There’s a lot to be excited about in terms of the UFC’s debut on Fox tomorrow night. We all know that it’s been a long time coming for both the sport and the promotion itself, and though the “MMA has gone mainstream” angle has long been worn out, tomorrow night represents a very important part of the sport’s continuing timeline.
It’s pretty appropriate that the first UFC event ever to air on network television airs on November 12, exactly 18 years after Royce Gracie won the first-ever UFC tournament by submitting Art Jimmerson, Ken Shamrock and Gerard Gordeau in one night. Though the sport certainly doesn’t need a great fight now as much as it needed a compelling character like Gracie to capture imaginations in the 1990s or a spectacular bout from Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar during the first night of live fights on cable TV, the sport will definitely get a boost if Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos scrap the way that we expect them to.
Furthermore, anyone who watched the excellent Primetime special for the heavyweight championship bout knows that these two are not just exciting fighters, but compelling characters as well. Both have come from humble backgrounds and it’s hard to root against either one of them. Furthermore, it’s hard to find a better fight that shows the diversity and international flavor of mixed martial arts. Look at Velasquez, for instance: he should appeal to the vast community of Hispanic fight fans, yet he also connects with both hardcore MMA fans (who respect his overall skill set and fighting style) and newcomers to the sport (who always find themselves more captivated by powerful heavyweights).
Beyond all of the significance behind the event itself, the implications for the sport and the UFC and the marketability of the fighters themselves, there is still the matter of the fight. Most in the MMA community agree that Velasquez and dos Santos make for a pretty evenly-set matchup, with many even favoring dos Santos to win the title.
I don’t see it that way, though.
Velasquez and dos Santos are both still relatively early in the trajectory of their careers. While both are already good enough to be among the elite in the heavyweight division, both also have plenty of room to grow. Velasquez can continue to refine his standup, though the raw power and technique are already there. Dos Santos could work some more on his defensive wrestling, and both men surely have a lot more to learn in terms of their jiu-jitsu. In five years, I expect both men to be much better fighters than they are today.
In terms of tomorrow’s fight, I think the most telling difference between the two fighters comes down to wrestling. Velasquez has the best pure wrestling in the UFC’s division of anyone not named “Lesnar”, and may even have the advantage due to how well he has integrated his techniques with the rest of his game. He transitions well from striking to takedown attempts, which may give dos Santos trouble.
While both men have plenty of power, dos Santos is the better technical striker. That doesn’t mean he will out-strike Velasquez, of course; a lot of it depends on whether Velasquez can keep him off balance with the threat of takedowns or even wear him down by making him wrestle both on the mat and against the cage.
Furthermore, we’ve seen Velasquez get tagged (multiple times, in the case of his fight with Cheick Kongo) and keep his composure. I’m not sure that we’ve gotten to see how dos Santos will respond in a similar situation, should Velasquez land a good shot or two. If Velasquez gets shaken up, he at least has the takedown to resort to, whereas it’s unlikely that dos Santos would be able to count on the same.
If you want to say dos Santos is the better striker, that’s fine. Velasquez can just take him down, and dos Santos certainly isn’t far along enough yet with his jiu-jitsu to consistently threaten Velasquez. Dos Santos is a good athlete with plenty of strength and may prove hard to keep down, but I think Velasquez has shown the resolve to stick to what’s working, even if his opponent puts up a fight.
As always, cardio is a big x-factor, and one that clearly favors Velasquez. We’ve seen dos Santos tire in past fights, which could foreshadow a major problem for him in this one. Of course, the fight could just as easily end very early on with a big shot from either man, too. Really though, I just think Velasquez has more weapons here. As such, I’ll call for him to win by KO or TKO, probably via ground and pound towards the later rounds.