The degree to which Junior dos Santos will own the heavyweight division is traced directly to this: Can he, when pressed to do so, fight on the floor?
He says he can. People who have trained with the new UFC champion say the same. We just haven't seen it in action because he hasn't found it necessary yet. And based on the way he's talking, it sounds like, regardless of who wins UFC's main event on Dec. 30 (a clash between giants Brock Lesnar and Alistair Overeem for a title shot against dos Santos), the answer could be revealed very soon.
"I don't want to fight on the ground," dos Santos told ESPN Brasil. "I prefer to fight stand up. I prefer to use my boxing fighting, so that's what I try to do in all my fights. But [in] my next fight, [if] I think I can win the fight on the ground, I will try to do jiu-jitsu with my opponent."
That's an interesting way of phrasing things.
It doesn't take a master game planner to recognize Lesnar will try to force dos Santos to his back. So would the 27-year-old Brazilian want to go to the ground against the house-sized wrestler because he envisions it’s his best chance to win? Likely not, particularly because he'd probably have to play guard the entire time. The new UFC champion's best path to beating Lesnar is standing and punching the American in the head. Everyone knows that.
So what about his quote?
If dos Santos believes he needs to go to the ground, is that a concession that Overeem, a K-1 champion, is too dangerous to strike with? If so, dos Santos could be sending several messages. This is how I read it. First, his style of fighting is not determined by ego. He clearly wants to stand. It's where he's best. But he's not going out trying to belabor the point. Second, he's content doing what it takes to walk out of the cage victorious, nothing else. That's a promising sign for the talented young champion. Third, dos Santos has always talked about being "ready to fight everywhere." He might just actually mean it.
Again, he'll have to answer this question eventually. If not Lesnar, then someone else because the heavyweight division is teeming with potent ground assaults. Lesnar, for reasons explained above, is the front runner to test dos Santos on the floor. However based upon ESPN.com's heavyweight rankings and deductive reasoning, there are four potential foes not named Lesnar who could challenge dos Santos' grappling resolve.
Let's not forget the man dos Santos knocked out in 64 seconds. Velasquez failed to wrestle the Brazilian earlier this month and it cost him dearly. It would be an epic failure if Velasquez stood and traded with dos Santos in the rematch -- you have to figure they'll meet again sometime in 2012. It would be interesting indeed to watch Velasquez challenge dos Santos with a wrestle-first mindset.
Maybe the most accomplished heavyweight grappler in MMA, Barnett would surely pose major problems for dos Santos on the floor. Unlike Lesnar, Barnett is not a take down-and-hold threat. He's a take down, beat down and submit-if-it's-there kind of threat. If Barnett defeats Daniel Cormier and then makes his way into the UFC, neither being guaranteed of course, the man who once held the distinction of being the youngest heavyweight champion in UFC history would jump to the top of the list of the most serious threats to dos Santos’s reign.
Yet another grappler whose speciality is submission rather than position. Mir is not a great wrestler, but if you go to the floor with the guy you're asking for trouble. I don't care how advanced dos Santos's jiu-jitsu game is, he'd need to endure a serious examination against Mir. With Mir fighting dos Santos's mentor, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, for a second time on Dec. 10 in Toronto, there might just be a great story line built in too. Remember, Mir dismantled Nogueira, who by all accounts wasn't close to 100 percent when they fought in 2008, leading to a second round technical knockout.
The darkhorse. Cormier is unbeaten in nine fights. If he manages to defeat Josh Barnett there will be calls for him to fight the best in the division. The former U.S. Olympic wrestling captain seems undersized, but what he lacks in height and weight he makes up for with speed and technique. This is Cain Velasquez's wrestling coach we're talking about. He can put anyone on their back.