LAS VEGAS -- Junior dos Santos could have played it safe.
The former UFC heavyweight champion was well on his way to a 30-27 decision victory over Mark Hunt last night in the co-main event of UFC 160 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.
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It would have been easy for the former champion to ... well, not exactly coast through the closing moments of the fight, since even a fatigued Hunt is still capable of a home-run punch in the blink of an eye. But dos Santos could have stayed cautious and sealed his chance at a trilogy fight with Cain Velasquez by running out the clock.
Instead, dos Santos went for broke, finishing Hunt in the fight's final minute with the clubhouse leader for knockout of the year. A featherweight delivering a spinning heel kick is one thing. A 6-foot-4, 239-pound man who's already had knee surgery is something entirely different.
"I trained [the kick] a lot in my gym, all the time," dos Santos said. "I train kicks in the gym, but I train everything: Wrestling, jiu-jitsu, Muay Thai. I never felt very confident to do that during a fight. Normally, my hands work. Tonight, I saw the moment to throw the kick, and I did, and it brought me to victory."
The emphatic finish adds a level of heat to the Velasquez-dos Santos trilogy bout in a way a decision victory wouldn't have. As the third round unfolded, Twitter was already beginning to fill with comments that dos Santos looked slow and not quite his old self. Maybe that would get a decision against Hunt, but it wouldn't cut the mustard against a cardio freak like Velasquez. That line of commentary was stopped dead in its tracks when dos Santos put Hunt to sleep.
The knockout was the perfect finish to precisely the type of performance dos Santos needed to show in his first fight back after the brutal beating he took from Velasquez back at UFC 155. Some fighters become gun shy and never recover after the shellacking dos Santos took. Instead, dos Santos took everything Hunt could dish out, and then finished one of the toughest tough guys in a sport full of them.
The knockout served as a reminder of the power dos Santos displayed in win over Velasquez in their first meeting, the one in which he took the title. Sure, Velasquez made adjustments and won the second fight in convincing fashion, but dos Santos' resilience in brushing off the loss is proof he's ready to up the ante.
With Velasquez following JDS' victory with a swift finish of Antonio Silva, all the ingredients are in place for a blockbuster.
"Junior dos Santos proved himself big time tonight," UFC president Dana White said. "I wondered what would happen if he stood in front of Mark Hunt and took those big shots. I actually thought Junior would come out and shoot and take this thing to the ground right away. Much respect to Junior dos Santos. He stood in the pocket, he stood in there and exchanged big punches. He has an unbelievable chin and unbelievable power. ... Cain has an awesome chin. And in that second fight, I didn't think Cain would stand up with Junior, and he did and hurt him with punches. This is what I'm talking about. When you talk about a trilogy between two heavyweights, this is a trilogy."
UFC 160 quotes
"My way of thinking is that the same that applies to athletes who are penalized when they do something wrong or illegal, should also apply to referees when they do something wrong. They, too, should be penalized." -- Antonio Silva, reacting to what he believed was a bad stoppage.
"I love the idea of penalizing referees. That would be awesome. That's the best Idea I've heard in a long time." -- White's response to Silva.
"The ref came in [before the fight] and he told me that anything to the ear was all good, so that's what I tried to do." -- Velasquez, on whether any of the punches in his finishing flurry against "Bigfoot" were illegal.
"An ugly wrestling clinic." -- White's take on Khabib Nurmagodemov's unanimous-decision win over Abel Trujillo. Nurmagodemov's 21 takedowns set a UFC single-fight record, besting Sean Sherk's record of 16, which was done over five rounds.
Stock up: T.J. Grant
Last month, I was pretty vocal in saying that I wasn't a fan of the notion T.J. Grant deserved to be in position for a title shot if he won against Gray Maynard. Unlike some of my media brethren, who do 180-degree turns without bothering to acknowledge their previous stance, I have no problem admitting I was wrong, wrong, wrong about Grant.
