In what should be the biggest MMA heavyweight fight in years, champion Cain Velasquez is now just waiting for the cage door to open for his trilogy fight with career rival Junior Dos Santos. "If the fight was to take place this weekend, I’d be ready," said Velasquez, who looks to be in his best shape already. Most noticeably, the champion is lighter and fitter looking than before his only career loss, to Dos Santos on Nov. 12, 2011, in Anaheim, Calif.
The Oct. 19 UFC 166 main event from the Toyota Center in Houston may not garner the level of mainstream U.S. attention of the first fight. That bout was what the company's first live special on FOX was built around. The barely one minute long contest was viewed by a U.S. MMA record 9.5 million viewers, far more than any fight in history. But this fight, airing on pay-per-view, from a historical perspective as far as determining the standout heavyweight of this era, is the big one.
It's the one that will answer the question of who the greatest heavyweight in UFC history is, and perhaps MMA history. Right now, there is no other possible answer when it comes to UFC history. None of the previous champions, like Frank Mir, Randy Couture, Tim Sylvia, Brock Lesnar, Andrei Arlovski or any others, had the complete skill-set of Velasquez and Dos Santos.
For the MMA top spot, there are two potential answers as to the greatest ever, the winner of this fight, and former dominant heavyweight star Fedor Emelianenko. All kinds of arguments can be made regarding evolution of skills, quality of opponents, and duration at the top. But the winner gets himself in the argument and the best of this current era.
Even so, this fight will garner even more attention in Mexico and Brazil than the U.S. In Mexico, it will air live on Televisa, the dominant network in that country, where Velasquez is the MMA hero. With the mainstream popularity of MMA in Brazil, Dos Santos is a major sports star.
In their second and most recent fight, on Dec. 29 in Las Vegas, Velasquez won in one of the most lopsided decisions in UFC title match history. Dos Santos has blamed the loss on not being at his best due to over training.
"Is that what he said?," asked Velasquez, who noted he hasn’t been paying attention to talk from the other side, before his usually stoic face broke into a little smile thinking. "That’s his excuse?"
Clips of Dos Santos being heavily monitored while training, and frequently drawing blood to check on his count to make sure he’s not making the same mistakes as before the previous fight were shown on UFC’s Primetime show hyping the fight.
And as the first fight showed, as well as every other fight of Dos Santos’ UFC career, nobody can afford to go in overconfident. One mental lapse against a heavy hitter like Dos Santos will mean lights out, as was proven in the first fight. Dos Santos’ stand-up game looked better than ever when he dominated former K-1 champion Mark Hunt on his feet for three rounds, before finishing him with a spinning heel kick to the head. The move put everyone on notice that Dos Santos’ game is no longer predictable and limited to mostly boxing and stuffing takedowns.
Velasquez’s trainer, Javier Mendez, said he expects a different Dos Santos, with some new tricks, pointing to the end of the Hunt fight as an example.
"But Cain has improved as well since the last fight," said Mendez. "His jiu-jitsu is better. His striking his better. His wrestling skill is about the same, because he started as a high-level wrestler. But his wrestling is sharp training with Daniel Cormier."
After entering the lobby in Mendez’s American Kickboxing Academy gym in San Jose, Calif., there is a relatively small room, surrounded by walls on three sides and a cage on the fourth. Mendez points to it, noting he’s seen the highest level heavyweight fights in the world several times over the past several weeks. Velasquez and Cormier are regularly going at it, almost like a competitive fight. The only difference is they have protection, and if one or the other is to get in trouble, they aren’t finishing the other guy off.
Both Mendez and Velasquez point to those sessions as another difference maker. Cormier, currently ranked just behind Dos Santos as the No.2 heavyweight contender, has never lost a round in competition, and is facing a slimmed-down Roy Nelson the same night.
"We know Junior isn’t training with anyone at the same level," said Mendez.
It’s the first time the two teammates have fought on the same card, meaning both were training to reach peak effectiveness on the same day.
The only drawback of fighting on the same card is the night of the fight itself. Cormier has been in Velasquez’s corner in his last several fights. But he'll have little time, if he comes out unscathed, to do his post-fight medicals, and be able to be back at cage side in time for the main event.
While the rematch appeared to go perfectly for Velasquez, Mendez said there were two surprises.
"Cain got tired," he said, something he pegged as happening in the third round and something Velasquez admitted after the fight. "The other is, we found out how much of a warrior Junior Dos Santos was. He took a beating and he was there for five rounds. He was still trying to win in the fifth round."
Velasquez isn’t worried about being tired, or holding back early for a potential five-round fight.
