Stipe Miocic and Junior dos Santos: What Has Changed?

PHOENIX, AZ - DECEMBER 13: (R-L) Junior Dos Santos of Brazil congratulates Stipe Miocic after their heavyweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at the U.S. Airways Center on December 13, 2014 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

When Stipe Miocic and Junior dos Santos first faced off back in 2014, people grumbled about the matchup. Dos Santos was the former heavyweight champion. He had demolished all opponents placed in front of him with exception of the then champion, Cain Velasquez, and even then he had handed Velasquez his only loss on the way to losing the trilogy. Miocic meanwhile was an up and coming prospect who less than two years previously had been knocked out by Stephan Struve. People didn’t feel that Miocic had done enough to earn a shot at the former champion, and that Dos Santos was being set up for an easy win.

Cut to 2017, and Miocic is the current undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. He is undefeated since the fight with dos Santos, and is currently riding a four fight winning streak with finishes over the likes of Mark HuntFabricio Werdum, and Alistair Overeem. He is being hailed by many as the future of the division. Dos Santos meanwhile is 1-1 since the Miocic fight, with that loss coming by way of knockout to Overeem, who Miocic finished in the first round.

Dos Santos is now the underdog coming in to this fight. This is even though he actually won their first encounter. The question is, what has changed? Not in terms of career narratives that so often drive betting lines. Stylistically, has either man moved away from the fighter they were in the first bout? To understand that we must first look at their fight and how it played out.

Miocic vs. Dos Santos 1: A Recap

The story of the first fight was one of tactics and strategy. Tactics are the specific techniques a fighter uses, strategy is the overall goal the tactics are used to achieve. Miocic vs. dos Santos 1 is a fantastic example of how a tactical advantage can fail if not applied in a strategical sense.

Tactical Advantages for Dos Santos:

The tactical battle of this fight was dos Santos’ set ups for the left hand against Miocic’s counter right and reactive takedowns.

All throughout the fight, dos Santos diligently worked the body with body jabs. While not a hurting technique, they do what they are intended to do: force a reaction. A normal fighters guard does not have an easy answer to the body jab. Unless you want to eat it all night, you have to change things up. Miocic has always held a pretty loose guard, and he likes to parry punches. A few stiff jabs to the sternum and Miocic was reaching down to parry the body jab with his right hand. As soon as he had him reaching, dos Santos would fake the jab only to come upstairs and clatter a hook around Miocic’s reaching right hand.

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Dos Santos has always been a minimalist of a boxer. He doesn’t like 5-6 punch combinations or fancy footwork. What he excels at is set ups. Building off his body jab, he will get opponents moving their hands around, then look to smash a cinder block of a hand into the gap created.

Dos Santos has always kept his lead hand low. Not only does it allow him to flick jabs upwards from an unconventional angle, it also gives him an easy underhook when stuffing takedowns. However dos Santos would bring his lead hand back low even when he was in punching range. It wasn’t long before Miocic realized that if he ate the jab, he could fire his own right hand over the top and he would have a pretty good chance of landing it.

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Miocic also used the threat of takedowns spectacularly. Routinely ducking the jab, he would drive in to dos Santos’ hips and drive the fight to the fence. Ducking a body jab is no easy feat, but even if he ate it Miocic would often shoot for the hips anyway, looking to tie Dos Santos up.

Strategic Advantages

While the tactical battle was one of give and take, the strategic one was won and lost by Miocic alone. While his right hand and takedowns were useful tools in and of themselves, it was the context that he used them in that dictated his success, and his failure.

Dos Santos has a well known chink in his proverbial armour, and that is his footwork. He operates on a straight line. When pressured, he will back straight up with no regard for his position. He will only start to circle out when his back hits the fence. He will also keep his hands down as he does this. Miocic initially used this to his advantage by continually driving dos Santos to the fence with right hands.

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6 right hands in a row has never been so appropriate.

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It has never been true that Dos Santos is a bad grappler. In fact every time Miocic clinched, dos Santos would secure an overhook, cup Miocic’s right bicep, and escape pretty quickly. He would cut his hips to the right, or turn him from the left, or fake one way only to escape the other. However what is true is that dos Santos is far less dangerous on the fence than he is in open space. His low hands and his habit to punch back instead of escaping make him much more hittable than he would normally be.

Dos Santos put Miocic on the fence numerous times throughout the bout as well. However Miocic would focus on getting back to open space above all else. Whether that was by ducking in on takedowns or jabbing and circling, he was constantly trying to get his back off the fence.

The Lesson

The big take away from the first fight was the importance of positioning in engagements. For the first two rounds, Miocic did a good job of ducking in on dos Santos’ hips and driving him to the fence, chasing him down with right hands, and shellacking him as he tried to circle out. However by the third round he had definitely lost a step. He started spending more time letting dos Santos lead, and started eating more punches. Attempting to press dos Santos to the fence, he was caught with yet another left hook, this time on the counter.

