UFC

Rivalry fuels dos Santos vs. Velasquez

Is the third time the charm for JDS at UFC 166?
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Mike Chiappetta

Mike Chiappetta has documented the fast-growing sport of mixed martial arts since 2006 for news organizations including SB Nation, NBCSports.com, FIGHT! Magazine, AOL and ESPN. He appears regularly as an analyst on countless television shows and radio programs, including CBS Radio and MMA Beat. Follow him on Twitter.

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One of the long-held beliefs of the fight game is that upon reaching the top, it becomes impossible to retain the same levels of motivation and intensity that were required to get there. Once the goal has been reached and dreams become achieved, the experience can never quite be replicated. There is a uniqueness of it all that cannot be recreated, a moment which allows you to finally inhale accomplishment and fulfillment, and to exhale away a lifetime's worth of stress and strain.

It is a perfectly sensible phenomenon, because from the top, it is not possible to climb, only to tumble downward. The latter outcome is a near certainty. And afterward, there is only the thought of doing it again, of formulating a new plan when you can no longer sneak up on the world and take it by storm.

It is something UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez has already done. Velasquez, once a ruler, once deposed, recaptured the throne at Junior dos Santos' expense last December, becoming a two-time heavyweight champion. That was part two of their rivalry, one that could go on for a few more chapters and perhaps provide the spark of motivation to propel both to a level of greatness they would not have otherwise seen.

It has been a fantastically quick trilogy, taking less than two calendar years to produce the three fights, and in all of that time, neither has been far from the other’s line of vision. Many champions are never fortunate enough to draw a natural peer; dos Santos and Velasquez have each other.

Each rivalry has its own set of dynamics that often hinge upon varying levels of familiarity with each other. For example, Frankie Edgar once memorably said of his seemingly unbreakable link to Gray Maynard, “I’m sick of talking about how sick I am of talking about him.”

That’s not the case for dos Santos, who days before fighting Velasquez, is still as happy and ebullient as ever in discussing the man who has become something of a shadow to him.

“No, I’m not sick of him. Actually I have to tell you, I like it to see Cain Velasquez because at this point he’s the guy I want to beat,” he told FOX Sports of Saturday's UFC 166 rubber match. “Right now he’s the champion. I want the belt again, and he’s really good. He got really good skills. He’s a great heavyweight, a great opponent. I feel really good competing on that level. I feel very nice to be competing at that level against him because that’s what I want. I’m going to fight with the best in this division. I want to fight with the best Cain Velasquez I ever fought and I want to beat the best Cain Velasquez I can beat.”

That would be some feat considering how their last matchup went. In that bout, which took place last December, Velasquez returned to his cyborg ways, knocking dos Santos down with an overhand right less than four minutes into the first round and dominating the rest of the way. For dos Santos, the process of fighting Velasquez at his best was like trying to escape quicksand. He’d make a little bit of progress but then tire and get sucked right back into trouble. Velasquez took him down 11 times and out-struck him by the overwhelming margin of 210-66.

After the fight, when dos Santos returned home to Brazil, he fell into a state of depression, barely leaving his room for about a week. Those memories of the beating and the image of his solitary confinement are motivators.

“This rivalry is important for sure,” he said. “I want to give my best all the time to be better than him.”

A proud man, dos Santos lets a beat pass, then brings up his shadow.

“I’m sure it happens with him, too,” he said. “I think it’s good for both of us. It’s going to bring us to another level. We’re fighting at a very good level, but we’re going to get better because of that. We train hard to beat each other.”

Both of the fights, after all, were one-sided. In 2011, in a fight seen by nearly 9 million people on FOX, dos Santos knocked out Velasquez in just 64 seconds. In 2012, Velasquez romped.

dos Santos believes the fight turned on Velasquez’s first-round heat-seeking right. Afterward, when his corner asked him about it, he didn’t even remember it had happened, and he can only recall parts of the fight from the third round on. But he says his ultimate lesson was focusing on defending Velasquez’s offense instead of firing his own. He ultimately stuffed 22 takedown tries, but still allowed himself to be overwhelmed by Velasquez’s aggression.

“I gave too much space to him,” he said. “All the time, I defended the takedown and then I didn’t put pressure on him. I gave him space. He was walking forward all the time. I think he felt comfortable during the fight. That was my biggest mistake.

“I was trying to avoid the takedown,” he continued. “I was thinking about that. I was waiting for the takedown and then he threw some good punches. He did a great job. You can’t stay thinking about what the other guy can do. You have to think about what you can do. I have enough skills to beat him anywhere. Standup or on the ground. I just have to be confident and fight. In that fight, I didn’t fight.”

With the series now tied, Velasquez and dos Santos think very differently about where it’s headed. Velasquez believes the winner will leave the loser in his past; dos Santos expects them to fight at least one or two more times in the future. Given their ages, he may be right. dos Santos is still just 29; Velasquez is 31. To date, no one has been able to wedge their way in between them in any meaningful way. Alistair Overeem tried but then self-destructed. Daniel Cormier might be able to but instead is turning to 205. Fabricio Werdum and Travis Browne seem like the next ones to take a run at it.

Until someone does, it’s still dos Santos and Velasquez in competition for the ultimate heavyweight.

The experience of winning the first time can never be duplicated, but neither can the experience of defeating a rival. The first time they met they were just opponents. The second time, dos Santos was a champion trying to defend the belt. This time is different. They have both felt each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Even though Velasquez will come in wearing the belt, they are both on even ground. There are no remaining secrets between them.

“I’m very confident in my skills,” dos Santos said. “Right now I feel I’m a better fighter. I got more experience. I’m smarter fighting. So for sure I’m going to be a tougher opponent for him this time.”

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