This was always a high risk, low reward fight for Ben Rothwell. He was the man with the most impressive live winning streak at heavyweight while Junior dos Santos was on a 2-3 skid and had looked pretty bad in all but one of those fights. But last night Dos Santos, the cleaner boxer, swooped in to steal Rothwell's momentum and is now apparently back in the title picture.
I mentioned in my pre-fight breakdown that what I would want to see from Dos Santos was use of his body jabs and straights to set up his overhands and left hook, whereas what I would want to see from Rothwell was pressure towards the fence to take advantage of Dos Santos' famously woeful ringcraft. It was one of those fights where you actually got to see both men start applying these strategies and levering their ability against their opponent's weaknesses.
A lovely short right counter and a move to the fence by Rothwell, but an immediate breaking of the line and angling out by Dos Santos. Smart stuff from both.
Through much of the first round Rothwell looked to be having success with low kicks against Dos Santos' long stance, and catching Dos Santos as he backed onto the fence. But the problems began to show at the end of the first round as Rothwell was noticeably sitting out in the open, on the end of Dos Santos' body jabs and straights. It was the same old struggle that plays out in every outfighter versus infighter bout. It is not about getting the fight to the fence or ropes at all costs, it is about what can be done once you get there, and how much damage you absorb en route. Dos Santos' heavy use of body work was a strategy to tire and slow Rothwell, while Rothwell's own strategy of pressing to the fence was a very labor intensive one. Both men's strategies were working to sap Rothwell's gas tank, and the two good shots he got off along the fence in return for five, seven, and later even ten or twelve pot shots he would eat in between bursts along the fence just weren't balancing out.
Whenever you watch a Dos Santos fight the most important weapons are always his body straights. The right straight to the body and, more importantly, the body jab. These are weapons which a UFC heavyweight will not find a two hundred and forty pound sparring partner to throw with the kind of crispness, range and speed that Dos Santos manages. The right hand to the body is considered a hurting shot but traditionally the body jab is treated as a scoring punch. When jabbing the body the purpose is almost entirely to force a defensive adjustment.
Notice how Rothwell's squared stance makes him especially susceptible to the body jab.
Every guard you can ever think of places prominence on protecting the head and the ribs—those are the ones which are going to end your night quickly—spare the laughable arms folded guard which Edwin Haislet included in Boxing. (Haislet included this seemingly just to point out how daft it is.) By attacking the hole through middle of almost every guard with body jabs, a fighter forces defensive adjustments—and that is when the real headache makers can start landing. And if the man getting jabbed doesn't adjust, why can't the jab to the body be a power punch? You just keep stepping in and putting your weight into it and aiming for their solar plexus until they do something with their hands which you can exploit, or they gas out while trying to remain stoic.
By changing level properly on a body jab, so that the shoulder is level with the target (normally the solar plexus), the fighter gives up no reach in going for a body blow. Sugar Ray Robinson was excellent with his body jab, but perhaps the best modern example is Floyd Mayweather. Watch his bout with Diego Corrales and you will see an absolute clinic in using the body jab to hurt, to annoy, and to set up big shots upstairs. Even Mayweather himself, while completely shutting out Shane Mosley, was so annoyed by a trio of body jabs sneaking through successfully that he stood still, reached down to parry, and ate one of the only telling right hands Mosley was able to sneak through in that fight. Whether it is because the body jab itself hurts, or because the guy getting tapped by it is a perfectionist, the body jab creates movement and opportunities.
In the second round Dos Santos was able to land an overhand that rattled Rothwell through his use of feints, level changes, and body jabs and straights.
It was my thinking that Rothwell, standing so tall and so square, and relying heavily on his open hands being ready to parry blows, would be drawn into reaching down for Dos Santos' punches. To his credit, he did an excellent job of holding off on this, and when he did do it he was often able to 'fold' in behind his elbows to avoid the really punishing blows to the head. Though he ate a ton of blows in this bout, the fight did speak to Rothwell's defensive improvements. This was clearly not the same man who was getting lanced with naked straight punches to the head by Gabriel Gonzaga and Brandon Vera—that Rothwell certainly wouldn't have made it to the fifth round in fighting shape.
Many will be aboard the 'Junior dos Santos is BACK' hype train already, because that is the way that this sport works, but it would be unfair not to point to the genuine improvements he made to his previously abysmal ringcraft.
The Jersey Joe Walcott reverse shoulder roll is never going to go unpraised in one of my articles.
Here Rothwell cuts off JDS with a body kick, and JDS immediately changes direction in spite of taking a punch. Lovely stuff.
Yes, Dos Santos still got caught on the fence a few times, and backed onto the fence far too often, but he actually appeared to have some awareness of where he was in the cage this time, and began circling out much sooner on the majority of occasions. He did, however, rely heavily on physically pushing Rothwell off of him in order to create room to escape once against the fence, and also found himself running into the fence and getting stuck in positions where his butt was on the fence and he was having to regain his balance before Rothwell could chase him down.
Butt stuck to the fence.
Rothwell is a dangerous fighter along the fence but has never been the best at controlling an opponent in that position—it's pretty doubtful that Dos Santos' marginal improvements in ringcraft would save him from the fenced positions he found himself in against Velasquez and Miocic. That being said, you cannot eradicate deep rooted flaws and habits overnight, it's more important that Dos Santos and his coaches have clearly sat down, looked at the tape and recognized this enormous issue that has been plaguing his game. In four months time we might well see even more improvement in his lateral movement.
While Rothwell was clearly out classed in this bout and it has probably gone a good way to killing the hype that he had built on his impressive winning streak, he looked far from hopeless. Some of the moments of real success that were visible in this fight were in his low kicks. Dos Santos' lengthy stance and his tendency to turn his lead foot in as he steps in for his lead hook or body jab make him very susceptible to these. Alistair Overeem was able to show how distracted and concerned Dos Santos can be by kicks in their last bout. As much as Cigano is an 'outfighter' as a boxer, his effective punching range is still shorter than a great many kicks and his straight in and out movement makes his trailing leg especially vulnerable on retreat.
Dos Santos landed the most body shots ever recorded in a UFC fight and to Rothwell's credit, he was still there in the fifth. But the movement was gone and by that point it was Dos Santos trying to land clean blows on a stationary target as Rothwell folded awkwardly behind his elbows and shoulders. The bout has probably killed much of Rothwell's momentum and kick started Dos Santos' campaign for 2017's annual heavyweight title fight, but it's the heavyweight division and anything can happen between now and then. It was just great to see two good heavyweights come in with clear gameplans, watch them play out against each other, and see both men there and still capable of fighting without being horrendously gassed in the fifth round.
Certainly, a fighter can never do too much bodywork and I hope that this performance in particular will hammer home that Dos Santos' methods would have tremendous value for any fighter who put the time into learning them. A body jab is not just for those with unnaturally heavy hitting power.
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