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SAN JOSE, Calif.
The large, elaborate lettering is impossible to miss when Cain Velasquez takes off his shirt. Two words are stenciled prominently in a semi-circle upon his upper chest.
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Velasquez is a serious man of relatively few words, preferring to let his ruthlessly efficient actions inside the Octagon speak for themselves. But the reigning UFC heavyweight champion has something to say. And it all comes back to a tattoo that is so much more than just skin-deep ink. That phrase, a tribute to his Mexican-American roots, explains everything that is important to him.
“It’s who I am,” Velasquez said recently after a workout at the American Kickboxing Academy. “It’s where I came from. It’s who my parents are. It’s how my family struggled. I’m just so, so proud . . .”
His voice trails off.
“All of that,” he added after a pause, “it made me.”
When Velasquez (13-1) steps into the Octagon on Saturday in Mexico City against interim champion Fabricio Werdum (19-5-1) at UFC 188, the stakes will be the highest of his decorated career. The 32-year-old Velasquez hasn’t fought in 20 months due to injuries, and he knows the mixed-martial arts world will be watching closely to see if he remains, well, the baddest and most intimidating man on the planet. Will Velasquez still be the same relentless fighter whom AKA Coach Javier Mendez simply calls “The Terminator” because he never, ever, stops coming for his opponent?
But there will be something else on the line, too. It’s the same weight Velasquez always carries on his broad shoulders. It’s a feeling that he represents something far more than just himself.
A first-generation American, Velasquez lived the immigrant’s life through his parents -- especially his father, who first came to this country by making the dangerous trek across the border illegally. Then, as he watched them and others work the fields as nomadic migrant workers following the lettuce, cauliflower and broccoli harvests throughout the West, Velasquez came to understand the meaning of back-breaking labor in the hope of providing a better life for the next generation.
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So when he first began making a name for himself as a sports figure, and didn’t see all that many people who looked like him, Velasquez decided to make a statement.
He got the tattoo.
“The Mexican people are known for being hard-working, and that’s what I try to be,” Velasquez said. “I just wanted to show people that I am Mexican, I can compete at a high level and more importantly that I’m proud of my heritage. I’m proud of what we had to do to succeed in life.”
That’s why he lets nothing get in the way of the two things that mean the most to him -- fighting and family. In every workout, training with the likes of UFC light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier and top middleweight contender Luke Rockhold, his goal is to be the best fighter that day in the AKA gym. Afterward, he’s heading right home to wife Michelle and 5-year-old daughter, Coral.
“All I’ve ever seen from Cain is work ethic,” said Josh Thomson, an AKA teammate and lightweight fighter. “He works and works and works. And when he’s not in the gym, you’ll be hard-pressed to not see him without his wife and daughter. That’s pretty rare with a guy who has become as popular as him. He’s just all about family, and I’m sure all of that comes from his parents.”
“Is this for love or just for a Green Card?”
The youngest of three children, Velasquez was born in Salinas, Calif. It’s an agricultural community that was the hometown of Nobel Prize winning writer John Steinbeck, who was famous for capturing the hardscrabble side of 20th century America. And the story of the Velasquez family sounds like a tale that could have been fodder for a Steinbeck novel.
It begins with his father, Efrain. Like his famous son, he is a quiet man. More comfortable speaking in his native Spanish, Efrain is content to have his wife Isabel relate their story. She tells of how he was raised in the small town of Sonoyta in the northern state of Sonora, Mexico. Efrain would sneak across the United States border -- a perilous journey that has claimed an untold number of lives -- in search of work. And Efrain did it again and again because he kept being caught and deported.
“He would always find a way to come back,” said Isabel, a Fresno, Calif. native who also lived for a time in Mexico. “He always says that it happened eight times, but I suspect that it was more and he just lost count.”
The cycle wouldn’t end until Efrain and Isabel met at a dance in Eloy, Ariz. -- a speck on the map between Phoenix and Tucson.
