Sunday December 14th, 2014

The narrative has changed. I know mine has.

For some time now, many of us involved in mixed martial arts -- from fans to fighters, media to management -- have confidently maintained that Junior dos Santos is the baddest man on the planet. That is, other than in San Jose. That northern California city is the home of Cain Velasquez. The UFC heavyweight champion was knocked out in a minute by the big Brazilian in their first meeting back in a 2011 title fight, but since then he has twice beat up “Cigano," and beat him badly, to show the world who’s the alpha male of badness. In any locale outside Silicon Valley, though, dos Santos is the man.

Or at least he was.

The list of small-print exclusions doubled in size on Saturday night, with San Jose making room for Cleveland. It’s not that Stipe Miocic, who lives in the suburb of Independence, Ohio, demonstrated superiority over dos Santos when they traded blows for a brutal 25 minutes in Phoenix. The former champion was the one who had his hand raised at the end of the night, a winner by unanimous decision. But Miocic (12-2) showed he can stand up to dos Santos. He made that vividly clear.

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How vividly? It was as plain as the puffy purple and red that covered the entirety of the face of dos Santos (17-3) as he straddled the cage, arms outstretched, soaking in crowd’s cheers as he reveled in victory. Dos Santos was a winner, all right, but the man was a mess, having been pummeled by Miocic’s tighter, crisper punches in the early rounds. Dos Santos had survived the onslaught before resiliently picking up steam and wearing down Stipe through the middle of the fight, at which point it was dos Santos' turn to inflict facial damage.

When the two fighters stood flanking referee Herb Dean, awaiting the judges’ decision in this close fight, both of them had reason to feel like the victor. Neither looked the part, though. Miocic wasn’t as busted up as his opponent, but there was swelling above both eyes, more so the left, which also had a multihued bruise below. His lip was puffed. There was an abrasion on his neck. And all of that transformed into a look of disappointment when the decision was read. (That two judges, Glenn Trowbridge and Marcos Rosales, had awarded four of the five rounds to the Brazilian left even less partisan observers puzzled.)

“I slowed down,” Miocic acknowledged at the postfight press conference, speaking to how his robust start had given way to only occasional bursts of aggression. “I thought I picked it up at the end of the fourth, fifth rounds. I definitely think I was hitting him with cleaner shots.”

That was true, especially early on. Dos Santos was winging away with looping strikes, missing badly at times, narrowly at others. But as the fight wore on, dos Santos began to find his mark more often, and was utilizing shorter punches to keep Stipe at arm’s length and to hurt him when he came within range. This busier attack also scored points. So even when Miocic would land a clean punch in the later rounds, it often came in response to a steady output from dos Santos. The Brazilian won the numbers game, though he walked out of the cage looking less like a winner than a survivor.

That’s a game-shifter in the heavyweight division, which for at least the last couple of years has looked like a two-horse race. Anyone who's ascended into position to challenge the champ had to face the reality of being compared, usually unfavorably, to the twice-vanquished No. 2. So it was a significant consolation prize for Miocic when UFC president Dana White said at the press conference, “I don’t want to sound like I’m taking anything away from Junior -- I believe he won the fight tonight -- but it’s like in one of these fights, Stipe’s stock goes up after tonight, you know what I mean?”

Yes, Dana, we know what you mean. But let’s take your stock analysis one step further by saying that on Saturday night two heavyweight fighters’ stock rose. One was Miocic, for sure. The other? Not dos Santos, who saw the gap between him and the rest of the division narrow. The second winning stock, really, was that of a man for whom the gap between him and the rest of the division widened. That would be Cain Velasquez.

It’s natural when watching any top-level heavyweight fight to have Velasquez in the back of your mind. After all, no matter how dominant a big guy looks against the fighter in the cage with him, his ultimate goal cannot be reached unless he can do something similar to the champ. And watching Saturday night’s main event did not instill much confidence that either of the combatants could take the belt away from Velasquez.

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​Miocic showed fluid movement and crisp striking for the first couple of rounds, which would hold him in good stead against anyone on the planet, and his wrestling acumen would give him a chance to keep the fight where he needs it to be. But seeing him fade by the third round raised a red flag for a potential matchup with the cardio-machine champ.

As for dos Santos, he absorbed disfiguring damage in this fight, much as he did in the two Velasquez fights that lasted long enough for Velasquez to land anything. Could dos Santos knock out the champ again with one of those looping right hands of his? Sure he could. But a more likely scenario, if they ever meet for a fourth time, would be that the Brazilian would end the evening looking like he did after his tussle with Miocic.

That might sound like a negative for the heavyweight division, but it’s not. A dominant champion is a mountain to climb, and when someone finally reaches that peak performance -- someday, somehow -- it’s going to be a notable moment. In the meantime, the UFC gets to conduct a battle royal among the big boys for the right to rise to the occasion.

Velasquez’s next dance party will be with Fabricio Werdum, who wears an interim belt that was awarded in the wake of Velasquez’s latest injury. Few outside of Rio de Janeiro give Werdum, once a dos Santos KO victim, much of a chance in the cage with the real champ. But he’ll take his best shot, and if he falls short there’ll be another aspirant behind him. Maybe Miocic will build himself back up. Maybe it’ll be Travis Browne, a dominant winner just last weekend. Or even Alistair Overeem, who restored a little of his lost luster with a knockout win on Saturday’s undercard.

Or perhaps dos Santos will get another shot. His vulnerable yet resilient performance against Miocic was double-edged. Going forward, he’ll no longer be viewed as head and shoulders above the crowd gathered around the champ. But he did defend his position as No. 2, tenuous as it may be. So whether or not the UFC eventually warms to a Cain vs. Junior IV, the heavyweight division is not going stagnant. There are fights to be made, and at stake in those fights is the opportunity, more realistic than ever in the wake of Miocic standing up to dos Santos, to establish a foothold close enough to the champion to reach out and touch him, and be touched in return.

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