Bob Dylan, if not otherwise occupied, would have been a pretty good fight trainer. On his 1966 world tour he played a song that led into the chorus with the line, "I know that you know that I know that you know." This sums up the weekend's headline fight between heavyweights Shane Carwin and Junior dos Santos in 11 words.
This is the third iteration of the UFC 131 main event. Originally, the idea was for Brock Lesnar and Frank Mir to have a third, final fight. When champion Cain Velasquez went out with an injury, that left top contender Dos Santos without an opponent, and so UFC moved him into the spot against Lesnar, figuring that with a win he would make his name and make a title shot against Velasquez far more marketable. Then Lesnar went out with a recurrence of diverticulitis, and Carwin, scheduled to fight comer Jon Olav Einemo, was moved into the main.
Each new variant of the fight has made it less saleable and more intriguing, and of the six possible matchups involving Lesnar, Mir, Dos Santos and Carwin, the one we'll actually be getting is the best. That's partly because this is the first time either of them is facing a striker this good and because neither has had his chin seriously tested, but mainly for reasons Dylan would understand.
It having been about a year since either Carwin or Dos Santos fought, you can wonder what kind of shape they'll be in, but there is no mystery as to what either is going to try to do. Carwin is going to try to knock Dos Santos out early, and Dos Santos is going to try to stay away from him and then pick him apart. That each is perfectly well aware of this is what makes the fight so interesting.
Carwin is one of the most cerebral fighters you'll ever watch. That might seem an outlandish thing to say of a man who looks to be missing thick strands of DNA and is best known for having knocked out or tapped every opponent he's ever faced save one in the first round, but to write him off as a caveman is to miss what it means to be a smart fighter. As Carwin trainer Greg Jackson would put it, it means maximizing your own utility. Another way to say the same thing is that a thinking fighter plays to his own strengths. Carwin is a behemoth with enormous power in his hooks and questionable wind, and the smart thing for Carwin for him to do is blitz opponents. It's worked well enough for him that if his fight against Lesnar had been stopped in the first round, as it perhaps should have been, he might right now be an undefeated heavyweight champion.
Dos Santos, like everyone else who watches the fights, has seen Carwin maul people, and saw the ugly thing that happened when he was forced to more than four minutes into a fight against Lesnar: He completely gassed out, like a marathon runner hitting the wall, and ended up submitted by a man whose jiu-jitsu game is less refined than that of many people reading this. As most heavyweights do, Dos Santos has conditioning issues of his own -- he was less than crisp in the latter rounds of the two UFC fights he's had that have left the first, against Roy Nelson and Mirko Filopovic -- but he's the smaller, nimbler man here, and will be looking to take advantage of that.
All of this, anyway, is the theory. The reality is that Carwin knows that Dos Santos knows that the thing to do is to weather the early storm, and that Dos Santos knows that Carwin knows that Dos Santos knows this, and so on. The further reality is that both are smart enough, and skilled enough in different arts, to put that knowledge to use. This fight may play out as expected, with Carwin coming out ferociously and Dos Santos fighting defensively until Carwin either scores a knockout or punches himself out trying, but I'd bet otherwise.
The real key here could be grappling. Dos Santos, having been training first for Velasquez and then for Lesnar, has been working on his takedown defense, which is already decent. (He's stuffed 89 percent of takedown attempts in his UFC career, although he's hardly been in against elite wrestlers.) Carwin isn't quite as effective with his takedowns as his reputation and background as a Division II Hall of Famer would have it, scoring on only a quarter of his attempts, but he'll most likely be able to put Dos Santos down. Meanwhile, Dos Santos should have a significant edge on the ground.
Assuming those cancel out, I wouldn't expect this to be a slugfest, but rather a display of some more technical boxing. Carwin, having learned a lesson from the Lesnar fight, will most likely be looking to conserve some strength and look for openings to shoot; Dos Santos will likely be keeping distance to prevent that, and using his boxing more to control space than to go for the early knockout. A good clipping from either man or the unexpected revelation of a weak chin could change that, and of course it's perfectly plausible that Carwin will just go with what's worked so well in the past. In all, though, given the layoffs both men have had, given the stakes and given the matchup, I expect this to be a more cautious and wary fight than the highlight-reel knockouts incessantly playing on Spike TV would have you believe. I also expect it to be a better one.