The ground game of Cain Velasquez often overwhelms opponents. | Photo: Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com
Yet another rematch headlines UFC 166 on Saturday at the Toyota Center in Houston, but this time, fans are eager to see more between heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez and challenger Junior dos Santos. Both fighters have been perfect in their Ultimate Fighting Championship careers, except for losses to the other. Trainers have offered an injury asterisk for each fighter’s loss, claiming Velasquez had an injured knee in the first fight and dos Santos overtrained for the second, resulting in rhabdomyolysis. Despite Velasquez and dos Santos testing themselves against other adversaries, they continue to position themselves as the best two fighters in the division, so no one seems to be questioning the decision to put them in the cage for a third time.
We are left with a chance for one man to differentiate himself as the champion and unofficial “Baddest Man on the Planet.” Given the evenness of the grudge match, maybe we can find a clue as to how this latest encounter will go down somewhere in the more than 8,000 data points from the histories of these two fighters. We will start with an enhanced Tale of the Tape.
The Tale of the Tape reveals that dos Santos will be the taller and arguably leaner fighter, but neither will have a reach or stance advantage. Experientially, these two fighters are almost identical. They have both been fighting since 2006 and racked up similar records; and both have finished eight of their 10 UFC wins. Ring rust will not be an issue for either man, as both fought at UFC 160 in May. A five-month layoff is neither too long nor too short. The only hidden factor is whether or not they are at full health, which is something we will not know until after they fight. How do they stack up in the striking matchup?
Both fighters are skilled strikers and easily have enough power in their hands -- and feet -- to end this fight with strikes. However, the boxing skills of dos Santos distinguish him as one of the most feared strikers in the heavyweight division, and the statistics support that superlative. His striking accuracy is the best among heavyweights, and he has scored more knockdowns than any UFC heavyweight in history. In his first fight with Velasquez, dos Santos only needed one overhand right set up the technical knockout finish. He loves controlling the standup pace and typically outworks his opponents by 70 percent in volume, all while maintaining his exceptional accuracy and power. He uses a slightly higher mix of jabs than most fighters, but his skill in landing those jabs is another division-best attribute.
Despite his wrestling base, Velasquez is no slouch on his feet. His metrics are above average in accuracy, strike volume and power. He is solid but not amazing with his standup, which makes it all the more interesting that Velasquez got the better of dos Santos when standing and trading in their last fight. Another slight difference between the two is the superior clinch striking of Velasquez. Both fighters spend about a quarter of their fight time in the clinch, but Velasquez has been in control of that position much more often. That means he may be more likely to put the fight against the fence in order to wear down dos Santos and nullify his strength out on the open mat.
Does Velasquez need to avoid standing and trading? It is hard to know how much dos Santos was adversely affected by the rhabdomyolysis in the second fight between these two. Dos Santos may have been off his game for health reasons that night; regardless, Velasquez put a beating on “Cigano” for five straight rounds, which included plenty of standup striking. Although Velasquez failed to finish the fight, he demonstrated a capable standup arsenal that had dos Santos clearly hurt. If this fight remains standing, the matchup is a close one despite dos Santos’ impressive stat line.
If the most recent Velasquez-JDS fight was any indication, it will also be worth looking at the takedown and grappling stats.
If the fight goes to the ground, it will most likely be Velasquez that puts it there. He attempts a stifling rate of more than four takedown attempts per round, landing half of them. Dos Santos rarely attempts takedowns; if he does, Velasquez has excellent wresting experience and takedown defense through which to deal with them. Velasquez will be more likely to change levels and has shown dominant ground-and-pound skills once he gets opponents to the mat. Neither fighter has won or lost by submission in the UFC. When in top control, they rarely advance position. The main questions on the ground revolve around control and striking. Historically, that favors Velasquez.
When it comes to owning the ground game, Velasquez has held control a ridiculous 97 percent of the time he has spent on the canvas. That same metric for JDS is only 26 percent, with fewer overall minutes spent on the ground. The more subtle factor here is not the damage that Velasquez can do on the ground but how the threat of his takedowns will affect the matchup standing. In their second fight, Velasquez landed 11 total takedowns and had at least one in every round of the fight. That is a dominant wrestling performance in any fight, especially when a heavyweight title is on the line. Most people probably remember the gut-wrenching “punch faces” dos Santos made while getting blasted by Velasquez on the feet. It is certainly possible that the 33 attempted takedowns Velasquez threw at dos Santos over the course of that fight impaired the Brazilian’s striking defense, allowing the champion to land the better strikes. That is the power of changing levels and keeping a fighter guessing, and it could be the key to Velasquez making this an all-over kind of fight.
The Final Word
Velasquez is currently a -230 favorite, putting the implied probability of defending his title at just less than 70 percent. The market seems to be giving more credit to Velasquez’s dominant five-round victory at UFC 155 than the Brazilian’s 64-second TKO in their first meeting at UFC on Fox 1. The numbers reveal dos Santos does in fact have the better skill metrics while standing, but Velasquez is better at fighting all over the cage and was the superior striker in their second fight. What do you think? Will JDS score a monster knockout or will Velasquez own another knockdown-drag-out battle? Is there any metric you think provides the biggest clue as to how this fight goes down?
In November, we will look at UFC 167, where welterweight contender Johny Hendricks finally gets his chance to unload his big left hand on the current longest-reigning UFC champion: Georges St. Pierre.
Note: Raw data for the analysis was provided by, and in partnership with FightMetric. All analysis was performed by Reed Kuhn. Reed Kuhn, Fightnomics, FightMetric and Sherdog.com assume no responsibility for bets placed on fights, financial or otherwise.
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