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UFC 166 Aftermath: Cain Velasquez's path to becoming all-time best is clear

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Cain Velasquez, after his decisive victory over Junior dos Santos in their trilogy fight Saturday night at UFC 166, is not the greatest heavyweight in mixed martial arts history.

Not yet.

But the path has been cleared for the UFC heavyweight champion to eventually claim the title.

At this moment, Fedor Emelianenko still deserves the moniker of greatest heavyweight MMA has ever seen. His lengthy run at the top remains unmatched.

But this sport continues in its rapid evolution. Each generation is better than the previous one. It's no more a knock to call Velasquez better than Randy Couture, say, than to call Couture better than Dan Severn.

And there's never been a heavyweight like Cain Velasquez. Others have had Velasquez's strength. Others have had his wrestling. Others, particularly Emelianenko, have had Velasquez's heart.

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No heavyweights, though, have possessed Velasquez's endless gas tank. And none have put he complete package together the way Velasquez displays every time he steps into the Octagon.

He'll beat you standing in the center of the ring, he'll wreck you in the clinch, and God help you if the fight hits the ground.

Velasquez answered his only career setback -- one that looks increasingly likely to go down in history as the result of a dos Santos lucky punch -- by delivering two of the most brutally efficient beatings we've ever seen. Layered between his dos Santos trilogy fights, he handed Antonio Silva one of the worst short beatings we've ever seen, and had their rematch not been stopped fast, he might have given him another one.

Oh, and while we're at it, he also rendered Brock Lesnar irrelevant and smoked Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira. We're not even bothering listing the other fighters Velasquez ran over on his way up, which contributed to his record nine UFC heavyweight knockouts.

Emelianenko remains the best heavyweight of all-time. You can't deny his longevity. But the later end of his run was bogged down with fights against middleweights, inexperienced seven-footers, and other cupcakes, which left his edge gone when it came time to take on real challenges again. Velasquez won't be fighting any Zulus or opponents half his size any time soon.

Fedor's crown is safe for now. But for the first time, we can credibly entertain the notion that the heavyweight who could take his "all-time best" tag is among us.

UFC 166 quotes

"I don't want this to come out the wrong way, but I always like to say if anybody in his f---ing corner cares about him, please, throw in that towel." -- Dana White, wishing someone in dos Santos' corner would have thrown in the towel.

"One of the things that I love when we talk about Mexican fighters ... that was a Mexican world war in there tonight. These are two guys that keep moving forward and don't stop swinging." -- White's take on Gilbert Melendez vs. Diego Sanchez

"I'm definitely satisfied. Hopefully no more excuses on his part. That's it." -- The closest thing to trash talk we're likely ever going to hear from Velasquez.

Stock up: Gilbert Melendez and Diego Sanchez

With a night to sleep on it, I think Joe Rogan's breathless proclamation that this lightweight battle was the greatest fight of all-time was a bit much. For one thing, it's hard to hold a three-round fight up against a five-round war like Jon Jones vs. Alexander Gustafsson or Dan Henderson vs. Mauricio Rua. Even against other three-rounders, I mean, Chuck Liddell vs. Wanderlei Silva also went 15 minutes, and it lived up to the years of anticipation.

But this bout belongs on the list. And I'm willing to entertain the notion that the third round might have been the greatest round in UFC history.

Going into the fight, conventional wisdom was that Sanchez didn't have the fire to make this the type of crazy brawl for which he's long been known. And while the first two rounds were entertaining, they also clearly went to Melendez.

Then Sanchez dug down and found that extra something, that Diego Sanchez-ness that made him a fan favorite for so long. Round three was five minutes of pure magic. Sanchez upped the ante. Melendez matched him. We held our breath wondering if the doctor was going to stop the fight. Sanchez was cleared, then he nearly finished the fight. Melendez had the heart to find an escape. That the two winged haymakers at each other right up to the horn was a fitting conclusion to one unforgettable round.

