For the second time in his career, 30-year-old Cain Velasquez heads into a fight widely regarded as mixed martial arts' top-ranked heavyweight.
After experiencing a similarly lofty status at the end of 2011, Velasquez went down when Brazilian slugger Junior dos Santos clipped him behind the ear. A year later, fully recovered from a torn knee ligament, the Mexican-American managed to avenge his only defeat in 12 professional contests, which is why, this weekend in Las Vegas, he has earned another opportunity to defend the UFC title.
Having this happen on a regular basis is the “most important thing” Velasquez believes he can accomplish in the UFC. That might sound like a modest pursuit for a man of Velasquez’s talent and intensity. But consider history first and his desire won’t appear so unambitious.
Since its creation in 1997, the UFC heavyweight title has been about as easy to contain as a marlin on a dinghy.
"When you say you want to defend the title for a long time, what does it really mean?" pondered Velasquez's trainer, Javier Mendez.
"Remember, no one has defended the title more than twice, so if he's talking about wanting to keep defending that title, he wants to be remembered by everybody as one of the greatest, like Fedor [Emelianenko]."
A couple of years atop the division is required if Velasquez is to be sanely compared to Emelianenko. The Russian heavyweight ruled from 2003 until the summer of 2010. He never competed in the UFC and had his share of wins against overmatched competition, but that hasn’t stopped most fighters, fans and media from showering the retired Pride champion with praise as the top heavyweight of his era.
This, after all, is what happens when dominance and longevity join together.
“Look at what it's done for GSP [Georges St-Pierre]. Look at what it's done for Anderson Silva,” Mendez said. “So I think it's humongous if Cain can hold that title. It's huge for the UFC. It's huge for everybody involved. It's huge for me. It's huge for his management. Everyone wins when an individual, a champion, continues to win.”
Velasquez, a collegiate wrestler at Arizona State, exudes brute force. His style is relentlessness: a hard-edged mindset coupled with speed and a smaller man’s stamina. He calls what he does chain-fighting.
It’s an apropos description. Velasquez is a strong enough wrestler to put any heavyweight on his back, but his progression has taken him to a place where takedowns have primarily become setups for other offense. This has some of the champion’s supporters suggesting he could overtake Emelianenko in the reputation department despite having fewer than 15 fights on his ledger while never defending a major title -- everything seems to want to happen faster in MMA.
Emelianenko built mystique in the ring. Reaching that level of success won’t have much to do with Velasquez’s ability to cut a promo or regale audiences with funny stories -- mostly because he’s uninterested in or incapable of pursuing either.
Velasquez simply aims to fight. Like so many great champions, that’s what he’s built for.
So is the way he goes about his business -- cold, calculated and vicious -- sufficient to leave an impression outside the MMA bubble? Does it matter how good Velasquez is if he’s a bore on camera and can’t offer the sort of pithy pro wrestling shlock that gets passed off for MMA promotion?
"Cain is not a Chael Sonnen,” Mendez said. “So he's not going to say those catchy lines. He's just going to take all comers, and he's going to go to war. People will respect him for the humble champion that he is. It's going to take him a little longer to get down that road because he didn't use his mouth. He used his fists. He used his fighting to speak for itself."
Perhaps Velasquez should feel fortunate that winning matters most. It did the trick for St-Pierre and Silva, Benson Henderson and Dominick Cruz, Randy Couture and Tito Ortiz. UFC has benefited over the years from entrenched champions across several weight classes, even if some of them are dry as driftwood.
Heavyweight stands out as a class that should have delivered more for UFC than it has. Clearly it’s possible. Brock Lesnar moved the needle, and for a short stretch packaged the sort of mega charisma associated with the likes of Muhammad Ali (including some political controversy, albeit digs at the Canadian health care system can’t be compared with what Ali represented) and Mike Tyson’s blood-curdling, black shoes, black shorts, Brownsville intimidation.
This is the type of combination that can propel a heavyweight mixed martial artist into the mainstream, yet don’t dismiss what Velasquez’s challenger, Antonio Silva, said leading up to Saturday’s contest, because there’s plenty of truth to it:
“There are no superheroes in this sport. Nobody is invincible.”