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Travis Browne: Cain Velasquez 'still the toughest guy' in heavyweight division

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

WEST HOLLYWOOD, Calif. -- Travis Browne won't be fooled by Cain Velasquez's last outing.

No, Velasquez didn't look his best against Fabricio Werdum in losing the heavyweight title last year. And the Mexican-American star has missed a lot of time due to injury. But Browne believes that the man he'll face at UFC 200 on July 9 in Las Vegas is the best heavyweight fighter on the planet.

"Cain ran the division for years," Browne said at a recent media lunch. "He's arguably still the best heavyweight. There's situations that came up in his last fight, altitude and stuff like that. He had to learn the hard way. But I feel like he's right there. He's still the toughest guy. So it means everything to me. To me, this is almost my title shot."

Before the loss to Werdum, Velasquez had fallen just once before, to Junior dos Santos in 2011 when he went into the fight with a blown out knee. Most put Velasquez near the top of the pound-for-pound list for a long time. While he was the heavyweight champion, injuries aside, Velasquez was thought of as the baddest man on the planet.

It's for all those reasons that Browne is relishing UFC 200. A win over Velasquez means as much as any other victory -- maybe even as much as a win over Werdum. Velasquez was supposed to get a rematch against the Brazilian in February before yet another injury forced him out.

"Not only is it the guys that I've already beaten, but it's who I'm beating now," Browne said. "Cain being the No. 1 contender, how do you not mention me in the title fights?"

Browne (18-3-1) doesn't think a win over Velasquez will put him in line for a title shot. Not yet. He, too, is coming off a tough 2015. Browne was knocked out in the first round by Andrei Arlovski in May of last year and two months later was put on ice by the UFC while the promotion's law firm investigated domestic violence accusations made against him by his then-estranged wife.

"Hapa" returned in January and finished Matt Mitrione by third-round TKO. In the last three years, Browne has wins over Mitrione, Josh Barnett and Alistair Overeem -- all by TKO -- plus losses to elite heavyweights Werdum and Arlovski. That's not a bad résumé at all.

Still, Browne is not expecting to be gifted a title opportunity if all he does is beat Velasquez. He knows he'll have to make a statement in that fight.

"I don't think just a win over Cain will cement me the title shot," Browne said. "I have to go out there and perform and make it a show. Perform and come out on top. There's so many moving parts to it.

"It's a huge platform, huge stage to be on. There's gonna be so many eyes on you."

Browne, 33, said his loss to Werdum in 2014 taught him many lessons. Before that, his only loss came against Antonio Silva in a fight in which Browne tore his hamstring. Werdum defeated Browne via one-sided unanimous decision.

"It's amazing what happens when you get your ass kicked, what it will do for you motivational wise," Browne said. "He beat me. Until then, I'd never really been beaten by anybody."

After that loss, Browne left JacksonWink MMA in Albuquerque for Glendale Fighting Club in Glendale, Calif. He has clicked with coach Edmond Tarverdyan and found a partner -- in training and life -- in pop-culture phenom Ronda Rousey.

Browne got emotional at the media lunch while discussing the abuse accusations (the UFC cleared him last August and no charges were ever filed) and his relationship with Rousey. This is a new "Hapa" now, on a new path. One that just so happens to go through one of the best heavyweights of all time at UFC 200.

"For me to be a part of it and come out and get a win like that on that stage against the No. 1 contender," Browne said, "there's nothing better."