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Cain Velasquez, Junior dos Santos fight for historical legacy

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

SAN FRANCISCO -- Cain Velasquez and Junior Dos Santos have spent the better part of the last two years thinking about each other, studying each other, preparing to fight each other, and on two occasions, going to war with each other.

Both have mixed results, with one win apiece. It is not only both men’s only UFC loss, but neither has ever even lost a round in UFC competition except to one another.

Right now, from a record standpoint in UFC, they are identical. Each is 10-1, with eight wins coming by stoppage, and every win being dominant. But their similarities largely end there.

Velasquez’s record of being in control for 90 percent or more of every fight he’s had in his career was only stymied by the knockout punch dos Santos hit him with behind the ear in the first minute of their first meeting. Not only that, but in his win over dos Santos, a decision on Dec. 29 that brought him the heavyweight title a second time, he won all five rounds decisively.

He’s knocked out legends (Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira), destroyed beasts (Brock Lesnar) and twice left a storybook giant (Antonio "Bigfoot" Silva) looking like somebody had nailed him in the head with a perfect shot using a rock and a slingshot.

Dos Santos’ victim list is even more impressive. He’s outstruck the best strikers (Mirko Cro Cop, Gilbert Yvel and Mark Hunt), and punched out black belts so viciously they may as well have been white belts (Fabricio Werdum, Frank Mir, Roy Nelson and Gabriel Gonzaga).

Stylistically and personality-wise, they are very different. But they are the two most dominant heavyweights of this era. They would have run though the division like a Georges St-Pierre or Anderson Silva, if not for the presence of the other.

But that’s about all they have in common. That, and their professional goals are the same, to become UFC heavyweight champion, a title each man has taken once from the other.

For all of the time they’ve been consumed with the other, the two are neither great friends, nor bitter enemies. But when the stories of their careers are told, there is a good chance their legacies will be largely intertwined. When their careers are over, and this era is looked back on, it is very likely each will be the other one’s greatest career rival.

And that's something both can kind of feel going into their rubber match. The title of best heavyweight of the era is in the balance at UFC 166 on Oct. 19, when the two square off at the Toyota Center in Houston.

In preparation for the third act in their respective career story, they spent a lot of time together. They started in San Francisco on the UFC World Tour, then went to Los Angeles, New York and finally ended up at the Toyota Center itself, meeting with press and fans.

For Velasquez, he’s happy he’s doing it now, because in a few weeks, things get deadly serious. He, along with his main training partner, undefeated Daniel Cormier, who is technically the No, 2 contender for the title and the best wrestler in the heavyweight division, will train together as usual, but the dynamic this time is different. Instead of one helping get the other ready, they are for the first time fighting on the same card, meaning they look to both build to their peaks together. It may sound like a minor difference, but to Velasquez, it’s a significant edge for him.

The two men have indicated that they will probably never fight in competition, but will be in there with each other three times a week from early August until about a week before each man’s fight.

"It’s definitely an advantage. We’re both trying to peak on the same day. He has a three-round fight. Three times a week, I’ll be in with him for three rounds, and then they’ll bring somebody fresh in for rounds four and five," Velasquez said.

While Cormier’s style is completely different from dos Santos, Velasquez is concentrating more on being the best he can be, as opposed to preparing to fight a simulated version of dos Santos.

"After fighting three rounds with him three times a week, I’ll be ready for anyone else," Velasquez said.

Velasquez says the key is coming in with a set game plan for the Brazilian, and then honing it with the constant sparring and making it automatic by fight time with the constant repetition under fight simulated circumstances.

"Where are you going to find someone that can emulate Junior?," asked Velasquez’s manager, Bob Cook. "The only person in MMA would be him, or you’d have to get a top-tier heavyweight boxer to find someone of that size with that speed."

Cook noted that dos Santos, a heavyweight, is even faster than Velasquez’s teammate and sometime training partner, Luke Rockhold, a 6-foot-3 middleweight, who is also fighting on the Houston show against Tim Boetsch.

Velasquez is very different from most heavyweight champions. He comes from a hard-working family. His father worked countless hours in the sun on the fields. It’s almost a family heritage thing, having a job that requires hard physical labor. While many athletes see training to get in peak shape as a necessary cost to reach a goal, for Velasquez, training hard something he’s done since childhood, seems instilled as part of him.

Many fight for fame. But for Velasquez, while money is certainly part of his motivation, it clearly makes no difference to him if people recognize him when he’s in public or not. He’s gracious, but he is the opposite of somebody who is looking to be noticed or be the center of attention in a room. Still, as a UFC heavyweight champion, in some circumstances, you become that whether you want to be or not.

"I feel like I’m three people," he said over lunch. "There’s the person who is at home with his family (he has a wife and a four-year-old daughter). There’s the person in the gym. And there’s the person who fights."

While the person in the gym is the backbone of the person in the cage, he makes a clear differentiation.

"It's great to have a job where I can keep training," he said.

A star athlete in football and wrestling growing up, he got Division I offers in both sports. Unlike most in that situation, he chose wrestling. The choice at the time had nothing to do with an eventual career in MMA, since he never considered that until his junior year of college. He just thought he’d be better as a wrestler, and the hard work with little glory lifestyle of a Division I college wrestler fit in fine with him.

While he was aware of UFC from the start and can remember watching early UFC tapes with his friends, in his mind it then faded away. While in college, when it resurfaced, he quickly knew his next direction.

His wrestling coach at Arizona State, Thom Ortiz, said years ago that Velasquez had told him wrestling was "too limiting." When he was out there on the college mats, in battle, his mind kept telling him when he saw openings to punch and kick, and attack relentless, taking any opening. But the rules didn’t allow him to do such a thing. In that sense, Ortiz felt Velasquez was mentally, a natural MMA fighter.

