Cain Velasquez is the best heavyweight of the last decade, an honorific that comes with a huge caveat: he hasn’t fought for a full quarter of that time period. For the last two-and-a-half years, Velasquez has not journeyed to the inside of an octagon, partly due to a back injury, partly due to a paternity leave, and partly due to a contract renegotiation that dragged on. All of those situations have apparently been concluded to his satisfaction, finally leading Velasquez back to action at Sunday night’s UFC Phoenix event, where he’ll match up with Francis Ngannou.
For Velasquez, who grew up in Yuma, Ariz., just a couple hours west of Phoenix, the return holds personal significance. He gets to headline an ESPN event in an arena where his hometown NBA Suns ran wild during his youth, and to be surrounded by friends and family in the process. At this stage of his career, it seems that this is the kind of opportunity that means more to him than regaining the UFC championship. It may say as much about Velasquez’s own values system as it does about the reduced prestige of UFC belts that with his longtime friend and training partner Daniel Cormier sitting in the throne, Velasquez shows absolutely no interest in pursuing a third title reign.
His role then, will be one of his own making, but will be largely predicated for now on knocking off the top available contenders. There is a question as to whether he can still do it. At 36 years old, Velasquez is not old, but may be at an age where time and wear-and-tear combine to begin the process of decline, at least as it relates to elite professional fighting.
Upon Velasquez’s return, Ngannou, who has far fewer miles on his odometer, serves as a fair measuring stick, particularly if he has shored up his wrestling defense since his disastrous January 2018 title match defeat to Stipe Miocic.
After all, it was Velasquez who mastered the style that Miocic would later pilot to a record-breaking UFC title defense streak. The pressure, the volume, the takedowns, the relentlessness, those were all Velasquez trademarks that defined him as a singular heavyweight talent in an era of giant and powerful brutes. Yet they have been replicated well by Miocic, who in his fight with Ngannou, took the challenger down on six out of 14 attempts and dominated long ground exchanges.
All of this is to say that Ngannou has faced this kind of challenge before. While he failed the first time around, it served both as a reality check and as valuable preparation for his current-day scenario. On the flip side, it means Velasquez will be facing a Ngannou that is better equipped for a grueling, grappling-based fight than the one Miocic faced.
That suits Velasquez just fine. Never one to back away from high stakes, Velasquez memorably found himself signed with the UFC within 18 months of going pro. He then became the No. 1 heavyweight contender within two years of his debut, and was the champion six months after that. His rise was meteoric, and two losses aside, he has continued to add to his list of achievements over time.
Velasquez has given no indication that he will soon retire, but he also noted during fight week that he would have had no problem walking away from the sport if he hadn’t been able to reach a satisfactory new deal.
If this is the beginning of his final chapter, it will be fascinating to see what he has left. A victory over Ngannou, who currently sits at No. 3 in the UFC rankings, will vault him near the top of the contenders’ list. And with Cormier still flirting with a 2019 retirement, Velasquez could potentially find himself back in a title match by the end of the year.
None of that is guaranteed, however. And nothing much in the UFC is. One thing that has been generally consistent though, is Velasquez’s performance. Over the course of his career, Velasquez has brought the same explosive intensity to every fight, which manifests itself in his relentlessness. His ability to push himself far past normal points of fatigue is legendary. Volume is generally the domain of the lighter weight classes, but he has been a rare exception, averaging 6.49 strikes landed per minute, which is third all-time among fighters with more than 10 UFC bouts. (The only fighters ahead of him are Max Holloway at 6.90 and Jessica Andrade at 6.58).
Pace has always been Velasquez’s physical key, matched only in importance by his fortitude. When you’re a smaller heavyweight, these kinds of X-factors matter.
Against Ngannou, Velasquez will be at a size and reach disadvantage again, as he normally is. And yet he’ll be a favorite again, as he normally is.
“You’re going to see vintage,” Cormier said on a recent edition of The MMA Hour. “Like, the best. Nothing’s changed. He’s still as good. He’s still as fast. He still can wrestle as well.”
Even with Velasquez’s long layoff, it would be silly to discount him as a potential future champion, because even if it’s not his clear endgame, he has always been too good to keep from the title picture. The road back to the UFC championship may be unclear, but there are still asses to kick.