Cain Velasquez bludgeoned Junior dos Santos in Houston. | Photo: D. Mande/Sherdog.com
Beatdown of the Year
By Jack Encarnacao and Chris Nelson
It was not difficult for Cain Velasquez to figure out how to adjust after his first fight against Junior dos Santos. The November 2011 bout famously lasted just 64 seconds, and the rocketing overhand dos Santos used to close the show felt like the first real salvo of the fight, a fight tempered by the fact that both participants entered on injured knees. The problems were simple to see, the solutions easy enough to drill. For Velasquez, the solution was full health and 25 minutes of cage-rattling pressure, singe-legs, under hooks and bruising short lefts that earned him a forceful decision win in their rematch some 13 months later.
Two very different outcomes presented a challenge to Velazquez and his career-long coach Javier Mendez as they prepared to face dos Santos for a third time at UFC 166 on Oct. 19. They decided to do the follow the blueprint of the second fight, only with a greater understanding of what it would take to put Velasquez’s stamp on heavyweight history.
“We watched video of the second fight over and over again and looked at where we thought Junior was going to improve, where we thought we needed to improve, and kind of just visualized beating him again like that,” Mendez told Sherdog.com. “We thought we have to beat him throughout the whole five rounds, because taking him out was obviously something that was very difficult to do.”
So it was that Velasquez went back to work on that October night in Houston and authored Sherdog.com’s “Beatdown of the Year” for 2013. This time, in the fifth round, a beleaguered, swollen, loopy dos Santos fell forehead-first into the canvas after a last-ditch front choke attempt and stayed planted there in a daze. It was a violent punctuation to a trilogy that crystallized who was MMA’s best heavyweight, round for round.
“When Junior’s head planted on the canvas is when I thought the danger was over,” Mendez said. “Junior was dangerous throughout the whole fight. Even while he was hurt, he was dangerous.”
This is a critical point to keep in mind when assessing Velasquez’s performance at UFC 166. Dos Santos was not going anywhere. He studied tape, too, and his camp came in with an uncharacteristic bravado, scoffing at Velasquez’s punching power and chalking up the UFC 155 loss to overtraining -- nothing a little science could not fix.
In the first round, dos Santos zapped Velasquez with a right, fended off some takedowns and rose gamely to his feet when the defending champion was able to get him down. The short rights Velasquez poured on from close quarters began piling up, though, and the Brazilian’s coffee skin began to redden.
“He got hit pretty good in the second fight also, and we just figured he’s going to get hit again,” Mendez said of Velasquez. “You know, Junior’s a great fighter, so for us to think that we were going to get in that fight and, you know, steamroll the guy, that was ridiculous. We anticipated a much better fighter, because we felt that was the caliber of fighter Junior was.”
Come the second round, Velasquez was exerting enough forward pressure on dos Santos to break the cage, literally, as referee Herb Dean had to clench the chain link in place for a moment. Mendez said a bolt near the cage door broke as the fighters -- who weighed a combined 481 pounds the afternoon before -- careened into it.
“They fixed it, but it was a touch-and-go thing there,” Mendez said. “The way it happened, they could have went right through.”
The third round brought about a barrage of punishment on par with any beating you have ever seen in the sport. Velasquez floored dos Santos with a right to the temple and brought down hammerfists, punishing perhaps the second-best heavyweight to enter the Octagon. So thorough was the drubbing that two veteran Sherdog staffers issued a rare 10-7 scorecard for the round. However, due to the fifth-round stoppage, scorecards were never tallied or released for the judges officially scoring the bout for the state of Texas.
The display spoke to more than just Velasquez’s penchant for hellfire offense. It also spoke to his steadfast adherence to what had been drilled into his muscle memory in those tape study sessions with Mendez. After he dropped dos Santos in the third, Velasquez went right back to pushing his foe against the cage wall and wearing him down. That was the plan: hit him, tie him up, hit him, tie him up. However, after he dropped dos Santos, Velasquez’s corner -- Mendez, Daniel Cormier and Bob Cook -- began to scream for him to let more punches go, to open up, to end it.
“Basically, it was just like the fence holding Junior up, and Cain leaned on him when we wanted him to separate and to let more than three, four punches go,” Mendez said. “Really, it was one of those situations where he could potentially have just hit him and continued to hit him and it would have been over, but he stuck to the plan; and you know, I think maybe Cain knew better than us. He did what he needed to do to solidify the win.”
Despite horrific swelling and an unsteady gait, dos Santos still launched elbows in the next round that caught Velasquez, forcing him to return to the single-leg shot. The bombs kept coming in the fifth after dos Santos somehow convinced officials between rounds that he could see and fight. His header into the mat mercifully halted the contest at 3:09.
Prominent Brazilian media outlet Globo reported that while dos Santos was being treated in the emergency room he could not recall the fight going past the second round or telling commentator Joe Rogan, “I was very OK for this fight. What can I say? He beat me up. He did a great job. Congratulations to him. I’m going to go home and train harder to face him again.” UFC President Dana White said later that dos Santos’ corner should have thrown in the towel in the third round, and that he did not think the Brazilian was offering enough defense to justify the last 10 minutes of punishment.
