The Killing the King series is my attempt to counter the notion that any one fighter is simply invincible at a certain point in their career. Fans and even pundits tend to throw around “too big”, “too fast” and even “too good” to describe fighters who are on a tear, rather than looking at the technical game of these fighters. Toughness, speed and punching power simply dictate how many mistakes a fighter can afford to make, they won’t make him unbeatable. Having previously examined Jon Jones and Georges St. Pierre, it is now the turn of heavyweight monarch, Junior dos Santos.
This week I was honoured to be approached by a couple of truly world class fighters for my insights on their upcoming bouts. This followed the success of my Cain Velasquez: Easy to Hit piece (particularly after Mr. Dos Santos cheekily retweeted it) but I of course cannot deliver a strategy guaranteed to beat a fighter. Every fighter does however have an A game – their go to strategy, and IF a fighter can shut that down the opponent is forced to change their strategy and fight in a way which they perhaps haven’t had to do outside of the gym. There’s no guarantee of a victory, but if a fighter can stop Junior dos Santos from doing the things that Junior dos Santos typically does, he’s got more a good chance of picking up the win.
I have already examined Cigano in a basic light in my Fight Like Dos Santos series – in which I looked briefly at the ways in which Dos Santos uses his right straight to the body and his left hook. Today we’ll talk about many of the great successes of Dos Santos’ game, but we’ll also discuss some of the shortcomings and some of the openings for counter strategy. As Dos Santos is undefeated spare an early defeat to submission – my job is a hard one – and I suspect a great many will flat out refuse to believe that there are any holes in Dos Santos’ striking based simply on his spectacular results.
Fighting on a Line
The first thing to establish is that Dos Santos is a movement based fighter but not one who cuts angles or circles. His movement is far more similar to the karate, fencing or old British boxing footwork of fighting “on a line”. Dos Santos stands in front of his opponent, then moves straight in and straight out – rarely deviating from his line of attack, something that most elite strikers stress as important, rather changing levels vertically. Now of course it has been working wonderfully for Dos Santos because he is built to fight like this and he uses his pulling straight back to walk his opponents into traps.
Cigano’s go to strategy is to stand at range and step in with long, hard straight punches to the body. Body straights and particularly the body jab are not techniques that most fighters train to defend often. The three schools of thought – taking it, parrying it and blocking it – each bring unique problems against someone who routinely uses the jab to the body. If a fighter chooses to take the body jabs and straights against a man who steps in with each punch as well as Dos Santos does that fighter risks injury and will be winded far quicker than if he commits to defending the straights.
Notice against Gabriel Gonzaga that Cigano committed to the body jab throughout the fight. In the bottom right frame Dos Santos feinted a jab to the body and Gonzaga finally reacted by dropping his right elbow – Dos Santos then stepped in with a jab to the face.
Most fighters take the first few body straights that Dos Santos throws – reluctant to respect the body jab or right straight to the body as weapons – but almost everyone he fights begins to lower their elbows and hands eventually – and that is when Dos Santos builds his two and three punch attacks. In his most recent bout, against Frank Mir, Cigano threw the right straight to the body followed by the left hook, and the jab to the body followed by the right hook to the head multiple times. These are simple high – low and low – high combinations but because he has the sound form and actually uses body straights to hurt his opponents, his simple set ups are made far more effective.
If an opponent actually commits to parrying a body jab enormous holes are opened in the defense of the head – more so than if one simply lowered the elbows to block. Even elite level boxers can be lured into bringing their right hand down to parry a body jab, and then their jaw is on full display. Floyd Mayweather, Sugar Ray Robinson and others have used the seemingly harmless body jab to irritate their opponent into opening up better opportunities later in a bout. Mayweather himself fell victim to the mistake of being a perfectionist and attempting to parry Shane Mosley’s jabs to his sternum – exposing himself in the process.
Mayweather himself will often choose to jab the body and follow with a lead hook to the head because that is the side on which the opponent’s hand will be parrying and therefore be away from the jaw – but it’s hard to argue with Mosley’s results with a far more primitive combination.
Frank Mir, despite middling striking technique, did a great job of staying disciplined early – as he attempted to keep his hands high in response to Dos Santos’ body jabs and right straights. Mir soon began to tire of getting hit in the gut at Cigano’s discretion, however, and began to parry with his lead hand – exposing himself for Dos Santos to lean to the outside and bring a right hand through the gap. Mir remembered this at first and got back into position immediately.
1. JDS body jabs, Mir performs a parry with his right hand.
2. Mir immediately brings his right hand up and covers to avoid being punished.
Just moments later, however, Mir was slowing down. Playing a game of pure hand speed is exhausting on defense. This was not simply due to Dos Santos’ speed, which many are keen to overstate, but due to the fact that attempting to parry consistently against combinations is almost impossible. Lyoto Machida is considered the master of parrying strikes in MMA, but he rarely parries a blow unless he is using the parry to land a strike of his own and prevent the opponent from continuing the combination.
1. Mir parries a body jab.
2. JDS comes in with a second body jab.
3. JDS throws a right hand to the head – he leans well off to the left to ensure that his punch is entering on the unguarded side of Mir’s head rather than simply thudding into the arm that Mir still has elevated.
Baiting the Chase
The body straights are Dos Santos’ main method of inflicting damage on offense but they also elicit a chase – which is what Cigano wants as his counter left hook is one of his finest punches. I’m not talking about the counter left hook which he used to drop Gilbert Yvel – swinging from wide out to his side – but the short, chopping punch which is often missed in his bouts.
