with seemingly less effort. His cardio is solid, and he actually has a relatively fast pace for a heavyweight. And in his loss to Velasquez last year, he showed an exceptional ability to mitigate damage from the bottom while regaining position and standing. Velasquez, on the other hand, seems to be force incarnate. He knows no direction but forward, his cardio is unrelenting, and while he lacks Dos Santos’ pure stand-up ability, he is able to transition effortlessly between kickboxing and wrestling. This is particularly effective because he always pushes forward, constantly threatening the takedown, which opens up opportunities for his underrated hands and hard kicks.
Each fighters’ advantages have made their presence felt in their previous fights. In the first fight — with both fighters injured — it was Dos Santos who capitalized on Velasquez’s reticence to engage or push the pace. Allowed to stay on the outside and pick his shots, Junior used his superior timing and feints to land a massive overhand right just a minute into the fight, resulting the end of Cain’s brief first reign. Velasquez was having none of that in the rematch, relentlessly pressuring Dos Santos with takedowns; that they were initially ineffective was no deterrent to his overarching strategy of moving Dos Santos backwards and draining his cardio. As his hands began to drop, Dos Santos was undone with a right cross from the former champion. While he lasted the next 22 minutes of the fight, he was never capable of victory. Cain simply continued to pressure Dos Santos, landing combinations and takedowns at will en route to a dominant decision.
Prediciting what will happen in their third fight is mostly a matter of weighing their accomplishments in their previous encounters. While some are inclined to simply state that a five-round decision says more than a one-minute knockout, this isn’t the case here. The victories, and the manners of those victories, are the result of specific tactics and moments. If Cain didn’t land that right hand in the second fight, he may well still have won, but it would not have likely been as dominant a victory as it was. Had Dos Santos missed that overhand right in the first fight, he may still have taken the title but it may have been a more measured affair dictated from a comfortable distance. This isn’t to diminish the authority of those results, but simply to state that focusing on the dichotomy between the length each fight lasted is a disingenuous way to analyze which fighter is superior and why.
That said, Velasquez has to be the favorite here. While Dos Santos is definitely capable of securing a knockout or even winning a decision, these scenarios are entirely dependent on if he can keep the fight standing. He should succeed in doing so for the first round, but beyond that Cain’s indominable pressure will grind him down. Velasquez will push forward yet again, mixing strikes with takedowns, opening opportunities up with constant forward pressure and level changes, forcing Dos Santos out of his comfort zone. Once he loses the space with which he’s able to effectively work his boxing, Dos Santos may delay the inevitable with his underrated ground game but will be incapable of denying Velasquez as the minutes ebb on. Velasquez is unlikely to be able to muster the power to finish Dos Santos up close, but that’s a sacrifice he’ll be willing to make in exchange to mitigate the danger Dos Santos poses. Expect another five-round decision — albeit perhaps a less one-sided one than the last — to result in Velasquez retaining his crown and asserting his claim as the greatest heavyweight since Fedor Emelianenko.