“I can still remember how I questioned him: ‘Is this love or just for a Green Card,’” Isabel said.
It was love.
“We make fun of that now because we’ve been married 40 years,” she added. “Today, we don’t even have to talk. We can read each other’s mind.”
The first few years of Cain’s life were spent on the seasonal farmworker’s circuit as Efrain and Isabel worked in towns such as Salinas, Blythe, El Centro and Huron. Efrain loaded heavy crates filled with vegetables into trucks. Isabel was in the fields, walking behind a machine that would cut vegetables so she could wrap them. For both, it was sun-up to sundown labor. If you couldn’t keep up, you couldn’t keep the job.
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“When they were in the fields, we would go to pick up my dad sometimes, and I couldn’t believe how hot it was out there,” Velasquez remembered. “The type of work they did, it was really hard stuff. And they were getting minimum wage for that.”
Thomson also knows first-hand how watching that kind of effort as a youngster can make a lasting impression. He grew up in East San Jose and is Latino on his mother’s side of the family. She was the youngest of 13 children, and he has vivid memories of the entire family spending part of every summer selling boxes of apricots that they picked for 30 cents each.
“It wasn’t much money, but it all went to my grandmother to help feed us,” Thomson said. “I know Cain has a similar story, and it makes an impact on you. It’s a different kind of struggle when you see grandparents and parents working just to make a better life for you. I saw it. Cain saw it. It seeps into us, and we never forget. You learn to never give up.”
One of the proudest days of Efrain’s life is when he got his truck license and began transporting produce as a driver. It’s a job he still holds today.
“I didn't want him to use his muscles like we did.” - Isabel Velasquez, Cain Velasquez's mother
Question: What do you call 108 degrees in July?
Answer: An average day in Yuma, Ariz.
Isabel put her foot down. The road was no place for their children, who constantly were switching schools. The kids needed structure. So, they chose the sunbaked city of Yuma, along the Colorado River and not far from the U.S-Mexico border. Isabel got a job with the health department and raised the kids while Efrain continued to spend much of the time away working.
The family first lived in a tiny, 21-foot-long mobile home before eventually moving into a house. Velasquez played with a group of boys who were a little older, and that meant sometimes putting up with bullying as the runt of the group. But he was under strict orders from his mother to never fight, so he put up with it.
“Finally, one day he told me about this little boy named Tony,” Isabel said. “He said, ‘If Tony keeps picking on me and hits me, can I hit him back?’ I said, ‘Yes, but only if the other boy starts it.’ Well, later he came running into the kitchen out of breath and said, ‘Mom, I did it! I hit Tony back after he started it!’ I asked then what happened and he said, ‘I don’t know. I just hit him and ran.’”
That might have been the last time Velasquez ever ran from a fight.
In high school, he was a two-time Arizona state wrestling champion. At Iowa Central Community College, he won the junior college heavyweight crown. Then, he was an All-American at Arizona State, where he graduated with a degree in education.
“Everything that he’s done, he did on his own,” Isabel said. “It was hard on Cain in his first year at ASU. He struggled. He needed tutoring. I kept telling him, ‘You have to work to overcome any problem. You’ve got to do it.’ I was so proud of him when he got his degree, and then that’s when he told me that he wanted to do MMA. I just cried and told him, ‘You can’t do that!’ I wanted him to work with his brain. I didn’t want him to use his muscles like we did.”
But his mind was set. Velasquez headed for San Jose and the AKA gym.
“Cain is just built to destroy.”
MMA has become a logical career path for top-flight amateur wrestlers. But here’s the thing, Mendez said. Until any wrestler steps into the cage, he really doesn’t know if he can deal with being punched or kicked in the face.
Velasquez could. Hell, he loved it.
“Cain is just built to destroy,” Mendez said. “You just wind that guy up, program him and then he destroys his opponent. I just draw up the blueprint, drill him over and over mentally on the technique, and by the time the fight arrives, it’s automatic. He just goes out and does it.”
There was something else that Mendez recognized early about Velasquez. The young fighter had a clear sense of who he is.