"I do five rounds in training all the time, and when it’s over, I’m ready to do two more," he said.
"I just go out there and put the pace on that I want," Velasquez said. "I’ve always felt like guys have gotten more tired than I have. No matter how tired I was (in the second fight), I knew that he was way more tired."
Still, Velasquez thinks Dos Santos will also come out fast, and try and knock him out early, feeling that’s Dos Santos’ best window of opportunity. "If it does go to a decision, he’s not going to win it," said Velasquez.
In all three fights, Mendez has echoed similar thoughts, saying Dos Santos has only one way to win, which would be a knockout, while Velasquez can win via knockout, ref stoppage or a decision. Mendez wants a little more control, feeling Velasquez got tired because he was constantly shooting for takedowns, some of which weren’t set up. He also felt that he could work on straighter punches. Still, the swarm tactics worked as Dos Santos had to spend most of the fight defending, and the pace tired him out. He also noted that while Dos Santos was able to knock Velasquez out the first fight, that "Cigano" landed plenty of hard shots the second fight that Velasquez walked right through.
Mendez has guided Velasquez since his first day of his MMA training. Velasquez made the decision as a junior at Arizona State that he wanted to go into MMA. His college wrestling coach, Thom Ortiz, had promised Velasquez that after his senior year was finished, he’d get him started on the right direction in MMA. Shortly after placing fourth in the 2006 NCAA Division I tournament as a small heavyweight, Velasquez packed up, and drove to Salinas, Calif., where his parents lived, and stayed there while training in San Jose at first.
Because his reputation as a monster at the gym spread quickly throughout MMA scene in California, he found it difficult to get fights when he started. Even though Strikeforce’s base was in San Jose, Scott Coker was never able to find anyone to face him. He was training for less than two years, and had only two fights and six total minutes of cage time, when he did a personal tryout for Dana White. White then signed him in early 2008.
While that sounds like too much of a fast track, looking back, Velasquez said he wouldn’t have changed a thing. He said he was confident at the time he was ready.
Before he ever stepped foot in the Octagon, insiders and fighters were predicting he would capture the UFC heavyweight title as soon as he got a chance. Two years later, he had seven straight wins, six by knockout or TKO, climaxing with his title win in the first round over Brock Lesnar.
Velasquez has no superstitions, but that doesn’t run in the family.
He noted that his father, who was there at the first Dos Santos fight, now won’t come and watch him live, feeling it’s bad luck.
He jokes about how proud his father, Efrain Velasquez Sr., is of him. The older Velasquez, a migrant worker who came across the border illegally from Mexico, has been on a few UFC television shows to show the champion’s roots. He joked how his father loves the attention he gets as the father of the champion, in particular when he’s asked to sign autographs. It’s so much that when strangers ask his mother if her husband is the father of Cain Velasquez, she will usually say no.
Velasquez also expects a different Dos Santos, and even surmises he may try and change things up and fight on the ground. Dos Santos is a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, having trained extensively with the Nogueira brothers. But he’s never shown what he can do on the ground in UFC competition since he’s dominated everyone without having to go there.
Velasquez’s game has been based more on wrestling and all out pressure standing up. He’s never won by submission, as when he gets an opponent down, his game is relentless ground-and-pound.
But the skill is there, as Velasquez on Thursday was promoted to black belt by BJJ trainer Leandro Vieira.
The two men are essentially untouched in UFC competition, except for high-profile blemishes against each other. With the exception of his first-round knockout loss to Dos Santos, Velasquez (12-1) hasn’t come close to losing a round in his career.
It was the loss that made Velasquez best come to grips with his first win over Lesnar in 2010.
"When I first got it, it kind of felt surreal," he said. "It felt like a dream, almost. But when I lost it, that’s what made it real. I felt so bad. I don’t want to go back to those feelings."
Dos Santos (16-2), lost once early in his career, but his UFC resume includes wins over Fabricio Werdum, Stefan Struve, Mirko Cro Cop, Gabriel Gonzaga, Nelson, Shane Carwin, Frank Mir and most recently, Hunt.
Velasquez during this past week would start practice at 242 or 243 pounds, and expects to be 239 or 240 pounds on fight day. The number has nothing to do with his opponent and everything to do with what he feels is best for himself.
"I feel the best at 240," he said. "Heavier, I get a little slow. At 240, I still feel strong, and fast."
He was 248 when he lost to Dos Santos the first time, likely due to knee problems limiting his training, although Dos Santos also suffered a serious knee injury before the fight. It’s not something he’ll acknowledge. When it comes to the first fight, his answer is usually similar. "I didn’t follow the game plan," he said.