Forget about Cain Velasquez vs. Junior dos Santos III, which was set up by each man's exhilarating knockout performance on Saturday night in Las Vegas. We need to start preparing for Cain-Junior IV, V and VI.
It's tempting to call this rivalry the mixed martial arts equivalent of Ali vs. Frazier, and in a way -- perhaps the most important way -- it is. Neither UFC guy is the colossal or controversial presence that Ali was in the culture at large, of course, and MMA is not the star player that boxing still was on the sports scene of the 1960s. The respectful Velasquez and Dos Santos will also never draw the attention to their fights the way Ali and Frazier did since they don't talk nearly as much or as loudly.
But just as Muhammad and Joe were when they first met in 1970 in what lived up to its hype as "Fight of the Century," Velasquez and Dos Santos are heavyweights at the top of their game and at the height of their power. And while the boxers put on one tight, competitive battle between unbeatens that Frazier won, the rematch was tedious before the two cemented their legend with the "Thrilla in Manilla." Cain and Junior have each had an exclamation point performance, and it could certainly go more than three fights.
The 64-second knockout by Dos Santos in the first meeting back in November 2011 was not simply Velasquez's first defeat. It was a shockingly sudden end to his short reign on the top of the mountain, and it promised an era of domination to come. But the "Cigano" Epoch came tumbling into a pile of rubble last December, in a methodical beatdown over 25 painful minutes by Cain. So now, with each having had his night, what's next?
Well, the unscheduled Velasquez-Dos Santos III is what's on the horizon, but beyond that? Regardless of who walks out of the octagon with the belt following the trilogy fight, that won't be the end between these two men. Cain is 30; Junior a year and a half his junior. Unless III takes on the dominant look of II, these fellows will see each other again.
Who's going to stand in the way? The heavyweight belt is a hot potato and nobody in UFC history has successfully defended it more than twice in a row. But these two are heads and shoulders above the rest of the big boys. Fabricio Werdum is a mat virtuoso, but how does he get the fight to his world against either Cain or Junior? Roy Nelson is good everywhere, just not as good as either of the top two. Alistair Overeem has the size and the striking chops to provide problems, but what are the chances he can remain disciplined over five rounds? Daniel Cormier has all the tools, but he seems content to go after smaller (ha!) prey, 205-pound champion Jon Jones.
Maybe "Bones" is our X factor. As in, when he opts to become the ex-light heavy champ and go after the big boys, he'll be given a shot against either Velasquez or Dos Santos. But their performances at UFC 160 -- Velasquez in a 1:21 TKO of "Bigfoot" Silva in the main event, Dos Santos in a spinning head kick KO of Mark Hunt in the co-main -- were evidence that these guys will not readily cede the top of the hill to anyone. Not even each other.
A couple of other notes from the weekend in Vegas ...
The Dog Days are Over
On a night when the heavyweight champ was a 9-1 favorite and the ex-champ went off at 4-1, it was easy to overlook that T.J. Grant also was an underdog. But he sure didn't look like one against Gray Maynard, the two-time challenger for the lightweight championship.
Maynard, who had fought only once in 19 months, greased any rusty part by getting his fists flying with abandon in the bout's opening seconds. Like half the NBA, he forgot about playing defense. And Grant caught him, first with a straight right hand that floored him, then with a succession of punches than ensured that Maynard would not get back in the fight. The end came at 2:07, earning Grant a $50,000 bonus for Fight of the Night and a shot at Benson Henderson.
Which surprised the champ. "I won't lie. I am a little bit surprised," Henderson acknowledged on the MMAfighting.com online show The MMA Hour. "I think most people had Gray winning, most people picked Gray to win."
Can't See the Forrest
Forrest Griffin retired on Saturday night at 10-5 in the UFC. This summer, he'll be inducted into the organization's Hall of Fame.
Now, it must be said that the UFC's Hall is not like other halls of sports fame. Induction is entirely at the whim of the company, and if you cross the boss, you need not apply. But even if your octagon record is spotty and your career devolved into an injury-riddled succession of canceled bouts, but you helped build the business, as Griffin did in a big way, get your speech ready.
When Dana White stepped to the microphone to begin the UFC 160 post-fight press conference Saturday night, he announced Griffin's retirement in reverent tones. Forrest, after all, was co-author of the fight that still stands as perhaps the most significant in company history. The 2006 final of the first season of the reality show The Ultimate Fighter was a rock 'em, sock 'em robots standoff with Stephan Bonnar that so enthused the Spike TV audience that word of mouth kept the UFC afloat. Griffin later had a brief reign as light heavyweight champ, but it was the TUF showcase that made him a Hall of Famer.
"I truly believe we are where we are because of this guy," White said at the press conference, later saying both Griffin and Bonnar will be inducted at the Fan Expo during the week leading up to the July 6 UFC 162 in Las Vegas.
When it was Griffin's turn to speak, he was self-effacing, as usual. "The biggest thing I've learned is when Dana White says retire, you should retire," he said. "Otherwise, you'll blow your knee out before your next fight."