The two men have shared Mexican roots. Mendez emigrated legally to the U.S. from Mexico at age 6 with his family. In his effort to fit in, Mendez wouldn’t speak Spanish in public. He wouldn’t even listen to Mexican music.
“I wanted to get as far away from that as possible, and the result was I became ignorant to the fact of who I really was,” Mendez said. “Then Cain comes into my gym and he wants to listen to Ranchera music. That’s when I started realizing that I was camouflaging who I really am, that I was in denial. I saw that I should be proud that I’m from Mexico as well as being a citizen of the United States. I can be both. Cain made me realize that. So here’s the teacher, being taught by the student.”
Mendez was a pretty good teacher, too.
On Oct. 23, 2010, Velasquez claimed the UFC heavyweight title with a knockout of Brock Lesnar in just his ninth fight. He would lose the title to Junior dos Santos a year later -- the only blemish on his record -- but took back the belt from him on Dec. 29, 2012 with a unanimous decision.
And whenever he stood in the Octagon, the cameras couldn’t help but focus on his tattoo. That, of course, was precisely the point, said Jorge Iber, a Texas Tech history professor who has written a series of books about Latinos in sports.
“That tattoo is sending a message,” said Iber, a native of Cuba who grew up in Miami’s Little Havana. “It doesn’t have to be spoken. You can see it. You know how he feels. He’s a tough guy, and tough guys tend not to be as talkative. But from a distance, it seems to be the way that Cain has chosen to present himself as a role model.”
As part of his research, Iber has pored over academic archives dating back to early last century where stereotypes of Mexican-Americans were passed off as truisms.
“I would read stuff like, ‘These people aren’t all that bright, they’re lazy, they’re not capable of playing sophisticated sports, they have bad attitudes,’” Iber said. “So as Mexican-Americans started to emerge in sports, they began to articulate the idea that it’s important for people to see what I can do. The success of these athletes shows the larger community that we can participate, compete and be successful in American sports and beyond. The message is simple: We are as good as anyone else.
“And I bet that people who are fans of Cain can relate to his life story,” Iber added.
“I've been waiting for this fight for a long time.” - Cain Velasquez
AKA teammates love Velasquez, saying he will do anything to help them get better.
“He’s the nicest guy in the word,” Rockhold said. “At least until you punch him, and then see what happens.”
His friends at the gym take it far more personally than he does that this fight is billed as unification bout for the heavyweight title. Werdum was proclaimed the interim champ with his impressive victory at UFC 180 last November over Mark Hunt, who had been a late replacement for Velasquez after he was sidelined due to a right knee surgery.
“Fab is out there saying that he’s the champion,” Rockhold added. “I don’t see how that can be the case. He didn’t win a championship fight. Cain is the man. Fab is a far, far second. And he will soon find out that he doesn’t deserve to share it with Cain.”
But for his part, Velasquez understands.
“I’ve been gone awhile, so I get why UFC did that,” Velasquez said of Werdum’s interim tag. “It’s been hard to be on the sidelines and just watch. I’ve been waiting for this fight for a long time.”
It’s not just that Velasquez is back, Mendez said. He believes the MMA world is about to see a better Velasquez.
“This fight is going to be a new, improved version of Cain,” he said. “He’s on track to showcase why he’s the best, and why potentially he could be the best ever. He knows that this is his time and that he needs to reward the faith of his fans.”
“Si, se puede.”
A couple of years ago, Velasquez surprised his parents. He bought them a house.
“It’s got a coffee maker and a toaster,” said Isabel, still sounding amazed. “I never had a toaster before.”
She talks about how proud they are of Cain, but says it in a way that suggests they are more pleased with him as a man than anything he has accomplished as a fighter.
“I always tell him something in Spanish,” Isabel said. “Si, se puede.” Then she translates the phrase into English. “It means, ‘Yes we can.’”
It is a sentiment that Velasquez will take with him into the Octagon Saturday night in Mexico City.