When Gabriel Gonzaga steps into the Octagon with Heavyweight stud Junior Dos Santos on March 21, all eyes will be on Dos Santos and whether or not he is ready to be added to a stellar list of heavyweight contenders which currently includes Shane Carwin, Frank Mir and Cain Velasquez.
Lost in the shuffle is the future of the fighter known as “Napao.” While Dos Santos may be the future, Gonzaga will be involved in a fight that would either put him back into contender status or will relegate him to gatekeeper status in one of the UFC’s most competitive divisions.
Previously scheduled for UFC 108, Gonzaga was forced to withdraw with a staph infection and watch as Dos Santos annihilated Gilbert Yvel in just over two minutes. But now Gonzaga is fully recovered and ready to take on Dos Santos in what could be the most significant fight for the Brazilian since his Heavyweight clash with Randy Couture back in 2007.
Gonzaga truly cannot afford another devastating loss at this point in his career. There are a number of Heavyweights that are ready to leapfrog Gonzaga to be a part of the heavyweight fray and Napao simply cannot put himself in a position where he becomes the fighter that young and hungry opponents must face to prove they are ready. But a knockout loss to Dos Santos would almost certainly seal his fate.
Gonzaga’s resume is an interesting one. He owns possibly one of the most brutal knockouts in recent memory when his right leg met Mirko “Crocop” Filipovic’s head and completely crumbled the Croatian with a weapon right out of his own playbook. With a record of 11-4, he has never truly been owned in a fight. Even in his four losses, he has never been out of a fight. You could argue that Shane Carwin’s knockout was a moment where Gonzaga was dominated. However, he gave Carwin all kinds of trouble – even staggering the contender – before Carwin flattened him with a right cross that seemed to be delivered from hell’s gates. But that is not all that makes Gonzaga a dangerous fighter.
People tend to forget that Gonzaga is an extremely accomplished Brazilian Jiu Jitsu tactician. He won the Mundials – which are considered to be the top BJJ competition in the world – back in 1994. But if you look at his UFC victories, all but one (submission victory over Justin McCully at UFC 86) have come by knockout. Seven of his finishes have come in the opening stanza. He has yet to truly put his BJJ black belt to work.
Dos Santos and Gonzaga have two common opponents – Fabricio Werdum and the aforementioned Crocop. Dos Santos battered Filipovic en route to a third round verbal submission while Gonzaga nearly kicked the Croation’s head into press row in the first frame. Against Werdum, however, offered different results for both fighters. Gonzaga dropped both of his bouts to Werdum via TKO while Dos Santos completely obliterated Werdum in just over a minute into their fight.
On paper, many may automatically assume that Dos Santos should get rid of Gonzaga early. But things are more interesting upon closer inspection.
What is left to be seen is what will happen when the fight goes to the ground. Dos Santos has been devastating against anyone willing to stand and trade with him; he is a Brazilian heavyweight kickboxing champion with a record of 18-0 after all. However, it has yet to be seen what will happen if Cigano has to deal with Gonzaga’s lauded ground game. Gonzaga also has been in the cage with some of the top heavyweights in the world and can bring that experience against a fighter who has yet to be truly tested. But if Gonzaga cannot drag Dos Santos down, will he be able to deal with Cigano’s deadly standup? We saw what happened with Carwin.
Therein lay the questions going into their UFC on Versus bout. Can Cigano deal with Gonzaga’s BJJ? Will Gonzaga be able to take the fight to the ground? This one is all about game plans and who will be able to utilize theirs effectively.
Let’s also be reminded of this, with 26 fights between them, they have never left a fight in the hands of the judges. It may be safe to say that this one could be a short night for either fighter. Gonzaga just hopes that it will be his hand held up in victory.
He needs it.