What Remains for Junior dos Santos?
A favorable match-up against Blagoy Ivanov at Fight Night 133 may well find dos Santos at the crossroads of his career.
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Amid the glacial pace of change in the heavyweight division, where young prospects are often in their mid-thirties, and forty-five year olds are still main event draws, Junior dos Santos is something of an oddity. dos Santos’s heavyweight life seems to have been lived at twice the speed of those surrounding him. The Brazilian puncher burst onto the scene back in 2008 with a knockout victory over the well-established Fabricio Werdum, rocketed to the top of the heavyweight rankings, and won the UFC heavyweight title from Cain Velasquez.
Few stars have faded as gracelessly as dos Santos though. After besting Cain Velasquez the first time around, dos Santos was put through the meat grinder by Velasquez in their second and third fight. Velasquez himself is now just a distant memory, but for the two years that could be considered his prime as a fighter he fought five fights against two opponents: Bigfoot Silva and Junior dos Santos. One of those men is now letting Rico Verhoeven punch holes in his brain in kickboxing and fighting on the regional circuit for pennies, but Silva never got past the four minute mark in his two fights with Velasquez and was never that talented to begin with. The 45 minutes of bludgeoning that dos Santos endured at Velasquez’s hands, and what they took from him, seem to be Velasquez’s lasting legacy on the sport. From December 2012 to today, dos Santos has alternated wins and losses to a record of 3-4. When dos Santos last stepped into the cage, against then heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic, he was walked to the fence and starched with a right hand in under a round.
Yet when dos Santos is on, it is truly something to behold. In a division full of swingers and wheezers, dos Santos can actually box and he can do it for 25 crisp, thoughtful minutes. In dos Santos’s last victory he met the surging Ben Rothwell—a gigantic man with awkward, powerful striking and a ten-finger guillotine called the "gogo choke" which had succeeded in forcing a submission from the great Josh Barnett. When the cage door shut on the two men, the aging, slowing, not-what-he-used-to-be dos Santos took Rothwell to school. There wasn’t a moment of the fight where dos Santos wasn’t hitting Rothwell, side-stepping Rothwell, or carefully considering where he was going to hit Rothwell.
So how can a fighter go from looking sublime against a top ten heavyweight, to getting blown out in moments by the heavyweight champion? Well, the truth is that the story on dos Santos has been out for years now. He is a finished product and he shows no signs of actually improving the very obvious shortcomings in skill and ring smarts which consistently get him hurt. First, let us consider what dos Santos does very well.
Junior dos Santos is a fencer with his fists, moving in and out on a straight line and controlling range perfectly. His jab might not be as nuanced as Stipe Miocic’s—which goes in as a flicker or a double-up—but as a stand-alone weapon, dos Santos’s jab is head-and-shoulders above anyone else’s in the division. "Cigano" carries his left as a rapier, stabbing out at his opponent to cause damage, and his fist and foot always go in together, providing a movement of the full bodyweight in the same direction as the punch. This is Jack Dempsey’s definition of "pure" punching.
Unusually, dos Santos does most of his jabbing to the body in many of his fights. He still jabs upstairs, as Shane Carwin found out, but the body jab serves his purposes much better. The low hands, the level changes, the constant needling of the body: dos Santos wants his man to hit back. He wants his opponent to realize that he’s putting his head right in front of them, with his hands low, every time he steps in to jab the body. He draws attention to that uneven trade that puts so many fighters off body jabbing to begin with: But what if he hits me in the head while I’m trying to jab his solar plexus? Except a fighter’s gut only moves when his feet do, and a fighter’s head can move inches or even a foot to the left or right in an instant while his feet are planted.
Against Cain Velasquez, dos Santos came out jabbing and throwing right straights to the body. In the very short fight, the majority of dos Santos’s ire was directed at Velasquez’s midriff. Velasquez began trying to jab dos Santos while the Brazilian’s head was in front of his chest. Suddenly dos Santos had slipped to the inside of the jab and swung God’s own overhand across the top. Had Velasquez been able to pause in the moment a while, he probably would have thought How silly to trade a muffled jab for this, but then that is the trap—you aren’t trading a jab to the head for a jab to the body, you are delivering the opening that dos Santos has been requesting since he began prodding you in the belly. Watch how well he works Ben Rothwell up-and-down in this short clip from the second round of their bout.
