Their first fight was a seminal moment in UFC history, even if the moment only lasted 64 seconds.
A year after Junior Dos Santos stopped Cain Velasquez and took away his heavyweight title belt with one enormous punch to the head, both fighters figure their rematch Saturday night at UFC 155 in Las Vegas will be longer, more taxing and more decisive in determining mixed martial arts’ best big man.
"In that time, I was the winner because I was a little bit better than him," Dos Santos said. "I just enjoy a good moment. You never know what’s going to happen, especially in the heavyweight division. There’s too much power involved. If the punch lands, you’re going to feel it."
Indeed, Dos Santos (15-1) abruptly dropped the previously unbeaten Velasquez with one equilibrium-destroying punch to the head in November 2011, putting an early end to the UFC’s landmark debut fight on network television. After beating Frank Mir earlier this year, Dos Santos will attempt his second defense when he takes on Velasquez in the main event of the UFC’s traditional year-end event in its hometown at the MGM Grand Garden.
A 64-second fight usually wouldn’t appear to have the makings of a compelling rematch, but Velasquez (10-1) is no ordinary knockout victim. The former Arizona State wrestler has been stewing on his first MMA defeat for over a year, lamenting the combination of bad luck and misplaced aggression that put him in position to be stunned, staggered and pounded into the ground.
"The only reason I got into this sport was to be the champion," Velasquez said. "And now that I’m not champion, it’s the only thing that’s on my mind right now, to go in there to win this fight. That’s all I’m thinking about."
That overhand right reverberated through the heavyweight division and the entire UFC. Dos Santos was widely considered a future star, but Velasquez’s unblemished MMA career and demolition of former champion Brock Lesnar had suggested he could hold the belt for years.
Instead, Dos Santos could be at the start of a long reign -- or a healthier, smarter Velasquez will get back on top.
Velasquez has grown weary of talking about what he did wrong. He only wants to make it right.
"Junior is very quick," Velasquez said. "He has a lot of power in his hands. He timed it perfectly, and it landed."
The UFC 155 undercard features Jim Miller facing Joe Lauzon in a matchup of crowd-pleasing lightweights. Veteran middleweight Tim Boetsch also faces Costa Philippou, while notable names Yushin Okami, Chris Leben, Jamie Varner and Melvin Guillard all appear in earlier bouts.
Velasquez refuses to blame the loss on a knee injury in training last year, although video of Velasquez writhing in pain has been circulating online. Velasquez apparently tore a ligament in his knee a few weeks before the bout, yet still went ahead with the highest-profile fight in UFC history.
Yet Dos Santos also had a torn meniscus that limited his own movement, perhaps encouraging him to go for an early knockout. Dos Santos expects the rematch to last longer, but he also predicts a second stoppage victory.
"For sure, I think Cain Velasquez is going to come hungrier for this fight, hungrier than the first fight," Dos Santos said. "He’s going to try to improve his game. He’s going to try to take me down using his wrestling, but my strategy is the same strategy, and I’m very well-prepared for this fight, ready to win."
While Velasquez lamented his mistakes, Dos Santos spent the last year soaking in the spoils of being a heavyweight champion -- everything from financial security for his family to a high-profile sponsorship deal with Nike. Dos Santos hasn’t lost since joining the UFC in October 2008, winning nine straight fights -- and while he’s already among the best boxers in MMA, he also recently earned his black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, adding more ground skills to his game.
Dos Santos and Velasquez have professed nothing but mutual respect in the months leading up to their rematch, no surprise from two good-natured brawlers known for their old-fashioned work ethics in a division packed with polarizing personalities from Lesnar to Alistair Overeem.