Notice below how as Dos Santos lands a hard right straight to the body, Gonzaga chases him out. Dos Santos stands far more erect than most heavyweights when in stance and seems to keep his chin high – similar to Lyoto Machida. Having a straight back and the head upright does to a certain extent expose the chin – but it makes movement, particularly backwards, far swifter. Junior dos Santos does far less actual boxing than he does fencing, and his backing up is sublime.
The chase is where Dos Santos can catch his opponents cleanest because a fighter on offense is not so mindful of being hit. The science of knockouts is hazy – but getting hit when you’re not prepared is pretty much the best way to get a better understanding of what being on rubber legs feels like. Junior dos Santos’ counter left hook is so well concealed by his opponents’ charges that it is probably one of those techniques which is easier to see when it misses:
1. Dos Santos comes in behind his right hand, just as against Gonzaga above.
2. Shane Carwin chases Dos Santos as the latter pulls straight back.
3. Dos Santos swings a left hook which brushes Carwin’s nose.
4. but ultimately misses.
Now click this link to see the effectiveness of Dos Santos’ hook when he times his opponent’s chase right.
Notice that Dos Santos lands his right hand – pulls back and catches Carwin with the short left hook as Carwin follows him back. Ending a combination with a left hand is known as “closing the door” – and catching the opponent as they chase you is probably the best thing that can happen when you do this.
Once you realize that the counter left hook is there – you’ll start seeing it everywhere. Here is one that Dos Santos caught Mir with very early on.
And yet again…
This should lead us to conclude that chasing Junior dos Santos is a very, very bad idea.
Beating Dos Santos
All this praise for Dos Santos’ game might have left you wondering how on earth it is possible to beat such a man. If a fighter blocks the body shots he becomes a punching bag, and if a fighter tries to retaliate he runs the risk of lunging into a chopping left hook. In truth the game of Dos Santos is entirely built around his foot work. He stands at great range until he wants to strike and then he lunges in and out again.
It seems to be a recurring theme in my analysis but against good boxers it is downright stupid not to try and destroy their mobility and their base. There are all manner of counter punches that I could advocate against Dos Santos’ chin up body straights, but the level of striking in the heavyweight division is just nowhere near high enough and Dos Santos seems to desire the opponent to counter and chase, so we will set out-gunning Dos Santos aside for another day (perhaps if Alistair Overeem gets a title shot).
The first thing that can be done against the now familiar boxing stance (long, narrow, side on) is to kick the lead leg inward – just as the Diaz brothers and B.J. Penn have repeatedly shown to be weak to. Dos Santos is so light on his feet in fact, and focused on movement, that a couple of the few low kicks landed on him so far have managed to throw him completely off balance.
Notice that Dos Santos doesn’t check low kicks, instead moving back until they fall short. This leaves his lead leg light so that when a kick does connect hard it throws his balance off entirely.
Something that fans often fail to understand that as much as punching power is something that you can be born with, it does conform to the laws of biomechanics. It doesn’t matter how big a puncher someone is – if both of their feet are level or one is off the ground they have nothing to drive off of or onto. A hard punch requires a transfer of weight from one foot to the other.
When a fighter is pressed against the fence and his feet are level he has no punching power, and the same is true when their leg is kicked out to either side. This is the time to pounce on them and hurt them before they regain balance – unfortunately when Gonzaga had success here, or when Rampage had success against Jon Jones with the same kick, they just stared at their respective opponents and then abandoned the tactic altogether.
When Junior dos Santos is on one leg, whether it be from a kick or to check a kick, he doesn’t have the power that he is known for and he is far less dangerous. Similarly, if he eats a good few kicks to the legs, they will swell and he will have difficulty moving his weight around so freely – limiting his power and his evasiveness. Consistently attacking Cigano’s legs seem to be a sound strategy against a man who has rarely taken fights to the ground or kicked with any consistency.
A thought specific to Cain Velasquez, who simply leaves himself too open to counter with his kicks – which are thrown from directly in front of his opponent with his head bolt upright – is to dive straight for the lead leg. Dos Santos is part of the new breed of fighter who like to “feed the hip”. Standing in a long stance, they avoid the power double by simply giving the opponent the single leg and hopping to the fence, using the octagon to support them as they pummel for better position or look for the switch. Jose Aldo and B.J. Penn are the most notable exponents of this style of takedown defence, but Dos Santos showed it off briefly against Frank Mir.
Mir’s ring generalship and wrestling are pretty mediocre, and he was actually able to pick up Cigano’s rear leg rather than his exposed lead leg – but Cain Velasquez with his excellent wrestling pedigree should be able to get a hold of one leg or the other. Expending energy trying to run the pipe and keep JDS down might be a waste of time for Cain, Dos Santos is incredible at getting back to his feet, but Cain Velasquez has shown himself adept at striking in these sorts of in between positions along the fence. Just ask Ben Rothwell. If Velasquez can get the single and use it to take the fight to the fence, he can abandon the takedown and instead begin to abuse Dos Santos with his criminally underused dirty boxing game.
The dirty boxing game is not only Cain’s best bet but also the most self preserving way to fight – it will keep Dos Santos’ feet underneath him so that he can not get the vicious power he is known for, and it requires no head movement on Cain’s part which is good because Cain has shown to get bogged down in this area of the game previously. Where Randy Couture could consistently punch his way into the clinch without getting hurt, Cain has been given a title rematch far too soon to really prove his progress in the area of striking into the clinch – in truth diving into clinches with his arms up and shooting for legs might be his best bet of getting the fight to where he can do the most damage and tire the champion out the most.
Whether Cain can mount any kind of effective offense or he comes in with the same “see what happens” strategy that he had last time, Junior dos Santos is going to prove a hard man to beat. Stay tuned to my SBN blog in the run up to UFC 155 for more pre-event analysis – and the following day for post event breakdowns.
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