Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos will meet for the third time in two years. | Photo: Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com
Quick, name the best Ultimate Fighting Championship trilogy of all-time. You might say Frankie Edgar-Gray Maynard, Chuck Liddell-Randy Couture or maybe even Georges St. Pierre-Matt Hughes. The point: no trilogy sits unquestionably atop the throne.
Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos are two-thirds of the way to joining those ranks and staking their claim as the greatest three-fight series to date, which brings us to their latest rematch in the UFC 166 main event on Saturday at the Toyota Center in Houston.
How We Got Here: Act one of this three-act play went down on the UFC’s biggest stage. Dos Santos’ right hand ended Velasquez’s first title reign just 64 seconds into their UFC on Fox 1 headliner, marking the promotion’s historic debut on network television. Their second fight was just as one-sided but on the opposite side of the spectrum. At UFC 155, the Mexican-American punched, kicked, slammed, took down and battered dos Santos for 25 minutes, reclaiming his title. Now the stage is set for some finality in this heavyweight rivalry ... Speaking of heavyweights, the undefeated Daniel Cormier will not be one much longer, as he has decided to drop to 205 pounds to avoid fighting a friend and training partner in Velasquez. He will face Roy Nelson, who will try to rebound from a lopsided decision loss to Stipe Miocic ... Former Strikeforce champion Gilbert Melendez and “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 1 winner Diego Sanchez round out the top three fights in a potentially exhilarating lightweight scrap.
To Trilogy and Beyond: With thousands and thousands of MMA fighters in the world, it seems like a waste of fresh ideas to have the same two fighters battle each other more than three times. However, in the case of Velasquez-JDS, it may be the best option. The heavyweights are unquestionably the top two fighters at UFC 166, but who stands out as a credible challenger for the winner? Cormier plans to drop to light heavyweight, win or lose against “Big Country.” Fabricio Werdum will likely be next in line, but he will undoubtedly open as a massive betting underdog. Josh Barnett, Travis Browne and Stipe Miocic can all find themselves in title contention soon, as well. What if the guy who walks out of the cage after UFC 166 as the No. 1 contender never relinquishes his spot as the No. 1 contender? It is entirely possible that Velasquez and dos Santos are that much better than everyone else in the division. A fourth showdown between these two relatively young and still-improving heavyweights seems like a distinct possibility. Would anyone really mind?
Useless Fact: If you are a 250-pound athlete with a mean streak, you are probably playing linebacker in the NFL. There is plenty of demand for large men with athletic ability, which probably explains why the UFC heavyweight division is one of its shallowest from a talent standpoint. Think about this: there are 76 active lightweights on the UFC roster, compared to only 32 heavyweights. This makes our useless fact all the more remarkable. Though Velasquez and dos Santos have both spent roughly five years with the company and fought 11 times apiece, they share no common opponents.
The Loser-Leaves-Town Fight: Go ahead and click on the Fight Finder pages for Georges Sotiropoulos and K.J. Noons. The opening bout of the Fox Sports 1-televised portion of the undercard features two popular lightweights who were viewed as potential title contenders just three years ago. Sotiropoulos was riding a seven-fight winning streak, while Noons was challenging Nick Diaz for the Strikeforce welterweight crown on the strength of a six-fight winning streak of his own. Since 2011, they are a combined 1-7. Now, they find themselves in a win-or-lose-your-job matchup. Talk about hitting a wall.
Say What: Rather than focusing on pre-fight banter, Velasquez prefers to spend his time dishing out knuckle sandwiches to top-10 fighters. No problem. Javier Mendez, his trainer at the American Kickboxing Academy, fills the gap just fine. He told Sirius XM Fight Club that he was tired of hearing dos Santos’ excuses about why he lost his second matchup with Velasquez: “Enough’s enough. You lost already. Give it a break. You go out and do whatever you can to win, but quit talking about why you lost. That’s all he seems to be doing. It’s like, ‘Oh, he hits like a girl.’ Come on. You’re a great fighter. Cain’s a great fighter. Respect Cain. Cain respects you. Just say, ‘I’m fighting a great champion. This is what I’m going to do.’ You don’t see Cain talking about why he got knocked out and this and that. He doesn’t talk about it. You guys bring it up. He doesn’t.”
Awards Watch: Sanchez has cranked out five “Fight of the Night” bonuses in his last eight appearances. If UFC President Dana White could clone fighters to perform the way he wants, he might focus on the high-action, forward-moving, swarming style of the 31-year-old lightweight. Sanchez’s 155-pound showcase with Melendez certainly has the potential for crowd-pleasing fireworks ... Turn to Adlan Amagov for “Knockout of the Night.” The Russian can brawl with the best of them, sans Robbie Lawler, and the sambo stylist is more than a competent enough grappler to keep T.J. Waldburger’s submissions at bay ... There are not a lot of submission possibilities brewing at UFC 166, so with no obvious contender for “Submission of the Night,” let us go with the Hail Mary option. The Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt Velasquez earned from Leandro Vieira is still fresh from its packaging and ready for use in the cage. While the All-American wrestler does not yet have a submission win to his credit, hear me out. Velasquez had dos Santos dead to rights for two to three rounds at UFC 155, dominating the wrestling and winning the positional battles. He nearly landed a high-level rolling armbar off the cage. Dos Santos’ bottom escape plan consisted of moving to all fours and crawling up to his feet; he was ripe for a rear-naked choke on multiple occasions. Velasquez saw the Brazilian’s toughness and learned how difficult it will be to finish him with punches alone. Do not think that knowledge will be wasted on a team as smart as the American Kickboxing Academy. Velasquez stamps the expiration date on his rivalry with JDS with a fight-ending submission.