PHOENIX — The last serious sighting of Cain Velasquez came 30 months ago, when the former two-time heavyweight champion stopped by the UFC’s bicentennial show to remind the fight game of his terrifying brilliance by ripping apart Travis Browne as if tasked with the easiest job in the world. It was short. It was violent. It was vintage. He melted back into the heavyweight ether after that, as he is wont to do, a ghost who reanimates himself every so often just to prod the UFC’s big boys with the knowledge that their house is still haunted by an infrequent force beyond their control.
Those 30 months feel like an eternity today. Gaze around the heavyweight kingdom and UFC 200 may as well be a lifetime ago. New records have been established, new legends have been anointed. In Velasquez’s absence, one of his dearest friends — Daniel Cormier, the same man who once abandoned his own weight class out of loyalty to his teammate — returned to retake the throne for AKA. But finally the time has come: At last, Velasquez is indeed back, set to kick off his latest comeback tour on Feb. 17 against Francis Ngannou at the UFC’s inaugural showcase on ESPN. And make no mistake, as the narrative of Cormier’s impending retirement hangs in the air in 2019, there is a plan in place for the erstwhile king.
“It was just about [finding] the right fight at the right time,” Velasquez told MMA Fighting.
“I believe this is that.”
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That right fight ended up being a nostalgic affair for an Arizona native.
The UFC’s debut on ESPN takes place deep in the heart of downtown Phoenix, within driving distance of many of the spots Velasquez once called home. To remember the last time Velasquez competed in the desert, one needs to trek all the way back 13 years, back to the heavyweight’s senior season at Arizona State University, back to when he just a standout wrestler taking the mat for the final home meet of his collegiate career. On a night where future MMA successes Ryan Bader and C.B. Dollaway led the Sun Devils to a one-sided rout of Stanford, it was Velasquez who opened the night with a monstrous 25-8 technical fall over poor Shawn Ritzenthaler. That final homestand spurred Velasquez to eventually win his second All-American honors in his second and final D-I season.
“I never lost at home,” Velasquez remembers. “At ASU, I never lost at home. Never. Throughout my whole life, I never lost at home. I only lost once — in high school I got upset. But all throughout junior high, high school, college: We don’t lose at home. That’s just what happens.
“So man, to be here again, to fight here in front of friends and family — this is just like old times again, right?”
Velasquez grins as the words leave his lips.
It’s a rare show of emotion from a dead-eyed assassin. There is a different feeling around Velasquez these days. It is easy to pick up. Although he is more familiar with the sidelines than most fighters in the sport — since Oct. 2013, Velasquez has competed in the UFC only three times, slowly poisoning a once unassailable legacy with questions of what could’ve been — he knows this last layoff was different. There were no untimely injuries, no unsettled physical tolls. Instead, it was simply personal. Velasquez has been healthy since mid-2017. The reasons for his delay were twofold, stalled contract negotiations and a new point of pride that can be summed up in six letters: Cain Jr.
The former ended up being resolved in a tidy manner. Velasquez re-signed with the UFC on a new four-fight deal late last year, a deal he says he is very happy with.
The latter ended up turning 2018 into one of the most rewarding years of Velasquez’s life. Because from the moment the former UFC champion first learned news of his incoming baby boy, Velasquez knew his 2018 campaign was over before it started.
“When we had my daughter — she’s nine now — at the height of my career, I wasn’t there for all of her baby stuff,” Velasquez says. “And that, to me, was hard, because you’re trying to be two places at once and you really can’t, right? This is where I make my living, so it was hard to balance the two. So I really wanted to be there for my wife for her pregnancy. I was there for her for the whole thing, and then my son being born and being hands-on the whole first year. And man, I love the time I spent away. I got to do a lot of things that I didn’t have the chance to do before. I just really cherished those moments that I had.”
That self-imposed break from the game gave Cormier the chance to move back up to heavyweight and achieve one of the greatest years a 39-year-old mixed martial artist ever has. It also gave Velasquez the chance to rest his beleaguered body and regain a level of strength and functionality it hasn’t enjoyed since his heyday as UFC champion. So as Cormier pieced together a storybook ending to his career, Velasquez sat back and worked and waited, no longer ravaged by a half-decade of injuries and surgeries and rehabilitations, biding his time for the right opportunity to come.
“I feel like I did [when I was younger],” says the 36-year-old Velasquez. “I do. Obviously things are changing — and as far as that, it’s like, I have to be smarter when I train because I could definitely overtrain at any moment. That’s just what I do. But I still definitely do feel the same. I feel like the time off that I’ve had, I’ve been able to work on some stuff that I really can’t when you’re in fight training, because you’re obviously training for a specific guy, just for a specific style. But to not have anything on the books and to be training just kinda the stuff that you want to train, different techniques and stuff, it was great time off.”