He did this for twenty-five minutes. Clearly dos Santos still has some of the old magic.
That same over-the-top cross counter sent Mark Hunt to his hands and knees in the first round of their bout. Hunt was in love with the counter left hook and in the early going, dos Santos was looking very uneasy even getting in for his pot shots. Yet he soon found the timing on that left hook and slipped to the inside of it, belting Hunt across the top of it just the same.
But the problem that opponents have found in dos Santos is that he works marvelously on a line, passably in three-dimensions, and extremely poorly when you put him up against the fence. Alistair Overeem’s jog-and-kick act frustrated dos Santos by having him follow around the cage and eat strikes from a weird range when he did, but Cain Velasquez and Stipe Miocic plastered dos Santos in exactly the same way: he doesn’t begin circling out until he is already too close to the fence, without fail.
Against Ben Rothwell there were signs of promise. He would perform a classical side step off to his left and get down behind the right shoulder, creating a nice defensive base while cutting a good angle, but he was still doing it too late and too slowly. Often dos Santos would hit the fence so hard that his butt would sink into it before he tried to circle. And this was still dealing with a problem once the problem has manifested: hitting the fence is the part to be avoided, circling off once there is just crisis control.
And the reason that dos Santos looked better in circling out against Ben Rothwell was more to do with Rothwell not punishing him for still circling out too late. In his first fight with Stipe Miocic, dos Santos showed exactly the same stance switches and side steps, and got chinned every time he did it. In the second fight he was easily knocked out as Miocic focused his efforts on exploiting this flaw.
In spite of the beatings, Junior dos Santos is very good at what he does. He’s a better puncher than Francis Ngannou, because he can set up his bombs and land them with consistency for 25 minutes, and in many regards a better boxer than Stipe Miocic because he has such variety in his blows. The most noticeable problem with dos Santos is that he thinks that in order to improve he must add new techniques. Against Mark Hunt it was the wheel kick, against Miocic it was the calf kick, against Miocic and Rothwell it was the side step into southpaw stance along the fence. Old dogs with new tricks are always great to see, but dos Santos’s issues are in his movement and his cage awareness.
These are things which can be improved with drilling and emphasis in the gym, but cannot be solved with "moves." Compare Holly Holm or Joanna Jedrzejczyk’s footwork to dos Santos's and you will see that they begin circling out long before they are even near the fence. Israel Adesanya and others have found that a fighter can bring his opponent off balance and open more opportunities to counter-strike just by sticking to the boxing commandment of never taking two steps straight back but always cutting an angle on the second step. No matter how smooth the stance-switching side step can look, dos Santos still had no idea where he was in the cage until he physically felt his arse hit the wire, and that came back to haunt him against Miocic.
This weekend dos Santos meets Blagoy Ivanov, a man who has the appearance of a stepping stone. Ivanov is probably most famous for beating Fedor Emelianenko in combat sambo back in 2008, though that video is hard to enjoy if you don’t know and appreciate the scoring system of combat sambo. If you watch Ivanov’s recent fights, such as those against Shawn Jordan and Smealinho Rama, he has a tendency to circle with his back to the fence, waiting for his opponent to attack and far too rarely actually coming back with counters. Often he will surprise opponents simply by running off the fence swinging, as Tyron Woodley does. In fact, Ivanov seems to fight exclusively in the areas that don’t match up with dos Santos’s consistent and obvious flaws. As well as Ivanov’s tendency to put himself in poor cage position and fight in erratic bursts from the backfoot, dos Santos will have half a foot of height, and four inches of reach on Ivanov. If dos Santos loses this one, the one-time heavyweight great might well be past the point of no return.
This article originally appeared on VICE Sports US.