Junior dos Santos would love a rematch with Cain Velasquez. But he won’t be rooting for him to win Saturday night.
The former UFC heavyweight title-holder would like to see his fellow Brazilian Antonio (Bigfoot) Silva pull off the big upset of the man who stripped him of his belt in the UFC 160: Velasquez vs. Bigfoot 2 main event in Las Vegas.
“I would love a rematch with Cain, but in this fight I’m rooting for my friend Bigfoot. I think he deserves it, is capable, and I’ll be cheering for him,” dos Santos said on a conference call last week.
That may go against his self-interest, because many expect the two men who fought each other for the belt twice in the past two years – splitting the series – will face off again in a rubber match should both emerge victorious as expected in Saturday’s final two fights. Surely dos Santos would prefer another shot at the belt in which he can also avenge his loss to Velasquez – as opposed to having to fight a friend and countryman in Silva.
But just the fact that a win Saturday over the streaking Mark Hunt could earn him that title shot is encouraging to dos Santos, who is 9-1 in the UFC with his only loss to Velasquez in his last outing in December. However, it isn’t the only thing driving him.
"It’s a motivation, but I don’t think about that right now. I’m focused on my opponent Hunt," dos Santos said.
JDS had better be focused on Hunt and not overlooking the man who is on one of the most surprising runs in UFC history. The 39-year-old Hunt has found a resurgence in his career that didn’t look likely three years ago.
Hunt made his Octagon debut in September 2010 while on a five-fight losing streak. (How often does someone get a shot at the UFC with that kind of record?) At that non-descript UFC 119 fight in Indianapolis, he proceeded to get submitted in just over a minute by Sean McCorkle, a fighter who was also making his UFC debut and is no longer with the organization after going on to lose his next two fights.
The UFC’s leash wasn’t quite as tight back then, and Hunt was granted another fight in his own backyard in Sydney, Australia. He took full advantage of the opportunity; Hunt knocked out Chris Tuchscherer in the first round at UFC 127, then won a decision over Ben Rothwell at UFC 135 before back-to-back TKOs of Cheick Kongo and Stefan Struve in Saitama, Japan.
Now he is back in the U.S. and ready to face the biggest challenge of his career by far in the former champion dos Santos. If Hunt continues his run, he could be the one spoiling the party for a Cain vs. JDS 3.
"If I can beat Junior, that should put me in the No. 1 spot," Hunt said. "I can’t think of any reason why it wouldn’t."
It won’t be easy by any means. Dos Santos has never been knocked out, so Hunt may have to rely on other parts of his game. The good news is, Hunt is difficult to stop himself, not to mention to wrestle to the ground, as the "Super Samoan" ranks among the top-10 in UFC history in takedown defence (at 85 per cent, he’s No. 7).
Of course, dos Santos has a few stats on his side, too. He ranks in the top 10 in knockdowns landed in his UFC career with nine, so that may be the way JDS can get the fight to the mat and try to dominate from there.
Dos Santos also appears on two other UFC record lists: He’s No. 6 in strikes landed per minute (5.51) and No. 4 in strike differential (2.73).
But guess who leads both of those lists? Velasquez (6.37 and 4.76, respectively). Dos Santos offers a possible explanation for their mutual success.
"What sets me and Cain apart is our speed," dos Santos said. "We’re both fast for the division. He has great cardio going for him too, but we are separated from the rest of the division."
But that doesn’t mean dos Santos believes he’s the only one who can dethrone his nemesis.
"I’m not sure that I’m the only one who can beat Cain, but I know I’m one of the people who can," dos Santos added. "I’m sure we’ll fight many more times. There will be more Velasquez vs. Dos Santos or Dos Santos vs. Velasquez fights because we are at another level."
Velasquez is also No. 6 in significant strike accuracy (57 per cent), meaning both he and Dos Santos appear in three UFC top 10s in striking categories, while their respective opponents appear in none. (Silva hasn’t competed in the requisite five UFC fights to be eligible, but this incredibly nifty graphic shows the distinct advantages each favourite holds over his opponent in power, accuracy and pace.)
It seems inevitable that Velasquez and dos Santos will meet again some time down the line. But Silva and/or Hunt have the chance -- however statistically unlikely it may be -- to make it so that it’s later rather than sooner.