A professional prize fight begins immediately following the introductions, right? Well, this one got going while Bruce Buffer was still in full voice.
You know the thing that Junior dos Santos does when his name is being announced, stepping resolutely to the center of the octagon and making a grandly commanding gesture, his sinewy right arm pointing downward to the canvas? The gesture says, "This is my house!"
Well, Dos Santos did just that while his name was echoing in the rafters of the Toyota Center late on Saturday night in Houston. And when he arrived at center cage with eyes narrowed and a smirk on his mug, there was Cain Velasquez to greet him. The UFC heavyweight champion wasn't going to stand in his corner and wait for his name to be bellowed to the masses. He stepped forward to go nose to nose with his challenger, casting an icy stare that would melt a lesser man and nodding his head with a gruesomeness that carried its own unspoken message: "Your house? We'll see about that."
That prefight confrontation didn't happen in either of the fighters' first two meetings -- not the November 2011 bout in which Dos Santos had seized the championship with a 64-second knockout, not in last December's rematch, a five-round mauling by Velasquez that had put the belt back around his waist. In fact, I guarantee you Dos Santos has never had someone meet him at the center of the octagon like that. I guarantee you that it shook up the Brazilian a little.
And moments later, when the pomp and circumstance were concluded and referee Herb Dean waved the fighters together, Velasquez charged across the cage and got back in Dos Santos' face. This time Junior was the one with the answer. As they flurried right off the bat and the fans roared their approval, Dos Santos connected with a left hook that stopped Cain in his tracks. Momentarily, at least. Velasquez immediately started moving forward again, and Dos Santos stunned him with another left. But Cain kept coming. Within seconds he had Junior against the cage, then had him on the canvas. He clamped on a guillotine choke as Dos Santos struggled to his feet, and when Junior escaped, the champ flung a left hand to his face. But Dos Santos spun away and nailed Cain with a staggering uppercut, and the crowd's already-deafening roar was impossibly turned up a notch, like a Spinal Tap amplifier.
We were 30 seconds in, and already this fight was more electrifying -- and more competitive -- than either of the first two meetings. Were we witnessing the magnum opus culmination of the greatest trilogy in UFC history?
Not if the criteria for determining a rivalry's greatness include a sustained back-and-forth.
Velasquez, you see, refused to play nice. Dos Santos is a deadly striker when he has room to unleash his long punches. But Cain was not going to allow that. He charted a course for the middle of Dos Santos' chest, flinging just enough punches from long range to get himself on the road to Junior's ruin. He was relentless, bullying the challenger in much the same way he had in their last bout. Every time Dos Santos managed to break free of the clinch against the cage, Velasquez was right back on him, pressing up against him, making him work to fend off takedowns, landing short punches to the head and body, weakening his legs with knees to the thigh. It was a mauling.
By midway through the first round, Velasquez had Dos Santos on his back and was briefly in full mount. Junior worked his way into half-guard, and his reward was to eat an elbow. When the Brazilian managed to get to his feet, Cain reddened his face by pushing his head into Junior's cheek, wrapping him up, looking for takedowns, stomping on his feet, pulling away just long enough to land an uppercut, then going right back to clinch. From there, Velasquez snapped Dos Santos' head back with short shots. All Junior could do was hold on.
This is how the fight wore on. The best that Dos Santos could do was withstand what Cain dealt out. He offered no rebuttal, posing no threat other than by reputation. Velasquez didn't throw caution to the wind -- he knew what Dos Santos was capable of, having felt that dizzying wrath in their first bout -- but he relentlessly bulled his way into the line of fire. He nearly ended the fight midway through the third round, dropping Dos Santos with an overhand right and pouncing on him with a flurry of lefts and rights. When Dos Santos struggled to his feet, Velasquez tried a guillotine, but he didn't have the grip and let go, whereupon Dos Santos fell lifelessly to his back. Velasquez moved in, and so did Herb Dean. As Cain landed another flurry, the ref put his hand on the champ's shoulder, as if preparing to stop the bout. Then Dean backed off. And Dos Santos somehow made it to the horn.