How can I deny Grant after a performance like that against a fighter as tough as Maynard? Maynard showed Grant no respect in the way he came right at Grant. And boy, did he make Maynard pay for that approach. The first-round finish marked five straight wins for Grant, utilizing a style that just might be able to push Benson Henderson out of his comfort zone.
When push comes to shove, I'm still ranking Gilbert Melendez No. 2 at lightweight, because I think he won his fight with Henderson last month. But it would be foolish not to acknowledge Grant is as worthy as anyone for a title shot.
Stock down: Antonio Silva
Where do you go from here if you're "Bigfoot?" Silva has fought the current heavyweight champion twice. Silva's loss to Velasquez on Saturday wasn't as bloody this time around as the first fight, but Velasquez finished him quicker than he did the first time.
Sure, the stoppage may have been a bit quick, and at least one of Cain's punches did, in fact, hit "Bigfoot" flush on the back of the head, but does anyone really doubt the fight would have finished any differently if Mario Yamasaki let things continue?
Anyway, Silva's problems are twofold: 1. He barely makes 265, so it's not like he can move to another weight class. 2. He's too good to call a gatekeeper -- no one who beats Fedor Emelianenko and Alistair Overeem is a "gatekeeper" -- but he is a spoiler in the division. The UFC is going to be hard-pressed to find someone who can compete with Velasquez and dos Santos. They're going to have to go through Silva to do it. But as long as Velasquez and dos Santos are the division's top dogs, Silva won't reap the benefits if he does knock off a potential contender. It's a tough spot to be in.
Good call: Mike Pyle-Rick Story scoring
The second round of the undercard fight between welterweights Pyle and Story should be mandatory viewing for prospective judges, as it was a textbook case of how a fighter can win a round while spending a majority of it in bottom position.
Story gassed himself out late in the first round in an attempt to finish a downed Pyle. Once the fight hit the ground in the second round, Pyle got Story into a tight Kimura and nearly finished the fight. Story escaped, but he did little with his top position beyond taking a breather. Meanwhile, Pyle was active from the bottom, constantly looking for submission attempts. Oh, and he outstruck Story in the round 35-16, according to FightMetric.
Pyle's performance from the bottom was the difference in a fight in which Story clearly took the first round and Pyle the third. That two of three Nevada judges recognized this was a pleasant surprise.
Bad call: Denis Bermudez-Max Holloway scoring
The evil twin of the judge who doesn't recognize good work on the ground is the one who scores a round in favor of a fighter based on a single late takedown and nothing else. Such scoring, by two judges, appears to have been the difference in Denis Bermudez's split decision win over Max Holloway.
By most accounts, Holloway won the first round and Bermudez the third. In the second, according to FightMetric, Holloway landed 28 significant strikes to Bermudez's 18. Holloway also stuffed two of Bermudez's three takedown attempts in the round. But Bermudez hit his last one in the round's waning seconds.
According to MMADecisions.com, 11 of 11 media members scoring the fight in real time, myself included, scored the bout 29-28 for Holloway. But two of the three opinions that count were swayed by the takedown and gave Bermudez the decision. Holloway refused to make excuses afterwards, but he should have gotten the victory.
Fight I want to see next: Glover Teixeira vs. the Dan Henderson-Rashad Evans winner
All four of Glover Teixeira's UFC fights have come across as a man among boys. Part of this was due to big-name fighters avoiding Teixeira due to his reputation (credit Quinton "Rampage" Jackson for at least stepping to the plate), part of it was timing, part of it was injuries (Teixeira was originally slated to fight Ryan Bader last night). After Teixeira smoked a tough James Te Huna last night, the fact he needs to be fighting one of the big boys can no longer be ignored. With Jon Jones out for the foreseeable future and Alexander Gustafsson and Lyoto Machida both eyeing one another, Teixeira vs. the winner of the UFC 161 main event seems to make sense, both from a timing perspective and a pecking-order perspective.