The change has been apparent to Velasquez’s longtime head coach Javier Mendez. He says he saw the switch truly flip for Velasquez six months ago, when suddenly the old Cain became an omnipresent force in the gym. Both he and Velasquez have been hyper-aware of not falling back into their old ways, and Mendez says the fighter he sees today is “actually a better, more matured, high-paced Cain like always, but smarter and definitely a better version than [UFC] 200.”
“He’s gotten smarter in training,” Mendez says. “He knows when to back off now. His time off has actually helped him, his body heal, and he’s quick like always. He hits a little harder and he’s motivated more than ever. He’s watched everybody else come onboard, and realistically I think he’s come back to regain what he always knew was his. And once DC’s done, which will be hopefully this year, then Cain will take over. That’s what I’m looking at.”
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Velasquez won’t say it, but the timing of the Ngannou fight is likely not a coincidence.
The writing is on the wall: Once Cormier makes his way to the exit, a vast hole will need to be filled atop the UFC’s heavyweight division. It is no leap to say the winner of UFC on ESPN’s main event will land in pole position alongside Stipe Miocic to challenge for that vacant title. Velasquez acknowledges as much, although ever cautious, he won’t elaborate other than to say he still needs to do his job on Feb. 17 to ensure it actually happens.
And that’s fair considering the colossus Velasquez is up against.
With his superhuman physique and ungodly punching power, Ngannou is effectively a comic book hero brought to life. He may have taken his lumps in 2018 and suffered through the first losing streak of his career — a demoralizing title loss to Miocic that exposed major cardiovascular and wrestling deficiencies, followed by a baffling no-show against Derrick Lewis — but he ended the year riding the highest of high notes, a 45-second romp over another feared wrestler in Curtis Blaydes.
Now both Velasquez and Mendez are wary of the man standing across from them in downtown Phoenix, a man who they know will be out to prove a point.
“Honestly, to me, it’s actually the most dangerous fight out of everybody that’s available,” Mendez says. “And the reason why I tell you [that] is because that guy can finish anybody. Francis can finish anybody. When he’s on his A-game, he can finish you.
“Can Cain beat him? Absolutely. Can Cain maul him? Absolutely. But can Cain get knocked out by a guy that hits like a freakin’ train? Yes. So my job is to be very careful with a guy like that. We can’t deviate with him. He’s too strong, he hits way too hard, he’s really fast, and now it looks like he’s got his mojo back. For a while there, it looked like he was fighting himself. Maybe overconfident, under-confident. I think he went from overconfident to under-confident to now confident. I don’t think he’s overconfident now, I just think he’s confident. So I feel that we have the most dangerous [Ngannou] that anybody’s ever faced now, because I think he’s finally got it down. One shot changes everything.”
The stakes are real. A win over Ngannou, especially an emphatic win atop the first-ever ESPN-UFC broadcast in front of a delirious hometown crowd, would open a world of possibilities for Velasquez and his future. Mendez says the greatest gift he could ever receive as a coach would be passing the UFC heavyweight title straight from Cormier to Velasquez — a real-life passing of the torch, and a remarkable payoff for AKA after the sacrifice Cormier made all those years ago. But a win would also open options as well, keeping Velasquez atop the ladder in case Cormier’s rival, Jon Jones, ever decides to make good on his promise of moving up to the heavyweight division.
The debacle of UFC 232 and the mud Jones continues to drag Cormier through on a weekly basis remains a point of contention for some in San Jose. By now it’s apparent that Jones has no interest in meeting Cormier up at heavyweight — he said so himself — but if Velasquez is able to take up the reigns from AKA’s team captain, he will personally hold the keys to Jones’ quest for legacy-changing heavyweight glory.
Even the normally demure Velasquez admits that the rivalry has long grown personal, and the opportunity to welcome Jones to the divsion is one he would relish.
“I hope so,” Velasquez says flatly of the possibility. “I’ll try to make that happen.”
But those are questions for the future.
For now, all that matters is that Velasquez is back. Back in the truest sense. Back in a way the two-time UFC champion hasn’t experienced in years. A marquee showdown with Francis Ngannou awaits in the desert, one that carries far-reaching stakes in myriad ways. Both Velasquez and Mendez know it won’t be easy, that if the same Ngannou who showed up against Blaydes shows up on Feb. 17, the contingent from San Jose may have to wade through the fires of hell to best the most dangerous puncher in the game.
“But the bad thing for him is that he’s facing Cain Velasquez,” Mendez says, smiling. “That’s the bad news for him. He’s facing the most complete, best conditioned — to me, the greatest ever. And he’ll prove it this time around.”