HeavyweightsJunior dos Santos (17-3) vs Alistair Overeem (39-14)
THE MATCHUP: After his stunning, 64-second knockout of then-champion Cain Velasquez in 2011, dos Santos seemed destined for real greatness. Since then he has fought only five times, and all but one of those fights has been something of a war. Dos Santos’ face was shockingly disfigured after his 2012 rematch with Velasquez, but his swollen, bloody mask is par for the course these days. Perhaps the two losses to Velasquez, each representing one of the most brutally one-sided beatings in MMA history, took something out of dos Santos; or perhaps the muscle he packed on for the rubber match has reduced the speed that once made him such a dangerous heavyweight. Whatever the cause, dos Santos is no longer the man who stormed through the heavyweight division four years ago.
Instead, dos Santos seems to bank heavily on his power. He spent the majority of his fight with Stipe Miocic standing with his back to the fence -- an awful habit he has never been able to break -- while winging full-body counters as Miocic came after him. To his credit, many of these landed, but dos Santos was forced to absorb plenty of punishment in his own right, with no clear idea of how to improve his position. He just waited for openings and swung at them.
Overeem has bounced back from his own set of losses very differently. A surging Ben Rothwell provided a bump in the road, but otherwise Overeem has put together a nice outside kickboxing game under the tutelage of Greg Jackson. Always light on his feet for a big man, Overeem moves around his opponents at range, spearing them with long jabs and occasional kicks. Overeem is still hittable and, even worse, fragile, but his new style seems better suited to hide those flaws.
It seems doubtful that Overeem will be able to take down dos Santos. Even after rounds of beating, Velasquez himself could never manage to hold down the Brazilian for long. Still, Overeem’s grappling is an ace up his sleeve, and his skills in the clinch should allow him to mix up things and break dos Santos’ rhythm.
THE ODDS: dos Santos (-352), Overeem (+286)
THE PICK: The parameters in this fight seem pretty clear; it is Overeem’s speed and fragility versus dos Santos’ power and durability. Either Overeem racks up points from range and works dos Santos in the clinch to take a decision or “Cigano” clubs the Dutchman on the ear and puts him to sleep. All other outcomes seem distinctly unlikely. Two years ago, I would have taken dos Santos without question, but the former heavyweight champion is no longer the lightning fast out-fighter that crushed Velasquez and outstruck Mark Hunt. By the same token, Overeem is no longer the reckless slugger that was outlasted by Travis Browne. Shockingly, Overeem seems to be the one still getting better, while dos Santos seems destined to continue his downward spiral. Either man could still surprise us, but I have to pick Overeem by unanimous decision.
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