Young lions who appear to be a division’s heir apparent, or even its present tense, attempt to overthrow an established incumbent who many think might be growing a bit long in the tooth. It is a scenario that has played itself out in combat sports time and time again, with widely divergent results.
Some budding future superstars take more than one bite at the apple to get it right. One such example was the rise to prominence of Georges St-Pierre. He was the universally regarded heir apparent to the welterweight throne in 2004 when he first squared off with long-reigning champion Matt Hughes at UFC 50. The champion’s experience overcame the challenger’s physical and tread-wear advantages that night. GSP emphatically turned the tides two years later when he scored a dominant victory at UFC 65.
Yet other champions in the making need just one opportunity to live up to the hype. Brock Lesnar’s second-round stoppage over all-time great Randy Couture at UFC 91 vividly demonstrates that point. Lesnar, who had a mere three professional fights under his belt, threw experience and accolades out the window and beat the most decorated fighter in the history of the promotion en route to his first heavyweight championship.
Cain Velasquez is viewed by many as the future of the heavyweight division. He was held in that regard when he made his UFC debut, which was several months before Lesnar won the title. In fact, head trainer Javier Mendez has been talking about the former collegiate wrestler as the next great heavyweight since shortly after Velasquez walked through the doors at the American Kickboxing Academy, one of the top mixed martial arts gyms in the country.
Well, the rubber meets the road for Velasquez on Saturday night (Sunday in Australia). The training wheels are officially coming off. Slap on whatever other cliché one wants to use to describe his first venture into the world of MMA’s elite, because he is going to fight one of the greatest heavyweights to ever walk the earth, former PRIDE and interim UFC heavyweight champion Antonio Rodrigo “Minotauro” Nogueira.
Minotauro is without question a living legend in the fight world. From surviving a pile driver delivered by a human muscle who outweighed him by more than 100 lbs at PRIDE Shockwave (Bob Sapp), to taking a two round beating from Tim Sylvia before pulling guard and choking him out in the third at UFC 81, to coming back from a purported athletic grave to easily handle Couture at UFC 102, Minotauro’s career has been one of technical brilliance, unbreakable spirit and elite-level success. Yet, some wonder whether the excess mileage on the Brazilian’s almost-34-year-old body means that he is on the downside of a brilliant career, rather than at the top of his game.
Velasquez undoubtedly wants Minotauro to answer that very question on Saturday night in the main event of UFC 110 in Sydney, Australia.
Once the referee signals for the action to get underway, Velasquez needs to use his youth to his advantage if he wants to survive the toughest test of his career. That means he must use his speed and deep gas tank to set a pace that his somewhat older foe cannot sustain for three rounds.
Velasquez is an extremely skilled striker, particularly for someone who picked up the discipline only a few years ago after a long, successful amateur wrestling career. He needs to use those skills to try and outfox Minotauro on the feet by fighting his way inside and forcing furious exchanges while looking to repeatedly touch his opponent’s chin with left hooks and big right hands.
Velasquez cannot stand on the outside and fire one-two combinations, because Minotauro is a better boxer, so he will likely get picked apart in that scenario. The AKA prodigy’s jab is good but not great. His ability to stand on the outside and slip-counter an opponent’s jab is a bit better than average. Good and better than average won’t get it done against a great fighter like Minotauro. Thus, Velasquez needs to stick to his core standup strengths—left hooks to the body and kicks to just about anywhere.
Body shots are one of the most underutilized weapons in MMA. It is a dangerous weapon to use against a top Thai fighter due to the threat of knee strikes. Minotauro is not one of those guys. His standup game is very much a straightforward boxing attack, so Velasquez should feel comfortable fighting him like a boxer, which means countering the jab with left hooks to the body.
The key to doing significant damage with left hooks to the body is throwing them from the proper distance and with the proper hip pivot. To do that, he should slip Minotauro’s jab to his own left, which will set his weight on his left side; fire with his hips, which will allow him to generate maximum power; and then dig the resulting left hook into Minotauro’s ribs or liver.
Anyone who has witnessed Velasquez hit the heavy bag understands the kind of carnage he can cause with left hooks to the body. Trust me, if Velasquez lands a few fully committed hooks to Minotauro’s ribs or liver, it will slow down the former champion and sap a lot of his strength. And that will open the door for the rest of his standup game.
One thing that few fans realize is that Velasquez might have the best high kick in the division outside of a guy named Cro Cop. His kicking prowess remains somewhat of a secret because the former wrestler hasn’t mustered up the confidence to throw them with real conviction in his UFC career. But again, talk to anyone who has seen him in the gym and they will agree that this guy can chop down a mature sequoia with his kicks.
Minotauro is a guy who is susceptible to kicks because he tends to keep his weight forward like a boxer. Leading with kicks, though, isn’t always the best approach. It opens the door for counter right hands, which is a punch that Minotauro throws very well. Velasquez will find more success if he finishes his punches with kicks to the legs, body and head. The preceding punches will prevent his opponent from fully focusing on defending the kicks, which opens the door for all sorts of fun combinations—double jab, outside leg kick; lead right, left hook, kick to the head; counter left hook, kick to the body. And Velasquez is athletic enough to pull off just about all of them.
