Fighter of Interest: Elizeu Zaleski dos Santos

After three “Fight of the Night” performances in his dramatic four-fight win streak, it is with a familiar disappointment that Elizeu Zaleski dos Santos (18-5 MMA, 4-1 UFC) continues to fly under the radar. A two-time Jungle Fight champion, the Brazilian welterweight has had zero appearances on the main card of a UFC event.

Is it because Elizeu “Capoeira” Zaleski dos Santos is an intimidating mouthful for many North Americans? Perhaps it is due to his upbringing as a humble farmer, the MMA audience seems to prefer a brash personality. UFC President Dana White may not be a fan of his taste in tattoos or his walkout song; “The Final Countdown”, by Europe.

Zaleski dos Santos sports a plentiful beard and luxurious, thick eyebrows. As a bald, plain looking gentleman, one could not blame Dana for his envy.

The simple answer is to call him “ZDS.” It’s catchy, it’s badass, he’s earned it.

Even if he didn’t stick the landing on his backflip. As for the rest, there’s no accounting for taste. ZDS is a workhorse brawler with a penchant for third round comebacks, an action fighter of the highest degree.

This is Fighter of Interest, where underrated fighters from an upcoming event are brought to light.

UFC 224
Fighter of Interest: Elizeu Zaleski dos Santos

MMA pioneer Wallid Ismail‘s Jungle Fight promotion has produced a long line of killers who made it to the UFC. ZDS got his start in the sport of Capoeira, an art known for its rhythmic, flowing movement and acrobatic kicks.

While you may see flashes of capoeira, Zaleski dos Santos is best characterized as a brawling Muay Thai pressure fighter. This is a stylistic choice, as ZDS possesses a deep toolkit. He has shown in stretches to be a thoughtful outfighter, as well as a dangerous and talented BJJ practitioner. But ZDS lives for the battle, and inevitably each of his five UFC bouts has come down to an attritive slugfest.

It is passion, determination, and coachability that make ZDS a special fighter. There is a concept in Gracie Jiu Jitsu of “cooking” your opponent, taking long periods of time to break down their defenses to open up the submission.

Zaleski dos Santos is more of a pressure cooker. He pushes a frantic, brutal pace for three rounds and throws nothing but heat. Wild hooking combinations and punishing knees from the clinch are his bread and butter.

He is not without flaws. ZDS has at times neglected his defense, to both striking and grappling attacks. Sometimes he will swing so hard, he does a 180 and loses balance. Occasionally he will throw a wheel kick and get taken down. These are flaws that only make him more endearing, as he succeeds in spite of them.

No matter what, the man digs deep, rallies, and finds a way to win. It is with this same basic strategy that ZDS has captivated crowds through his young UFC career.

Thrown to the Wolves

This is the story of an underrated welterweight, who one by one took on a murderer’s row of underrated welterweights.

Zaleski dos Santos made his UFC debut in Brazil, where he faced the defending Cage Warriors champion, Nicholas Dalby. The Danish kickboxer had dominated the Scandinavian scene, going 13-0 against solid competition. Dalby is a stocky, fleet-footed kickboxer who uses his karate background to manage distance and explode into kicks and takedowns. His approach is reminiscent of a power striking Georges St-Pierre.

Stylistically, this matchup was a nightmare for ZDS. In the first round, Dalby was able to spring in and out, battering the guard with his thunderous kicks. When dos Santos became eager to close the distance and charged, Dalby used that same driving force to blow through double leg takedowns.

This was the first sign of a persisting issue of takedown defense for ZDS. He had clearly lost the round, and the stated counter fighting gameplan was failing him. In the corner, the CM System coaches did not mince words. “It is time to change the strategy, you need to be first.” The evidently coachable athlete came out on fire immediately.

Through an endless onslaught of hectic striking, Dalby lost his rhythm. Suddenly it was ZDS who controlled the range, and the momentum shifted.

However, Dalby was still able to secure his takedowns. The bout was up in the air, it may well have been one round a piece. Consistent with their character, the dos Santos corner relayed a clear message, “You lost both rounds, you cannot wait.” Message received.

A fatigued Dalby was met with thudding overhands, evil round kicks and a diverse gallery of knee strikes. The crowd in Goiânia could feel the tide turning and urged on their countryman. The takedowns were not coming for Dalby, who desperately tried to slow the marauding dos Santos.