“I’m no doctor but I have [seen] a lot of men who are too tough for their own good and JDS is one of them,” White tweeted after the show.
Dos Santos was placed on indefinite medical suspension pending clearance by an ear, nose and throat doctor. Eleven weeks from the fight, there has been a curious dearth of updates on how the cheery heavyweight is doing and when he might fight again.
As he walked back to the Toyota Center locker rooms that night, Velasquez mentioned to Mendez that his forehead was hurting; he had split his head on the fence at one point pushing Dos Santos into it. Oh, and his shoulder was kind of hurting, too. It was probably just a slight tear, he thought.
On Dec. 11, surgeons opened Velasquez’s left shoulder and discovered a half tear, hardly slight, a devastating injury that will shelve the champion until late this year. It is the second extended career hiatus due to a shoulder tear for Velasquez. Mendez said he still does not know which exact point in the fight Velasquez hurt his shoulder.
Mendez suspects the injury bothers the champion somewhere inside. Velasquez clearly loves to train. He trained to fight dos Santos for five rounds, trained to do what the tape told him to do and trained to fight in a way that produced one of the most lopsided beatdowns in UFC history, but he did not leave the cage unscathed.
“He just goes along with it, keeps quiet, keeps to himself and then moves on,” Mendez said. “He prepared for a great war against a great champion, and that’s what he did, prepare for a great fighter. People saw the results.”
2. Ben Askren vs. Andrey Koreshkov
After three years with Bellator MMA, Ben Askren amicably parted ways with the promotion in 2013.
Before he left, Askren turned in arguably the most one-sided and dominant performance of his one-sided and dominant reign as welterweight champion.
During his time as champ, Askren became known for his frank assessments of opponents, and he spared no barbs when it came to July 31 challenger Andrey Koreshkov.
“I think his grappling skills are very weak at best,” Askren told MMAJunkie.com, “and I think their camp over there has an unhealthy disrespect for grappling; and obviously, that’s going to haunt him in a couple of weeks.”
Askren must have been surprised when Koreshkov stuffed a double-leg takedown attempt five seconds into their title fight at Bellator 97. Unfortunately for Koreshkov, that proved to be his finest moment in a bout which would quickly turn into a wrestling clinic. Over the next 4:55 of round one, Askren would apply front chanceries and near-side cradles, riding from full mount to side control and back again while the Russian was forced to dodge guillotines and rear-naked chokes. Known as a dangerous striker, Koreshkov was unable to mount any sort of offensive attack as he struggled to free himself from the clutches of the two-time NCAA Div. I wrestling champion.
Koreshkov had a chance early in round two, when Askren shot for a long takedown and wound up on his knees. However, when Koreshkov tried seizing control of the champion’s back, Askren simply hooked a leg and rolled him over, putting the challenger on the ground to begin another nightmare round. From back mount, in between damaging punches and further choke attempts, Askren added a comedy factor to the whipping by leading the crowd in a “U-S-A” chant. Though still struggling to escape, Koreshkov was clearly broken by the end of round two, as he had to be helped to his corner by mentor Alexander Shlemenko.
Speaking of Shlemenko, Askren even got in a little taunt against his fellow Bellator champ at the start of round three. When Askren shot in for a double-leg against the fence, Koreshkov landed his most meaningful offense of the fight -- a stiff knee to the face -- right in front of his corner. Askren just looked outside the cage and stuck out his tongue as he completed the takedown and mounted Koreshkov, who spent another round suffering on his back in a fight which had long since turned humiliating.
Askren began round four with another takedown and this time looked for an arm-triangle choke to end the fight. When this did not work, the “Funky” one went back to alternating between full mount, side control and the crucifix position, transitioning at will as he lumped up the barely defending Koreshkov with ground-and-pound. Halfway through the round, with Askren in mount, referee Jason Herzog implored Koreshkov to get busy; the Russian rolled to his belly and covered his head. Askren needed only a few more punches to get Herzog to intervene and end the challenger’s suffering, giving Koreshkov the dubious distinction of being the only fighter punched out in Askren’s nine-fight Bellator run.
3. Cristiane Justino vs. Fiona Muxlow
In 2010, Cristiane Justino won Sherdog.com’s Beatdown of the Year for her merciless pummeling of Jan Finney. This year, “Cyborg” returned to the cage and showed that a 16-month absence related to a steroid suspension did nothing to diminish her power as one of MMA’s most fearsome finishers.
There are not many women in the sport fit to face Justino, but it was obvious from the onset of their bout that Muxlow had no business being in the same cage as the former Strikeforce champion. The 35-year-old Australian entered her fight against Justino with a 6-2 record scattered across six years of competition. The only time Muxlow had faced a top-flight opponent was four months prior, when she had been submitted by a first-round armbar from Marloes Coenen. After the bell rang to open their April 5 bout at Invicta Fighting Championships 5, it took exactly five seconds for Justino to drop Muxlow with a straight right. Things only got worse from there.