Whatever his approach on the feet, the Mexican-American heavyweight sensation needs to remain very active and force Minotauro to fight at a very high pace. Again, the former PRIDE and UFC champion has been in the fight game for a long time and he has a TON of miles on the engine, so it is more likely that he will wear down, rather than the younger, fresher Velasquez, from a torrid pace.
The one thing that Velasquez should avoid at all costs during the fight is taking the action to the ground. Only guys with the best submission defense dare tempt their fate with a ground-and-pound attack against Minotauro. We don’t have any evidence that Velasquez’s submission defense is to that level, and I’m not sure that this is the time to try and figure that out because Minotauro is arguably the best heavyweight submission artist in the history of the sport (Frank Mir probably wants to put me in a gogoplata right now; I digress).
If Velasquez is foolish enough to shoot for a takedown, Minotauro will momentarily praise the heavens while he succumbs to the transition and quickly looks for a guillotine choke. If Velasquez avoids that disaster, Minotauro will then look for a sweep so that he can put the wrestler where he is the most uncomfortable—on his back. Velasquez may be working his jiu-jitsu under Dave Camarillo, but he is not known as someone who yet embraces fighting from his back.
Saturday shouldn’t be the night that he tries to change that reputation because Minotauro is a monster from the top. He fires brutal ground-and-pound strikes that can eventually lead to a stoppage, though the primary purpose of the fisticuffs is to create an opening for a submission. Any mistake by his foe during the rainstorm of punches, whether it is flailing with an arm or giving up his back, will lead to a quick stoppage, probably by choke.
Minotauro won’t be the least bit concerned if is unable to score a sweep, because his guard is as dangerous as his top game. Arm bars and triangle chokes are the most likely fight-ending holds from Minotauro’s guard, though a guillotine choke during the transition is an equal possibility.
Suffice to say that I don’t give Velasquez much of a chance on the ground against Minotauro. I actually don’t give many fighters much of a chance on the ground against him. The problem, however, is that the Brazilian doesn’t have the wrestling ability to force the action to the ground on a whim against a wrestler like Velasquez. Minotauro must instead force his opponent to want to take him down by scoring shots on the feet or otherwise pull guard after distracting his foe with punches. Either way, punches will be his key.
As mentioned, Minotauro is an excellent boxer, one with far more polished skills than Velasquez, especially on the outside. He throws a very straight, sharp jab that tends to find its mark more often than not. He also has a good right hand—nothing that people should fear in terms of lights-out power, but solid and effective.
Minotauro knows that he will win a boxing match with Velasquez. But, alas, this is not boxing. Thus, he needs to be mindful of his opponent’s kickboxing prowess and explosiveness by not sitting in the pocket for longer than necessary. A perfect opening round for Minotauro, assuming no ground fighting, would be mixing 20-plus jabs with a dozen one-two combinations and a few lead right hands.
It will become very evident early in the fight if Velasquez will keep his composure while getting punched in the face by Minotauro. His natural response is to shoot for a takedown, rather than firing back. If Velasquez fires back, Minotauro should be mindful of not engaging in a slugfest with his younger, stronger foe and circle out to his left to reset the action. He should keep doing that until Velasquez resorts to taking the action to the ground.
Assuming the elite wrestler survives the first trip to the ground, the game plan for Minotauro changes. It goes from keeping the action on the outside to walking down his opponent and pressuring him at every opportunity to force a panic takedown attempt.
At the end of the day, the young overthrowing the old is part of the natural order of things. It isn’t a surprise, therefore, that Vegas oddsmakers have dubbed Velasquez the betting favorite. But I don’t see this fight that way.
I actually don’t see Minotauro as the aging ex-champion with limited shelf time at this point in his illustrious career. Instead, I see him as an elite heavyweight poised to make another run at a championship. I see this as a bout between two elite athletes fighting at their physical peak—one with more athleticism and greater potential; the other with better technique and more experience.
Who is going to win? I like Minotauro to pull off the upset, probably via submission. Styles make fights, and I think that Velasquez is well tailored for Minotauro.
• 27 years old
• 6’1, 240 lbs
• 7-0 overall (5-0 UFC)
• Only one fight lasted the distance (UD over Cheick Kongo at UFC 99 on June 13, 2009)
• Current layoff is 119 days (TKO2 over Ben Rothwell at UFC 104 on October 24, 2009)
• Longest UFC layoff is 203 days (TKO1 over Jake O’Brien at UFC Silva vs. Irvin on July 19, 2008, until TKO2 over Denis Stojnic at UFC Fight Night Lauzon vs. Stephens on February 9, 2009)
• First fight against a current or former champion
Antonio Rodrigo “Minotauro” Nogueira
• 33 years old
• 6’3, 240 lbs
• 32-5-1, 1 NC (21-4, 1 NC in the UFC/PRIDE)
• Won 4 of last 5 fights
• Current layoff is 175 days (UD over Randy Couture at UFC 102 on August 29, 2009)
• Longest UFC/PRIDE layoff is 329 days (SUB3 over Tim Sylvia at UFC 81 on February 2, 2008, until defeating Couture at UFC 102)
• 7-5, 1 NC against 9 current or former UFC/PRIDE champions or tournament winners
• Former PRIDE Heavyweight Champion (UD over Heath Herring at PRIDE 13 on November 3, 2001)
• Former UFC Interim Heavyweight Champion