Discussions about being professional fighters weren’t unusual in the wrestling room. Three former ASU wrestlers, Dan Severn, Don Frye, and Dan Henderson, had already become legends in the sport.

A number of people in that wrestling room ended up fighting. Ryan Bader and C.B. Dollaway, who like Velasquez, were All-American upper weight wrestlers, ended up in the UFC. Both assistant coaches, Aaron Simpson and Eric Larkin, fought in the UFC and Bellator respectively. Even Ortiz, in his early 40s, fought a couple of times just so he’d better understand the experience of fighting.

"Bader and C.B., they were thinking about it," he said. "John Moraga (who lost to Demetrious Johnson in a UFC flyweight title fight this past Saturday), he was one of the guys I hung around with in college. He always wanted to do it but he got started late because at first they didn’t have his weight class. He’ll get better. I think it takes five years to really put it all together."

Dos Santos, 29, came from a poor section of Salvador, Bahia, Brazil, a hotbed of the sport in the early '60s. In his native land, he’s known more as "Cigano," which means "Gypsy." When Brazilians come to the U.S. to see him fight, nobody chants "dos Santos," but "Cigano" chants fill the arenas. When tourists from the Brazil are in Las Vegas when he fights, they ask about "Cigano," almost always, never Junior dos Santos.

When they met up in San Francisco, sitting at the same table for a press luncheon, the interaction, or more precise, the lack thereof, spoke louder than any words. Neither had a bad thing to say about the other.

Velasquez arrived early, and was quiet and polite. Naturally shy, he will answer any question brought up, but unless he’s fully comfortable with the person, he will not speak unless he is spoken to first. If not asked a question, he seems to be in constant thought. Whether it’s about his training, his fight, or his family, only he knows.

When dos Santos arrived and sat several seats down, the two ignored each other. There was no casual greeting, no smiles, not even a nod of recognition. Nor were there any dirty looks, or attempts at mind games or intimidation. There was only a few people seated between them, but they very well may have been on different continents, like is usually the case.

Dos Santos, who usually has a smile on his face and is fun loving, seemed at times tense, but most of the time was laughing and joking. Both spoke of the other in most respectful ways, but not to each other at all.

Unlike many fighters, who give scientific explanations about their diets, Velasquez doesn’t worry about diet or weight that much. He’s 250 right now, although he doesn’t look it. He expects the rigors of camp will get him down to the low 240s.

As far as eating, he didn’t seem concerned, past the point of telling the waitress, "No fried food, please." Unlike dos Santos, he didn’t touch the cotton candy brought in as desert.

"I made a lot of mistakes in the last fight," said dos Santos, who in the past believed he had overtrained for the fight and thus didn’t perform at his best.

Still, he would say nothing bad about his opponent.

"He always moves forward," said dos Santos. "His stamina, it’s very good, especially for a heavyweight. His grappling is great. He’s a complete fighter. But I’m also a complete fighter."

"This time is going to be a different fight, for sure," he said.

Dos Santos noted the spinning back kick that he used to finish Mark Hunt as the example that he would not be the same fighter as in the first or second fight. Velasquez noted it as well, saying that while he’s very experienced at preparing for Dos Santos, he has to be aware that Dos Santos may come in with something he’s never seen before for that very reason. He noted that in a fight that may go 25 minutes, he can’t have a mental lapse, even for a second.

There are some interesting parallels between this trilogy and the battles in Japan in the last era for heavyweight supremacy between the two best of their time. In those days, the battles were between Nogueira, one of dos Santos' trainers and idols, and Fedor Emelianenko, who was Velasquez's favorite fighter when he rediscovered the sport in college and decided it was going to be his future.

Only when asked to stand in front of San Francisco Bay to pose for a photo did the two lock eyes. Neither would blink, flinch or move. There was not the slightest threat of violence that an intense staredown at times brings. But there was absolutely the feeling that neither was going to be the first to stop staring into the others’ soul or give the opponent any idea of weakness.

When the posing for publicity shots ended, they went their separate ways. They would be flying on the same planes, and repeating the same thing, for the rest of the week.

Tourists from around the world outside the Ferry Building watched, some recognizing the duo, others not. One older man noted that he knew they were two UFC heavyweight stars, but asked which one was the current champion. The greater visibility of MMA fighters in Brazil was clearly obvious, as Brazilian tourists reacted like a major cultural celebrity was there, making a big commotion about "Cigano." Velasquez got stares of recognition and curiosity, had some people wanting to take photos with him, but no screams of people like a rock star was in their midst. Perhaps, if you had taken the show to Mexico, the reaction would be reversed.

Velasquez’s father was born in Sonora, Mexico, and as a child he went to Northern Mexico to visit relatives frequently. He wasn’t aware that his fight was going to air live on Televisa, the leading network, in that country, but he fully understand what being on Televisa meant. On that night, in Mexico, he will be the cultural hero that millions will be watching.

Javier Mendez, his trainer since Velasquez moved from Arizona, noted long before anyone had heard of Cain Velasquez, that he would be UFC heavyweight champion. He also said, with certainty in his voice, that unlike nearly everyone else when that day came that the guy who would train until puddles of sweat were all over the mats, and then mop it up when the session was over, would not change with the fame and money the championship would bring.

Such things like the burden of being the center of the hopes and dreams of millions on the night of his next fight may add pressure, or create a sense of ego, to most.

"No, no added pressure," he quietly said, while thinking about whatever it is that makes him tick.