"He hits like a girl."
That was Junior dos Santos dipping his toe into the cesspool of trash talk during a recent radio interview in Brazil. I don't speak Portuguese, but it didn't sound at all convincing. Perhaps something was lost in translation, maybe the ironic nuance or intended humor. After all, the girly man he was talking about happens to the baddest man on the planet, Cain Velasquez, who can burn a hole in your soul with his stare, much less his punches. Back in December, in regaining the UFC heavyweight championship he'd lost to Dos Santos a year before, Velasquez had relentlessly beat on Junior for 25 minutes, leaving the Brazilian's face looking like something you might see when the sheet is pulled down at the morgue, puffy and bruised, pale and lifeless. Junior withstood some serious hits.
And, as a side note, is accusing someone of hitting like a girl even a viable insult? Has Dos Santos ever watched a fight in the UFC's women's bantamweight division? Has he seen his countrywoman, Cris "Cyborg" Justino, pummel everyone that mixed martial arts and kickboxing promotions have stood in front of her? "Like a girl" is no pejorative, not in this game, not anywhere.
So let's just say Dos Santos fights a whole lot better than he talks trash. Velasquez allows his fists to do his talking, too. That might make the leadup to Cain vs. Junior III uneventful for hot-blooded fans who've become enamored with the Chaelification of the sport, but it bodes well for Saturday's UFC 166 main event in Houston (10 p.m. ET, PPV). The focus is where it should be: on what could turn out to be the greatest fight trilogy in the promotion's history.
Talk might not matter, but it does happen. The UFC makes sure of that, trotting out the main eventers around every 15 minutes for a press conference or open workout or TV appearance. The fighters are like NPR pledge job volunteers, they're on the phone so often, mouthing the same spiel to interviewer after interviewer. Yet nothing sticks.
Velasquez (12-1) is a man of measured words, and there's no room for vitriol in his sparse narrative. Confronted by the Dos Santos (16-2) radio comment, the champ didn't spew a biting retort. Instead, he spoke with understanding, even empathy. "With a loss, you try to take something positive from your losses," he said on this week's UFC Tonight television show. "And with him, there wasn't anything really positive that he could take from it, except for that I didn't finish the fight. That was it."
Cain understood because he had been there himself following the first Dos Santos bout. He'd been knocked out in a minute, the belt he had worked so hard to earn slipping away so easily. It was that remembrance that prompted the closest thing to trash talk the champ could muster: Velasquez claimed during the UFC's preview show that the rematch with Dos Santos went the distance not because he couldn't finish but because he didn't want to. "I wanted to punish him," said Cain. "He took something away from me that I loved, and I wanted to make him pay for that."
Yeah, right. What a remarkable performance by Velasquez, saying that with a straight face. But unlike some of the Shakespearean thespians of MMA, Cain didn't have such a good script to work with. Who's foolish enough to believe that if he'd been in position to finish the fight, Velasquez would have declined to do so? Sure, let's allow a guy with proven one-punch knockout power to stick around, hoping he doesn't land the big one while you're getting in your last licks. Dos Santos doesn't buy it. "Maybe he's Superman, eh?" Junior said in an MMAFighting.com interview when the topic came up. He was smiling.
Dos Santos won't be smiling on Saturday night. Nor will Velasquez. But will there be venom in their hearts? I spoke with both fighters at length last week, and came away struck by their mutual respect, even admiration. That's why either man can convincingly say a bad word about the other. But that won't matter when the referee unleashes them on each other. Absent a contrived narrative of discord, what has been lost? Not a thing. The fight is the thing, the only thing.
But first ...
UFC cards aren't typically top-heavy in the same way that boxing pay-per-views rely almost exclusively on the main event. But as the company has expanded its reach -- 2013 will see 33 events before it's over -- the talent has been thinly spread at times. Not this weekend. UFC 166 is stacked.
The co-main event is a battle of shrinking heavyweights. Daniel Cormier has already plotted his course to the 205-pound weight class, and as for Roy Nelson, unless camera angles are deceiving, he appears to have only a half-pot belly these days. Will Nelson's prodigious power be lessened now that he doesn't put as much weight behind those looping overhand punches? Will a slimmer Cormier be a quicker Cormier? The variables make this an intriguing matchup, even if it's unlikely to lead either man directly to the top of his chosen division.
Former Strikeforce lightweight champion Gilbert Melendez, last seen dropping a tight split decision to then-UFC belt-holder Benson Henderson, is in store for an in-your-face challenge from Diego Sanchez. Melendez ought to be able to handle him, but Sanchez -- to put it in familiar terms, with the baseball playoffs going on -- is one of those lower-third-of-the-batting-order guys whom you can't sleep on. He always brings the intensity, which should make this a pleasing three-rounder for fans.
The other main card fight that figures to get the adrenaline flowing pits flyweights John Dodson and Darrell Montague. Dodson is coming off a feisty but unsuccessful challenge of champ Demetrious Johnson, while Montague is a UFC debutante who's lost only once in 4½ years. As always with the 125-pounders, you're advised to tape this fight and watch it later on the DVR, in slow motion. Watching in real time might make you dizzy.
If you're too cheap to drop fifty bucks on a pay-per-view, there's some life to the preliminary card as well. Ex-Strikeforce champ Sarah Kaufman welcomes Jessica Eye and her seven-fight win streak to the UFC. And another former Strikeforce belt holder, Nate Marquardt, takes on ex-Bellator middleweight king Hector Lombard, now fighting as a welterweight.