Junior had been fighting like a zombie for much of the bout, and as he came out of his corner for Round 4, he looked like one, too. His face was reddened and puffy, his eyes vacant, his body sagging. Across the cage, Velasquez looked like a man out for a casual Saturday evening stroll. And for the next five minutes, we saw around 4:55 of that same old mauling against the cage. The only pause came when a doctor was brought in to examine the mess that was Junior's face, a mask of blood and bloat. The doc allowed the fight to continue -- remind me to get that guy's name so I'll know whom to avoid if I'm ever in Houston and in need of a medical assessment -- and Dos Santos once again made it to the horn.
Junior would not hear the fight's final horn, though. Early in the fifth, he did open up Velasquez's face with some short elbows from the clinch, but it was small consolation. At the sight of blood -- his own, for a change -- Cain snapped back his opponent's head with a crisp right. Finally, a desperate Dos Santos tried for a standing guillotine, and Velasquez countered by dropping to the mat, taking Junior with him. At the moment Cain escaped the submission hold, Junior hit the canvas face-first. He was stunned, and Velasquez pounced, flinging a few nasty punches before Dean ended it, mercifully, at 3:09.
Afterward, Dos Santos looked like something you'd see when you lift the sheet at the morgue. That's actually a description I once used in conveying the beaten-down state of Junior following last December's second Velasquez fight. This time the Brazilian ex-champ looked even worse. But his brain had not been so scrambled that he couldn't grasp the lesson that had been learned. "What can I say?" he said afterward, smiling the smile of someone who'd been put in his place. "He beat me up."
Indeed he did. For the second straight time. And if Velasquez and Dos Santos fight again, as many were calling for them to do even before Saturday night, Cain will all but assuredly do it again. This is no slight against Junior, who is head and shoulders above everyone else in the heavyweight division. But if he and Velasquez were to make this a best-of-seven series like they do in baseball, there would be no Game 7.
That makes it difficult to call this the greatest rivalry in UFC history. The lifeblood of a rivalry is the back-and-forth, and other than that quick knockout in Cain vs. Junior I, the playing field has been tilted in this ongoing confrontation. There was potential for greatness in the first 30 seconds on Saturday night, but after that it was simply a showcase of one man's greatness.
The greatest man's greatness, that is. By once again making the No. 2 heavyweight in the world look like someone who belongs in a Bellator tournament, Cain Velasquez emphatically stated his case: He is the greatest heavyweight mixed martial arts has seen. Who in the fight promotion's big-boy history stands in the way of that? Frank Mir or Randy Couture? No and no. Tim Sylvia or Andrei Arlovski? You've got to be joking. And don't talk to me about Fedor Emelianenko. In order to be the best, you've got to beat the best. And when the Russian had the opportunity to come to the UFC and take down its reigning king, Brock Lesnar, he instead chose to conclude his career in Strikeforce and then in some tomato can overseas promotions, withstanding a three-fight losing streak before taking on the lifelike cardboard cutouts of Jeff Monson, Satoshi Ishii and Pedro Rizzo. That's not good enough.
Is anyone good enough to compete with Cain Velasquez? UFC president Dana White said the next man who'll try is Fabricio Werdum. As a jiu-jitsu black belt with the heavyweight division's most virtuosic submission game, he at least poses a little intrigue. But I suspect that Werdum's route to the canvas will be involuntary. And when he gets there, he might not be thinking straight. Fabricio has improved as a striker, for sure, but do you really believe he'll be capable of dealing with the relentless Cain? Yes, there's always the possibility that Werdum will catch the champ in a submission -- that's why they fight the fights, even ones that appear lopsided -- but if Brazil's best heavyweight, Junior dos Santos, could not handle the champ, it's folly to think the second-best can.
Velasquez has only two successful title defenses under his belt. He has a long way to go in order to catch up with Anderson Silva or Georges St-Pierre, at least in terms of numbers. But other than Ronda Rousey, who can match the gap Cain has created between champion and the pack of contenders? In the long run, maybe someone will step up. In the short run, a lot of big guys are going to take a fall.