Nicholas Dalby went through hell, but survived the final round. Aided by a total of six takedowns, he was awarded the decision. But all who witnessed the bout knew it was ZDS who stole the show.

Total War

After nearly one year away, dos Santos met “Wolverine”, Omari Akhmedov.

Like most fighters from Dagestan, Akhmedov is an absolute killer with a decorated background in freestyle wrestling and combat sambo. A murderous puncher and suffocating grappler, Akhmedov has finished twelve of his fifteen victories.

After forfeiting repeated takedowns and lengthy ground control to a striker in Nicholas Dalby, the pressure was on for ZDS to step up against the wrestling of Akhmedov. Early in the bout dos Santos appeared lighter on his feet, interested in a stick and move gameplan.

Once again, the gameplan went out the window. Akhmedov was able to complete his first takedown, where his heavy top game and ground and pound attack could come into play. This time, dos Santos was well prepared. ZDS showed great control and shifted Akhmedov’s weight, shrimping to attack a heel hook. Smooth and composed, ZDS made a series of adjustments and used the position to reverse and come out on top. But the fearsome grappler Akhmedov was not content to give up the rest of the round off his back. In a startling display of strength, “Wolverine” attacked a kimura from half-guard, wrenching free the arm of dos Santos.

With the bout in jeopardy, ZDS kept his cool and used a beautiful scramble to avoid the submission without ending up stuck on bottom.

Without the fear of Akhmedov’s takedowns, ZDS came out swinging to start the second round. After chopping away with nasty low kicks, dos Santos was able to bait Akhmedov into swinging wildly, opening up clean counters.

His gas tank running low, the Dagestani fighter desperately dragged the fight to the ground once more. But the fresher dos Santos got right back to his leg lock sweeping game with ease.

The high-intensity tactics of ZDS had worn down the aggressive wrestler. He was a wounded animal, and dos Santos wanted the kill. With fierce determination, he walked down his prey and unleashed a neverending string of attacks to the legs, body, and head of the ever-durable Akhmedov.

Every man has their breaking point. Exhausted and concussed, Akhmedov could only retreat with despair, knowing the end was near. With bravado and warrior spirit, ZDS invited Akhmedov to partake in a final, frantic, fight-ending brawl.


Brawling on the Razor’s Edge

The welterweight division has a seemingly endless pool of world-class, unranked fighters. Zaleski dos Santos is destined to fight them all.

“K-Taro” Keita Nakamura was next on that list. A veteran of the sport, Nakamura’s initial UFC stint in 2006 was followed by a 15-win, 9-year international career. K-Taro notched victories over quality opposition like Adriano MartinsYasubey EnomotoKyle Noke, and “The Leech” Li Jingliang. Well rounded and strategic, it is Nakamura’s grappling chops that have made him a difficult test for any fighter in the world.

As usual, ZDS conceded a first-round takedown. This time, however, Nakamura’s excellent back control sealed off the entire round from dos Santos. Predictably, ZDS rallied and looked to change the tone in the second.

Nakamura was on the run, waiting for dos Santos to inevitably run out of gas. But ZDS is not entirely human. His freakish farm-boy athleticism fueled a persistent barrage throughout the fight, slowly draining the reserves of the 40-fight veteran.

The greatest moment of the bout came late in the third round, as Nakamura briefly secured a momentum-halting takedown. Surely now, he thought, dos Santos would slow down, securing the round and the victory.

Or not.

The comeback of ZDS only became more ferocious, as he nailed a beautiful five-point throw deep in the third round. This was a grueling fight, and dos Santos continued to fire on all cylinders until the final bell, attacking a deep arm-triangle choke and even the rare Peruvian necktie.

Man vs. Machine

In the good old days, Bellator ran quality eight-man tournaments to decide their champions and challengers. In 2009, a 10-0 Lyman Good finished all three of his tournament opponents to become Bellator’s first welterweight titleholder. Soon after a gentleman named Ben Askren took command of the division, but the Harlem native continued to prove himself as an elite fighter.

Known as “Cyborg”, Good had earned a 19-3 MMA record under the tutelage of Daniel “Tiger” Schulmann. His UFC debut against the solid and ultra-tough Andrew Craig was nothing short of a demolition job.

The musclebound kickboxer presented a rare combination of educated technical ability and overwhelming physicality. Rumors from various east coast gyms report that his cybernetic implants allow for split-second movement analysis, and the ability to punch through brick walls. 