Both fighters come out of this as winners. Melendez silenced any remaining doubters and put himself right back into the lightweight title conversation. Sanchez proved himself still relevant, and well, still capable of being Diego Sanchez.

Stock down: Junior dos Santos

There's no joy in writing this one. If you don't come out of last night with respect for the former champ's toughness and his pride, you're probably watching the wrong sport. Same goes for his fighting spirit. It's ironic that Velasquez couldn't finish dos Santos over the course of nine and a half rounds in two fights, but dos Santos basically caused his own downfall in a desperate attempt to pull out the victory against gigantic odds. All the way to the end, JDS was trying to find a path to victory.

But he also took two of the most vicious beatings we've ever seen in the Octagon. You have to wonder if they're the sort that takes years off a fighter's career. Even if they're not, dos Santos is in a tough spot. The way the last two fights with Velasquez panned out means there's no appetite from the public to see a fourth fight between the duo. He's too big to go to light heavyweight. No doubt he'll carry on, but it's hard to avoid the conclusion we may have seen this proud warrior's best days go by.

Good call

There weren't any real moments last night in which the referees or judges exactly bathed themselves in glory. So instead I'm going use this space to praise three fighters making their UFC debuts who justified their hype.

In the evening's opening match, former Shooto 132-pound champ Kyoji Horiguchi shook off a slow first round and scored an impressive second-round finish of Dustin Pague to improve to 13-1. Then Team Alpha Male's Andre Fili came out and smoked Jeremy Larsen in a featherweight fight taken on 10 days' notice. Finally, Jessica Eye scored a tight split decision win over former Strikeforce bantamweight champ Sarah Kaufman. While I personally scored that one 29-28 for Kaufman, it was a close fight and Eye showed tremendous poise by diving right into the division's deep end and going toe-to-toe with one of the women's game most respected fighters.

If Horiguchi, Fili, and Eye had any Octagon jitters, they did a heck of a job hiding them. I look forward to seeing all three in their next fights.

Bad call

The first death in the history of the unified rules, Sam Vasquez in 2007, came under the watch of the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation, for a bout which happened in the very same Toyota Center as UFC 166.

After Saturday's displays of official incompetence, it's not hard to see why.

Start with the job done by local referee Jay Stafin, who sat around and watched both T.J. Waldburger and Shawn Jordan take too much punishment in their knockout losses.

"That knucklehead referee," White said later. "I started screaming at this f--king guy. [Jordan] was getting blasted. I counted six [extra punches]."

And then there was the doctor, the female version of Dr. Nick Riviera, who took a look at dos Santos in the fourth round, who had one eye swollen shut, blood everywhere, and generally looked like Sloth from the Goonies, and promptly declared him fit for more of a beating.

The judges, meanwhile, don't have their fighters health in their hands, but they had a head-scratcher, too. Two judges in the Tim Boetsch-C.B. Dollaway fight saw all three rounds for Boetsch. Consensus as the scorecards were being tallied was that Dollaway took the first, Boetsch the second, and likely Dollaway the third (though you could make a case for Boetsch's submission attempts at the end). With the Dollaway point deduction (which came after a second eye poke, but should have happened after the first, more flagrant one), that would have left the fight a 28-28 draw. But two judges came out of that seeing it 30-26 Boetsch.

I'll keep the job done by Texas officials at UFC 166 in mind next time Gov. Rick Perry appears on my TV screen here in California in commercials bragging about the lack of regulation in his state.

Fight I'd like to see next: Gilbert Melendez vs. the Anthony Pettis-Josh Thomson winner

I know I've harped on this more than once, but Melendez should have gotten the nod against Ben Henderson in their lightweight title fight in April. I was surprised that night when White didn't grant him an immediate rematch. After going out and putting on one of the year's best fights last night, Melendez should be in position for a second crack at the title. Is that fair to TJ Grant? Not necessarily, but nor was it fair that Grant's bout with Gray Maynard was elevated to a No. 1 contender's fight to begin with. Whether it's a chance to mix it up with "Showtime" or a fourth fight with his most familiar rival, I'm down to see "El Nino" fight either.