As talented a fighter as Junior dos Santos has proved to be inside the Octagon, there was always a noticeable defect in his game: He was predictable.
It was no secret that the minute dos Santos stepped inside the cage, punches would start flying. And for a long time, there was nothing his opponents could do about it. They’d just take their beatings like men and collect hefty paychecks for their efforts.
There was nothing any heavyweight could do to prevent dos Santos from using his fast hands, footwork and power to dismantle them. A dos Santos knockout victory had become commonplace. He was so successful at employing this approach that there was no incentive on his part to change it. Besides, toting that UFC heavyweight title belt around served as a constant reminder that he was doing things correctly.
Comfortable with the relative ease in which he was winning UFC bouts, dos Santos prepared for each fight by following the same training camp routine -- hit the pads, spar, and fine-tune his footwork, his head movement and his takedown defense.
Going to the ground in a mixed martial arts fight was an absolute no-no for dos Santos. His prefight strategy never changed: Keep it standing and everything would turn out just fine.
Then he signed to fight Cain Velasquez a second time. Dos Santos entered that fight extremely confident; he had overwhelmed Velasquez in their first meeting -- winning by first-round knockout in November 2011 to capture the UFC title belt.
But the rematch, in December 2012, proved to be very different. Velasquez attacked dos Santos nonstop for five rounds. He hit dos Santos repeatedly in the face with powerful right hands, followed by lefts to the body.
When the final horn sounded, dos Santos was unrecognizable. His face was badly swollen and bloodied. Dos Santos had taken a massive beating in losing his title belt by a lopsided unanimous decision and returned home to ponder what went wrong.
He had trained the way he always did: The sparring sessions were as intense as usual, and his punching power and speed weren’t lacking. There was no reason for dos Santos to believe he would be overmatched by a man he had dominated one year earlier.
But he was overmatched, and, looking back, it was the best thing that could have happened to dos Santos. It was the long overdue wake-up call he needed.
That beating has remained fresh in dos Santos’ mind ever since. It’s as if the rematch happened yesterday. Dos Santos has watched the fight over and over and remembers every detail of the beating he received. And it will be visible in his mind Saturday night when he faces Velasquez a third time at UFC 166 in Houston.
Most fighters would try desperately to erase such a nightmarish experience, but not dos Santos. The former UFC titleholder embraced the outcome of that second meeting and has used it to change his ways.
When dos Santos steps in the cage, his confidence will remain as high as ever. But this time he isn't buoyed by a false sense of security. Dos Santos will face Velasquez this time a better all-around fighter, smarter and, most important, unpredictable.
“You learn more when you lose a fight,” dos Santos told ESPN.com. “I learned a lot from that loss to Cain Velasquez. It was really bad to see myself in that position, getting beat for five rounds. That was very bad for me; I didn’t like it. I won’t let that happen again.
“I was too predictable in the cage. Everybody knew that I was coming in there to knock them out. I always relied on my boxing skills and avoiding the takedown. But one of the things I and my team learned is that we have to use all of our weapons all the time to win a fight.”
Boxing will remain an important part of dos Santos’ fight plan; it remains his greatest advantage inside the Octagon. But he intends to also employ wrestling, jujitsu and Muay Thai -- if need be. That, however, is all the information he is willing to divulge.
Dos Santos is no stranger to wrestling, jujitsu or Muay Thai, he has just failed to use them regularly in his UFC fights. There was not much need for them previously. Velasquez taught him that those disciplines are just as important -- and dos Santos got the message.
“I have more experience now,” dos Santos said. “I learned a lot from my other fights. Now I’m better prepared for my fights, and mentally I am ready.
“I’m feeling very good about this fight. I’ve worked very hard on my strategy, my stand-up skills, my ground skills, all my skills, everything. I’ve trained in every area, all my skills. It’s very important for this moment.
“That fight taught me a lot, especially about my training. I did a lot of things wrong in that fight. I made a lot of mistakes, and I paid the price for that.
“I watched that second fight with Cain a lot. I couldn’t do a lot of things in that fight. I was giving him a lot of space. I can’t let that happen again, I have to put more pressure on him.”
Although dos Santos expects to reclaim the title, he will never return to being the fighter he was before that rematch with Velasquez. At 29 years old, he says he is still growing as a mixed martial artist -- physically and mentally. With each camp, he learns new techniques in all disciplines, including boxing.
Dos Santos changes a little every day. His body continues to grow and get stronger. He is mentally more mature; dos Santos has a better understanding of the fight game now. He is more well-rounded today than he was a year ago.
The former heavyweight champion has developed into a mixed martial artist. He isn’t predictable anymore.