"We always saw him and watched to see where his career would go, and we kinda knew at one time we would have to fight.” - Cain Velasquez
When Cain Velasquez hit the deck courtesy of Cheick Kongo’s fists at UFC 99 in June of 2009, the sound in the Lanxess Arena was a cross between the usual roar that accompanies a knockdown and impending finish in a heavyweight prizefight, and a gasp from those MMA aficionados who were aware of what was happening.
This wasn’t on the levels of a Matt Serra vs. Georges St-Pierre upset, but when all you’ve heard for the last couple years was that Velasquez was the heir to the heavyweight throne, seeing him on his way to a knockout defeat was shocking.
Looking back, the sequence took a second, maybe two. But after Velasquez was knocked down and expected out, he quickly shot in for a takedown, cleared his head, and got back to the business of beating his opponent. He would get rocked again, but in response he continued to press forward and shake off the cobwebs, and after three rounds, he was a clear cut winner via unanimous decision.
That was the night Velasquez grew up. It may have even been the night his ascent to the championship was confirmed. For the Californian, it was simply something fighters, especially fighters with Mexican blood, did.
“I’m gonna be in the fight the whole time,” said Velasquez a week before he traveled from Northern California to Southern Cali to prepare for the madness surrounding his Saturday bout on FOX against Junior dos Santos. “I’ve had that experience knowing that I can come back from adversity, but I already knew I had that in me. It is good to show it out there though.”
It is good, because fighters really show their true character when faced with adversity. Anderson Silva getting beat up by Chael Sonnen for over four rounds before pulling off a submission win; Frankie Edgar shaking off a first round beating to knock out Gray Maynard three rounds later, St-Pierre avenging his loss to Serra in 2008. I could go on, but you get the picture. And for Velasquez to show that he could shake off some bombs from a legit contender and come back to win, it was a big deal, and it even diluted his response to the early bull rush from Brock Lesnar in their championship bout last October because even when Lesnar briefly had the upper hand on Velasquez, you always had the idea that the challenger was going to come back. And he did, winning the title via TKO at 4:12 of the first round.
It was an emotional moment for a young man who doesn’t show much emotion to the public, the culmination of the first leg of his MMA journey, and a destiny bestowed on him early on his career by his trainer Javier Mendez. I spoke to Velasquez after his title winning effort, and asked him how he was able to keep his cool when he was being called “The Next Big Thing,” as early as his third pro fight when he debuted in the UFC.
He credited Mendez.
“He (Mendez) said ‘I’m saying this kind of stuff now to get you prepared so when it all comes down to it, you’ll be ready,’” recalled Velasquez. “He’s prepared me ever since I got here and he’s talked me up, so now that I’m in this position, it’s not a shock to me. I’ve been prepared for this.”
So when he’s gotten knocked down, bloodied, or banged up, the notion that he had the skill and will to survive and then thrive kept him moving. That, and the tireless work he’s put in at the American Kickboxing Academy gym in San Jose.
“When we’re sparring, it’s not just one guy that we’re sparring against,” said Velasquez. “We’re having multiple guys coming in on us. So we’re sparring against three or four guys when we’re doing our rounds, so you have to go through that adversity.”
He’s expecting some more this weekend in the form of Brazil’s dos Santos, a punishing puncher who has perhaps the best boxing in the heavyweight division, a talent that isn’t lost on the champion, who, when asked what concerns him the most about “Cigano,” said, “Definitely his boxing. He’s got really good boxing, a lot of power in his hands, and he’s an athletic guy too. But it’s mainly his boxing. He’s won all of his fights using his boxing, and that’s definitely his most dangerous attribute.”
With eight knockout wins in nine fights, the former All-American wrestler from Arizona State is pretty adept with his hands as well, but the million dollar question is whether he will stand with dos Santos or look to take the fight to the mat. Whatever way it goes, expect Velasquez to be prepared though, because he’s been taking notes on his challenger from the time both of them were stepping into the Octagon in 2008.
“I’ve watched him since his first UFC fight with (Fabricio) Werdum,” said Velasquez. “He knocked him (Werdum) out in the first round, and Werdum was one of the top guys in the world, so that definitely caught my eye. And just watching his fights after that, he’s always been really tough and we definitely kept our eyes on him. Anybody who fights in your division you kinda keep watch on because it’s doing your homework. So we always saw him and watched to see where his career would go, and we kinda knew at one time we would have to fight.”
That time is fast approaching, but neither Velasquez nor dos Santos is blinking under the pressure of fighting for the heavyweight title in the first UFC bout shown on network television. In fact, despite the event being the talk of the town, in terms of dealing with the crush of media, Velasquez says that it “hasn’t been so bad.”
Even if it was, you wouldn’t expect him to complain about it because this is what you sign up for when you’re the top man in the heavyweight division. I asked Velasquez what that phrase “world heavyweight champion” meant to him when he was a kid watching guys like Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield do their thing.
“It’s the biggest accomplishment that you can get to,” he said. “It’s the top of the sport, and that’s what always came to mind when I heard about those guys when they were in their prime.”
Cain Velasquez is in his prime. So is Junior dos Santos. That means that it’s likely that before this one is over, there will be plenty of adversity for both fighters to overcome. Velasquez has already been there and done that. That’s why he’s the champion.