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Seeing is believing: Cain Velasquez is 'king' in Mexico

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Esther Lin

MEXICO CITY -- Daniel Cormier shakes his head and laughs as he attempts to explain UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez's popularity in Mexico's capitol city.

"People back in the States don't get it," said Cormier, Velasquez's friend and training partner at San Jose's American Kickboxing Academy. "Down here, Cain is the king. It's kind of hard to grasp until you see it firsthand."

All week long leading up to his UFC 188 title defense against Fabricio Werdum, Velasquez's public appearances have turned into circuses, as he's been greeted by throngs of adoring fans and a media presence befitting a rock star.

"I would hear stories about how, when he came here, he gets mobbed," Cormier said. "But now being here these last few days, and watching how people interact with him and see him, it's on a whole different level. It's like soccer players around the world. It's not like this is just another MMA guy. Some of the biggest stars in the world, that's the way he's treated here in Mexico."

Velasquez has never quite broken through as a superstar in the United States. In part, this is because the champion's injury hiatuses have kept him out of the limelight for long stretches. But it's also in large part because we've come to judge mixed martial artists by their willingness to participate in the dog-and-pony hype show as much as for their skills in the cage, and that's a game the intensely private Velasquez is unwilling to play.

But to hear Mexican fans tell it, Velasquez's stoicism is a primary part of his appeal. On Wednesday, fans queued up a line which stretched for blocks hours in advance before the open workouts, then greeted Velasquez's arrival with an ear-splitting cheer.

"What we like about Cain is that he fights," says Jorge Hernandez, a college student who claims to have driven two hours with friends to attend the open workouts. "There's no bulls--- with him, he just goes in and fights with pride and fights with his soul. That's the type of thing we like to see."

Velasquez is not one who is prone to pat himself on the back in public, nor to talk any trash -- calling Werdum "two-faced" the other day was as close as we've ever heard the champion come to badmouthing someone -- but according to those closest to him, Velasquez has a deep appreciation for the niche he's carved himself in his ancestral homeland's sports scene.

"He verbalizes it to us, to his friends, to the people who are closest to him," Cormier said. "He'll tell it to you. He's very excited to be here fighting, what it means to be here in this country, to fight for the people in his country. Cain Velasquez doesn't fight for himself, he fights for his family and the fans in Mexico City and the fans in the United States too. It's not like all of a sudden he's, ‘I'm just a Mexican guy,' he's a Mexican-American, he fights for all of his fans, but it means something for him to come here and fight for his people."

Indeed, Werdum stirred a hornet's nest with his jesting quip that he was more Mexican than Velasquez himself, red meat that might finally draw some casual-fan interest back home for a fight which should sell itself on its own in-the-cage merits.

The fans in Mexico City don't seem to be nitpicking the semantics over where Velasquez was born. Still, though, those around Velasquez say the champ, who couldn't fake it if he tried, took deep offense to Werdum's words.

"We all saw the Embedded show, we all knew what happened," said Luke Rockhold, Velasquez's AKA teammate. "It's not a good thing to piss off the champ. You're in for a world of hurt. If Werdum thinks he's in Cain's head, he's wrong. Cain holds his emotions back, he's more focused than anything, he's reserved, he's business. He knows there's a lot on the line, he knows he has to go out there and perform, he wants to get in there, so he's going to use Werdum's comments as fuel, but it's not going to mess with his game plan."

Besides, this week in Mexico City has been a long time in the making. Velasquez, of course, was supposed to defend his championship against Werdum here at UFC 180 last November, but an injury led to a fight fallout and Werdum's interim title win over Mark Hunt in the UFC's Mexican debut.

He might not have had much to say about it in public, but Velasquez's UFC 180 experience, in which he sat ringside while Werdum and Hunt tangled, burned deep.

"It hurt him," Cormier said. "He came in as a guest fighter and he sat through it. And yet that helped him, by getting to watch Werdum compete, but I bet it burned inside of him and he got to experience it and see that he wasn't on the marquee. I think more than anything i motivated him to stay healthy and get to this date."

Redemption. Pride. Fighting for his people. They might seem like old tropes back home in a "can you top this?" media storyline culture, but here in Mexico, it's enough to make Cain Velasquez, as Cormier put it, "the king."