As a fighter who relies on breaking down his opponents physically, ZDS had the challenge of his career. Early on dos Santos attacked the exposed circuits on the leg of Cyborg, momentarily chopping him down. But eventually his pattern recognition software caught up, and Good was able to counter and take ZDS down.

Things were looking grim. While dos Santos repeatedly attempted to force a crazy brawl, he left himself open to be picked apart by a patient Lyman Good. Once again the corner of Zaleski dos Santos guided his course. Hanging back and picking shots, the offense started to even out. ZDS may well have stolen the second round with a late flurry, following a flush knee to the iron dome of Good.

Then, the strangest thing happened. After the second round, Good’s cornermen were irate. “You have so much more to give,” they said. “Let it go, what’s holding you back Lyman?”

Good spoke softly.

“What?!” his corner barked.

“I don’t want to get knocked out.” Good hung his head.

Recognizing their dejected fighter, Good’s corner calmly dispensed some encouraging wisdom.

And so, in the third round of a fight he may have been winning on cautious outfighting, Good strode out to go out on his shield in the third.

Finding a changed Lyman Good before him, ZDS did what he does best, went berserk and rallied.

After battering and nearly finishing the Cyborg from New York, Zaleski dos Santos once again claimed victory in a heroic fashion.

LAST FIGHT: Def. Max “Pain” Griffin via Unanimous Decision

A veteran of the California MMA circuit, Max “Pain” Griffin is an action fighter worthy of his own article. To summarize what makes Griffin so fan friendly, we turn to MMASucka staff writer, Mike Skytte. Why do you love Max Pain?

“Because he’s a savage. tfym? i like that he brawls with dudes, but when he fights other guys who brawl with dudes, he all of a sudden knows how to put together gamplans n’ shit and piece them up.”

The man is a poet. It’s true, shortly after his “Fight of the Night” slugfest with ZDS, Griffin went on to completely outclass the infamous Mike Perry.

On the regional scene, Griffin went 10-2, both of his losses were split decisions and eight of his wins were finishes. Although his short-notice UFC debut against the wannabe villain Colby Covington did not go as planned, Max Griffin has gone on to show promise as a division staple.

The two men collided immediately, at one point throwing simultaneous flying knees. Griffin’s kickboxing was heavily influenced by traditional martial arts, lending to a sneaky counter-punching game.

Max Pain’s deceptive footwork lured ZDS into danger, as he was nailed by a right hand counter over his lead hook.

But it was the timing of dos Santos that lead to the most significant moment of the fight. Towards the end of the round, Griffin was stunned by a flurry of hooks.

It is a great mystery how Max Griffin was able to stay on his feet, let alone continue to defend himself. His coach had to physically move him back to their corner. What is even more incredible, is that Griffin recovered. What happened next was downright preposterous.

In a demonstration of awareness and craft, Max Pain intercepted a ZDS wheel kick attempt. Timing the retreat, Griffin nailed dos Santos with two pinpoint hooks from his blind spot, flooring him. The victory clearly rode on the final round.

Grass is green. Water is wet. Elizeu Zaleski dos Santos has big third rounds. It was a valiant effort by Max Griffin. But he learned that when you go to war with ZDS, time is his greatest ally.

Get this guy in a five-round main event.

NEXT FIGHT: vs. Sean Strickland at UFC 224

27-year-old Sean “Tarzan” Strickland is an eleven-year MMA professional. He boasts a 19-2 record, with his only two losses coming to top-ranked UFC welterweights  Kamaru Usman and Santiago Ponzinibbio.

He has six UFC victories over the likes of Luke BarnattAlex GarciaCourt McGee, and the phenomenal Tom Breese. It is a testament to the depth of the division that Strickland is yet another on the list of unranked contenders.

Standing at 6’1, Strickland will use his lanky frame to present ZDS with a different set of problems. Unconcerned with action, the former King of the Cage champion uses a well-rounded overall game to usually do just enough. His tendency to sit on a lead and let fights slip away is a concern.

In stark contrast, is the clutch gene possessed by Zaleski dos Santos. He is excellent at realizing the work that lies ahead of him, and he pursues it fearlessly. Five out of five UFC opponents have wilted against the ZDS third-round rally.

At UFC 224 you will see calm, deliberate, refined technique pitted against a human tornado of muay thai and warrior spirit. Tune in at 8 EST on FX to witness the next act of the UFC’s most dramatic performer.

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