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This announced a new dynamic in the fight. From here on out, Miocic was more content to sit back and look to catch and counter. He would still shoot reactive takedowns. The right hand was still there. But with the pressure taken off him, dos Santos was able to get his eyes in.

It is no surprise that the most effective counter punch of dos Santos’ career came after about a minute and a half of Miocic backing up. The more space and time dos Santos was given, the more he was able to find his distance and timing. By taking his foot off the gas, Miocic seeded control of the exchanges to the quicker, sharper boxer in Dos Santos.

There was still moments from Miocic, but they were now interspersed with him getting picked apart with body jabs, left hooks, and overhand rights, as opposed to clinches on the fence. Without the pressure gameplan, he was left at a disadvantage. However it was the pressure which had caused him to become so fatigued in the first place. It was a hard loss for Miocic, but it raised his stock in the eyes of the fans. Going five hard rounds with a former champion was no mean feat, and from his performances since then, it was clear that Miocic was deserving of his spot in that headliner opposite dos Santos.

What Has Changed For Miocic?

Since losing to dos Santos, Miocic has really developed his striking game. He kicks much more frequently, he is fantastic at using feints and his jab has become a much more important part of his arsenal. However he has also developed into more of a counter fighter. Preferring to stay on the outside and circle, Miocic has started using a cross hand parry to set up his right hand. Catching punches with his left hand, he will backpedal and land the right as his opponent comes in.

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Against Overeem, Miocic looked to pressure again. He definitely looked more composed as he followed him around the cage. However the pressure was not enough to force Overeem straight to the fence. A few times Miocic walked right in to an Overeem counter as he tried to cut off the cage.

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At several points in the Dos Santos fight, Miocic found himself in a similar situation. He has shown himself to be susceptible to being walked on to strikes if his opponent can escape his pressure. For Miocic, his pressure and his defence are separated by a mental barrier. If he is focused on one, the other doesn’t exist.

Once he got Overeem to the fence however, Miocic looked nothing like the mad, dashing fighter that pressed dos Santos. Staying calm and on top of his feet, he punished Overeem without giving him an easy way to escape.

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What Has Changed For Dos Santos?

Dos Santos’ last fight was against “Big” Ben Rothwell. Rothwell had made his hay with an awkward but aggressive style of pressure, parrying punches and looking to force the action against the fence.

For the entirety of the fight, dos Santos patiently drove jabs and right hands into Rothwell’s midriff. He built off that with overhand rights clobbering his taller opponent as his left hand came down to parry. He even threw in a few kicks for good measure.

However what made dos Santos’ performance so impressive wasn’t the technical aspect. Spartan kick aside, it was nothing new from the former champ. What was impressive was that for the whole five rounds, dos Santos treated the cage like it was electrified. His straight line retreats were now accompanied with steps off line. He would turn Rothwell to relieve the pressure. He focused on making sure he began his escape before his back hit the fence.

Final Thoughts:

Miocic has unquestionably improved the more of these two fighters. He stays on top of his feet better. He is more measured. His work on the ground, from half guard in particular, is phenomenal. His feints, his cross hand parry’s, his work along the fence, all have added up to make him a fighter much more dangerous overall than the one who fought Dos Santos back in 2014.

However, in his advancements, he has moved away from the things that gave Dos Santos fits in their first fight. The reckless pressure, the stepping right hands, the march to the clinch have fallen away to reveal a fighter much more comfortable looking to give ground and land his counter right hand, but one who will pressure when he feels he has too. He is better at working along the fence, but he is still all too hittable while he is getting there.

Dos Santos meanwhile, is almost identical to the one of 2014 from a tactical standpoint. He is still all about banging the body with straight punches, trying to draw his opponents hands down. When they start to look to parry, he will lower the boom with an overhand right or a left hook. He kicks a little more, but that’s about it.

However, dos Santos’ strategic adjustments may make all the difference in this fight. His ability to more effectively relieve pressure, coupled with Miocic’s more measured style as of late, will give him more time to get his eyes in. The longer the fight goes, the more likely that Miocic falls back on looking to counter, like he did in the first fight. If this becomes a striking battle contested in open space, dos Santos should have the advantage. If Miocic doesn’t pressure as ferociously as he did in their first fight, he leaves himself vulnerable to being walked onto counters the same way Overeem and dos Santos did previously.

In the heavyweight division as it currently stands, there are few sterner tests for Miocic than the one currently in front of him. If he manages to get by, the talk around him will soon grow to justifiably huge heights. However, unless he continues to improve, he may very well fall prey to the titan of the heavyweight division that so many seem to have forgotten.

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