Depending on what floats your personal watercraft, a decent case can be made for Cain Velasquez — Junior dos Santos as the greatest heavyweight trilogy in MMA history.
In the halcyon days of Pride Fighting Championships, Fedor Emelianenko and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira were the top two heavyweights in the world at the time, but their rivalry was a one-sided affair; Emelianenko dominated the two fights that weren’t interrupted by a cut stoppage. In a similar vein, the excitement of Mirko Filipovic vs. Josh Barnett is muted by “Cro Cop” appearing to have Barnett’s number so completely. Their early-00s Ultimate Fighting Championship counterparts, Tim Sylvia and Andrei Arlovski, were probably two of the top six heavyweights in the world each time they met, but their third fight was a stinker. Much more recently, Stipe Miocic and Daniel Cormier engaged in a thrilling trio of fights, with the most prestigious belt in the world at stake each time, but “DC” was 40 at the time of their second fight and 41 for the rubber match—both of which he lost.
Claiming their place alongside those historic rivalries, Velasquez and dos Santos were in their respective primes for all three of their fights, and the UFC heavyweight title—synonymous with “best heavyweight on the planet” any time after about 2010—was on the line each time. Their three fights were spaced out by a year or so, allowing both men time to defeat other contenders and reaffirm their status as the ones to beat in the heavyweight division.
One thing that can be said about Velasquez and dos Santos’s trilogy, either in favor of or against it, is that all three of their fights were decisive. Blowouts, really. Their first meeting, at the inaugural UFC on Fox show on Nov. 12, 2011, famously threw everything for a loop, as the producers had allotted enough time for a five-round championship fight, only to have “Cigano” spark Velasquez in 64 seconds. The rematch, which took place at UFC 155 in December 2012, goes in the books as a unanimous decision win for Velasquez, that doesn’t do it justice. Velasquez-dos Santos 2 was a five-round mauling, in which the American scored at least one 10-8 round in the eyes of two of the cageside judges.
With things evened up at one fight apiece, the two baddest men on the planet had their rubber match in Houston on Oct. 19, 2013. While oddsmakers are not infallible, they often provide an interesting glimpse into the popular conception of a fight at the time it occurred. In this case, it seems an indication of the high regard in which Velasquez and dos Santos were regarded that the line moved so little from one fight to the next. Where the first fight had been a near pick-em, with the Brazilian moving just barely into plus money during fight week, the rematch had been close on the books as well, as Velasquez sat around +150 despite getting knocked out in a minute in their previous meeting. For the third and final meeting, Velasquez was a 2-to-1 favorite, and the speculation centered on whether the rubber match would more closely resemble the first fight, or the second.
As it turned out, the fight that went down at Toyota Center that night resembled the second fight, only in more emphatic fashion, as Velasquez hammered his rival for four rounds and change before finally putting him away in the fifth, slamming “Cigano” on his head as the Brazilian went for a desperation choke. While dos Santos had his few moments in the fight, including a stunning left hook in the opening exchanges, Velasquez’s withering pressure and takedowns were simply too much, and Round 3 in particular is one of the more brutal rounds in a UFC championship fight, especially between such accomplished fighters.
Ultimately, UFC 166 marked both men’s apex. Velasquez, always injury-prone, would fight only three more times in the next six years before declaring his retirement and trying his hand at professional wrestling. Dos Santos, who came out of the second and third fights nearly unrecognizable, appeared to have taken two careers’ worth of punishment in those two meetings. While he remains a Top 10 contender to this day—and is 1-1 since then with Miocic, arguably the greatest heavyweight of all time—that night in Houston marks the beginning of the end of “Cigano” as part of the discussion of the best heavyweight in the world.