Muxlow scrambled to her feet and then went back to the canvas just as quickly while Justino tried to finish the job with piston-like right hands and uppercuts.
When Justino opted to extract herself from guard and stand, Muxlow clung to her leg, trying desperately for a takedown or perhaps just any angle from which to avoid punishment. This was to be the shape of the fight: Justino stalking her wounded prey from a foot away, landing a punch or knee, and then stuffing a shot. It might not sound so bad, but when the shots are being dealt by one of the pound-for-pound hardest hitters in the game, it looks terrible -- and it probably feels even worse.
Justino had opportunities to control the fight on the ground but instead allowed Muxlow back to her feet, where the fight would end late in the first frame. As Muxlow backed up against the cage, Justino closed the gap with a right hand and then a series of sharp knees to the gut. Muxlow tried to retaliate, getting Justino in the Thai plum to throw a knee of her own, but “Cyborg” simply wailed away with head-down, no-look punches. An overhand right caught Muxlow on the chin, causing her to release her hold and allowing Justino to find the mark with another right on the chin. That was enough for referee John McCarthy, who pulled away Justino as Muxlow covered up against the fence.
4. Jessica Andrade vs. Rosi Sexton
There is being tough, and then there is being too tough for your own good. Sexton has been known throughout her career as part of the latter camp, but her durability was on full display Oct. 26 in Manchester, England, where “The Surgeon” spent 15 minutes being dissected by Andrade.
Andrade, who had fallen via TKO to Liz Carmouche in her July UFC debut, entered as a slight underdog against the more experienced Sexton. Almost as soon as the bell rang, the Brazilian prospect began proving the bookmakers wrong.
Twenty seconds into the fight, Andrade began unloading with wide, windmilling combinations which made her look like a tiny, cornrowed Wanderlei Silva. Clearly hurt in the opening barrage, Sexton tried to clinch and then looked to take the fight to the floor, all to no avail. Andrade wanted the fight vertical, and that is where it would stay. Sexton was saved by the bell after being dropped by a right hook on the ear at the end of round one, but she returned to her corner with a sizeable hematoma forming on her forehead.
Round two did not go much better for Sexton, who kept pressing forward and diving for takedowns even as Andrade rocked her head with uppercuts and hooks that would have knocked lesser competitors senseless. Andrade’s combinations midway through the fight were things of beauty, as she constantly found angles around and underneath Sexton’s arms to deliver vicious, brain-rattling punches. By this time, Sexton also had to be wary of the kicks and knees punishing her midsection. Still, she hobbled to her corner -- referee Neil Hall had to point her in the right direction -- and managed to pass inspection from the cageside physician.
The final frame offered few surprises: Andrade continued to stuff takedowns, shove Sexton against the fence and connect with sizzling hooks and uppercuts. If there was one shocker, it was that Sexton made it through the final five minutes, absorbing, as she had, more than 200 total strikes while leaving hardly a scratch on her opponent. The final scorecards -- 30-26 (twice) and 30-27, all for Andrade -- hardly told the story of the match.
5. Joseph Benavidez vs. Darren Uyenoyama
Benavidez’s beating of Uyenoyama at UFC on Fox 7 on April 20 was not of the grisly, lumpy variety -- in fact, the only blood of the fight leaked out of Benavidez -- but it was most certainly a beating. In just under 10 minutes, the flyweight stud of Team Alpha Male landed 63 total strikes to Uyenoyama’s 11, mixing in two takedowns while completely neutralizing his opponent’s vaunted submission game.
In the end, though, the only strike the mattered came late in the second round.
Much was made this year of striking ace Duane Ludwig’s role as head coach of Team Alpha Male, in particular the improved striking of the squad’s UFC representatives since “Bang” assumed the role in January. Aside from Chad Mendes’ sensational string of knockouts, Benavidez’s performance against Uyenoyama might be the finest example of Ludwig’s coaching in action. Though the violence of the eventual finish was unexpected, the outcome of the fight was never in doubt, as Benavidez kept “BC” backing up throughout the bout by utilizing excellent footwork and varied, whip-fast strikes.
With 30 seconds left in round two, Benavidez landed a hard left kick to the gut that sent Uyenoyama tilting, but it was his work up high that set up the shot.
“I was throwing a lot of left high kicks, so he was going high, and once again, Duane Ludwig and my other cornerman, Jimmy Gifford, [said], ‘Body, body!’” Benavidez told reporters after the fight. “Once I hurt him with that, I knew I didn’t wanna kick again. I just faked the overhand right I’d been hitting with, his body opened right up, and it felt great.”
What came next did not feel great for Uyenoyama, as Benavidez went to his foe’s exposed right side with a perfect left hook to the liver. Uyenoyama was grimacing in pain before he hit the ground, and Benavidez’s few follow-up punches proved unnecessary. Referee Herb Dean was already on his way in to save the turtling Californian, giving Benavidez his first one-punch knockout and arguably the most polished performance of his career.
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