Early in the UFC 146 main event on Saturday at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Frank Mir shot for a single-leg takedown on Junior dos Santos, his hopes of a third championship reign in the promotion riding on his ability to get the fight into his comfort zone.
The champion, in a display of superior balance and agility, stood firm and worked to yank his leg free, momentarily dragging Mir across the canvas as the Las Vegas resident held on for dear life. Once he escaped from the clutches of his opponent, “Cigano” smiled and gave a decidedly Dikembe Mutombo-esque finger wag to the challenger, as if to say, “Not this time.”
Mir’s time never did come. Unable to get the bout to the canvas, the former titleholder was outstruck and outclassed in falling to dos Santos by second-round technical knockout.
“Knowing what to do and being able to do it are two different things,” said Mir, regarded as one of the best submission artists in the promotion.
Mir admittedly struggled with dos Santos’ footwork all night. The Team Nogueira product did a masterful job of deciding when to engage and when to move away, leaving Mir with precious few openings to mount an assault of his own. It was not necessarily surprising that “Cigano” did what he did to Mir -- in fact, it would not be a stretch to say most viewers expected that result. Still, as Jamie Varner reminded us on the UFC 146 undercard, it only takes a moment for a fight to swing in favor of the underdog.
Instead, here is the man known as JDS, firmly perched atop the division wearing an infectious life-is-good grin and wagging his finger at anyone who dared to believe Mir stood a grappler’s chance in hell of defeating him. Dos Santos’ title reign is in its infancy, but it is common knowledge that UFC heavyweight champions usually never grow up. While no big man has ever defended the belt three times in the promotion, dos Santos contends he is no mere flash in the pan.
“I’m here to stay,” he said. “That’s why I’m working so hard in my career. I’m very positive and confident, and I’m here to stay.”
As much as UFC President Dana White championed the depth of the division following the wildly entertaining UFC 146 main card, potential options for dos Santos opponents remain limited. Alistair Overeem, who was originally scheduled to challenge dos Santos, will not be eligible to apply for a fight license in Nevada until Dec. 27. Assuming everything goes smoothly with the “Demolition Man” -- which is never a safe assumption -- the former Strikeforce heavyweight champion probably would not be ready to compete until sometime in the spring of 2013.
Considering White’s current disdain for Overeem, it could be longer than that.
“I don’t have to deal with people that I don’t want to deal with,” White said on Saturday. “I don’t have to deal with [Overeem]; [UFC CEO] Lorenzo [Fertitta] will. If you have any Overeem questions, ask Lorenzo.”
Then there is Daniel Cormier, who looked impressive in taking a five-round verdict from former UFC champion Josh Barnett in the Strikeforce heavyweight grand prix final on May 19. However, it does not appear that Cormier will be stepping into an Octagon this year, either, as Showtime will be expecting that Strikeforce fulfills its contract and gives the network one more fight featuring the American Kickboxing Academy standout.
When asked about Cormier, White did not exactly give the Olympian a ringing endorsement.
“He will end up coming over to the UFC. I’d love to see the guy go to 205,” White said. “The thing is he’s a small heavyweight over here. He did work Barnett, but Barnett fights once a year. It’s a whole different ballgame over here.”
With Overeem and Cormier out of the picture for the time being, Cain Velasquez -- sorry, Mark Hunt fans -- is the most obvious No. 1 contender, despite his 64-second loss to dos Santos in November. Some might cringe at the thought of giving Velasquez such a quick rematch, but given the circumstances of their first meeting, the fight makes sense.
Velasquez was coming off more than a year-long layoff from shoulder surgery after wresting the heavyweight crown from Brock Lesnar at UFC 121. He appeared to be tentative at the outset of the UFC on Fox 1 showdown, a surefire recipe for disaster against the educated hands of dos Santos. Contrast that with Velasquez’s effort against Antonio Silva, where he wasted little time in making the Octagon look like the set of a low-grade Hollywood slasher flick.
Granted, “Bigfoot” is not on the level of dos Santos, but he has been hovering in and around the Top 10 for some time now. The one-sided dominance by Velasquez at UFC 146 suggests he was fighting much closer to his accustomed level. Like most rematches, it is unlikely that a dos Santos-Velasquez sequel would resemble the original. The guess here is that it would be much more compelling.
“I would need to bring the fight more to him than I did before,” Velasquez said. “I stayed too long on the outside, where he is dangerous. He has those fast, heavy hands and that good footwork.”
The heavyweight division is undeniably deeper and more talented than it has been at any time in the promotion’s history. That the UFC was able to stock an entire pay-per-view card exclusively with heavyweights is a testament to that. Making dos Santos square off with Velasquez again is not an indictment of that depth. Instead it is a recognition that, based on who is available, these two men remain the class of the division. Not insignificantly, White likes the fight.
After the rematch, everyone just might be clamoring for Part 3.