The UFC heavyweight title picture seems to be in a constant state of flux, but two of the promotion’s longest tenured big men, Ben Rothwell and Junior dos Santos, took center stage on Sunday, trying to secure a slot at the top of the heap.
Rothwell entered the UFC Fight Night 86 main event in Zagreb Arena in Croatia looking to secure his fifth consecutive victory and stake his claim to be the top contender in the division. Having worn the heavyweight belt in the past, dos Santos, entering the fight in the midst of a 2-3 run, was mostly looking to keep his head above water.
The fight opened with Rothwell lumbering forward and shifting stances frequently. He didn’t mount much offense, however, as dos Santos did a good job staying just outside of Rothwell’s reach advantage. The former champion would then dart in and out, landing the occasional overhand right, but as the first round wore on, dos Santos did some good work with his straight right and left jab to Rothwell’s body, trying to wear the bigger man down.
In round two, dos Santos started to become more and more effective with his attacks to the body, which began to slow Rothwell. As Rothwell slowed, dos Santos began mixing in more attacks to the head, leaving Rothwell bloodied and with a swollen right eye by the end of the frame.
As the fight wore on, Rothwell’s loss to find any sort of meaningful counter to dos Santos’ strategy was apparent.
Increasing the frequency of his jabs by the minute, dos Santos continuously chipped away at Rothwell, leaving him bewildered.
As his jabs continued to find a home, dos Santos found greater openings for the rest of his arsenal, unleashing some heavy combinations that left Rothwell’s face a mangled mess by the final horn of the fight.
Although fighters are frequently cautioned not to leave the fight in the hands of the judges, it worked well for dos Santos in Croatia. The judges unanimously awarded him every round.
“I think we did the right strategy because you can’t go against a guy that size. He’s too big,” said a smiling dos Santos after the fight. “So I used my footwork to move a lot and throw some hard punches on him and use my boxing because guys, forget about jiu-jitsu and wrestling, I’m a boxing guy.”
The loss certainly slowed Rothwell’s progression, but such a masterful performance by dos Santos put the Brazilian immediately back in the thick of the heavyweight division.