There have been 12 trilogies in UFC history. Only three of those have all been for a UFC championship: Chuck Liddell vs. Randy Couture, Georges St-Pierre vs. Matt Hughes, and Saturday night’s UFC 166 main event between Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos.
Unlike the other two trilogies in that list, dos Santos and Velasquez were groomed from the outset to face one another for championship gold. While the aforementioned greats met at various times of their respective careers, Velasquez, 31, and dos Santos, 29, have long been the fighters to watch and almost unanimously regarded as the future of their division.
In front of a sold out Toyota Center in Houston, these two heavy hitters put on a third fight that was a blueprint of heart, determination and toughness for generations to come.
Round one was a beautiful mix of their first and second fights. As the bell rang, a determined dos Santos rushed the champion with a flurry. Before Velasquez realized what was happening, “Cigano” was drilling him with a bevy of powerful hooks. Velasquez stood on wobbled legs, and it seemed that a repeat of their first fight was playing out in front of us all – a fight that dos Santos won via first-round knockout.
Unlike their first fight, Velasquez weathered the oncoming storm and stood his ground. Reinvigorated and composed, Velasquez pressured his opponent against the cage. At one point, the American Kickboxing Academy standout had a guillotine cinched around the challenger’s neck. However, dos Santos was able to separate and clipped the champion with a slick uppercut during the separation.
The first round was a mix of wild aggression and textbook clinch control for Velasquez, as he was able to stymie the early pressure of dos Santos.
It was a back-and-forth opening five minutes that certainly lived up to the “trilogy” tag line.
Round two was more of the same from the champion, as Velasquez used his All-American collegiate wrestling background to control the still-dangerous Brazilian for the majority of the five minutes.
As the third stanza began, it was obvious that dos Santos needed to muster some offense, as he had most likely lost the first two rounds.
With that in mind, Cigano opened the third with a big haymaker that connected to the side of Velasquez’s head. Velasquez, feeling dos Santos’ power, shot for a takedown, looking to slow the action. After a bit of grinding by Velasquez, the two-minute mark saw the champ floor the challenger with a right hand that was nearly an exact replica of the punch that Cigano finished Velasquez with in their first fight. Dos Santos was sent reeling to the canvas, and Velasquez, smelling victory, rushed in to finish the action.
Velasquez pummeled his longtime foe, looking to do what had escaped him in the past: finish the ultra-tough Brazilian.
With his signature toughness in tow, dos Santos weathered the Mexican American’s brutal onslaught of finishing punches. He stood, hands to his waist against the cage, as Velasquez ripped off sets of lunging hooks.
After the third round, UFC president Dana White even took to Twitter to proclaim his dissatisfaction with the fight not being stopped.
“I’m no doctor, but I have see a lot of men who are too tough for their own good and JDS is one of them. He was out and this should be stopped,” tweeted White.
It was a brutal beating without question. Dos Santos sat in his corner with a swollen face, bloodied, battered and visibly frustrated.
Rounds four and five were a Cain Velasquez clinic in Octagon control. Although dos Santos did his best to stay in the fight – which he did with obvious power shots looming at every corner – Velasquez would simply not be beaten.
Deep into the fifth and final frame, a tiring dos Santos went for a front choke on the shooting Velasquez. As the champion looked to roll out of it, dos Santos’ momentum sent him to the mat, unbalanced, landing head first. He was stunned and in a vulnerable state. Velasquez stood over him threatening to reign down ground and pound, but referee Herb Dean stepped in halting the action at 3:09 of the fifth and final round.
With that, Cain Velasquez had retained his UFC heavyweight championship, and in the process earned the latest knockout stoppage in UFC heavyweight title history.
Post-fight, the victorious Velasquez praised the former champion for being a more than worthy opponent.
“Junior was a lot stronger,” he said of facing dos Santos for a third time. “I tried to beat him to the first punch, but it seemed like he was beating me, so it was kind of a battle with that.”
Velasquez went on to express his frustration with not finishing the Brazilian. “I tried to get mount this time, but it was very hard to get.”
The champion then proceeded to apologize to the adoring crowd, but this was a classic heavyweight showdown that surely did not deserve any need for an apology.
When asked what he tried to improve upon in this fight, after meeting dos Santos twice before, Velasquez replied, “From the last fight… kind of takedown pressure, but throwing better punches. I was trying to throw crisper punches – start beating him to the punch – but he got better as well. It was very hard.”
Although this fight was similar to their second match-up, Velasquez took a bit more damage. In fact, up until the fifth round, it looked as if dos Santos had the power to end the fight at any given moment. And that was something Velasquez was well aware of.
With his second loss to the 31-year-old champion in the books, dos Santos, who was nearly a mirror image of his swollen self after their second encounter, took to the microphone to praise the most dominant heavyweight champion in UFC history.
“I was very okay for this fight. He’s very good. What can I say? He beat me up,” said dos Santos. “He did a great job. Congratulations to him. I’m gonna go back home, train harder, come back, and face him again.”
The funny thing is, despite their last two showdowns, these two have always been the future of the heavyweight division.
Despite Velasquez dishing out two sound beatings in the last two fights, it’s not unreasonable to expect we might see these two warriors in the cage again at some point. Neither is likely to drop to 205 pounds and neither seems to be able to lose to anyone other than each other.
It’s a long road ahead for both, but after tonight, it’s still obvious who the two best – and toughest – heavyweights in the world are.
(Follow @RyanMcKinnell on Twitter)