Cain Velasquez, Daniel Cormier, their families, a few teammates and other UFC fighters and employees were sitting ringside at WWE Elimination Chamber last year in Las Vegas. They were there at T-Mobile Arena to see Ronda Rousey, the former UFC women’s bantamweight champion, make her first scheduled appearance as a contracted WWE talent.
By the time the show was over there, it was Velasquez who had caught a bit of the pro-wrestling bug. He and Cormier, the UFC heavyweight champion and longtime WWE fan, had an absolute ball, Velasquez said.
“We both were just going crazy,” Velasquez said at a media lunch earlier this week in West Hollywood, Calif. “It was like two kids going out there. It was just so much fun. I just lost myself in it, in the moment. We just started cheering. It’s just really cool.”
Fast forward almost exactly one year and Velasquez is making his return to MMA, headlining UFC Phoenix — the UFC’s first-ever main card on ESPN — against Francis Ngannou on Sunday night. A little more than 1,000 miles to the east, WWE Elimination Chamber 2019 takes place in Houston. Velasquez, the former UFC heavyweight champ, will be going head-to-head with a card that features Rousey in a WWE Raw women’s title defense.
Velasquez has a massive test in Ngannou, the heavy-handed giant, this weekend. And the American Kickboxing Academy product has designs on getting gold back against his waist in the near future with a win over “The Predator.” But somewhere in the back of his mind, Velasquez has a potential post-MMA career in the offing.
Last summer, Velasquez spent a few days training at the WWE Performance Center in Orlando. He was there, he said, to learn a new trade and simply to see how he could adapt to pro wrestling. Velasquez said he had a very good time there. And after MMA, with a competitive spirit hard to contain, the former Division I All-American in amateur wrestling would consider a foray into the professional, scripted version.
“That could be one of those things, yes,” Velasquez said regarding plans after mixed martial arts. “With that, too, it would also take time. I need to be in the gym more to do that. I gotta be engulfed in it for months and months to be the best that I could at it. I’m not looking to go in and just do it half-assed and do some appearances here and there. Again, if I’m gonna do it, I’m gonna do it 100 percent. That’s how I am.”
Velasquez said he did “everything” while working out at the WWE Performance Center, including working on a finishing move and doing moves off the top rope. Before sessions, he said the wrestlers there did yoga with Diamond Dallas Page and his famed program. Velasquez came away impressed by how WWE did things overall.
“Really good atmosphere with the people that are there, the coaches,” Velasquez said. “And there, you’re teamed together, you’re helping each other go forward and trying to make WWE the best thing it can be. Just that mentality is awesome. It’s different than what we do here in mixed martial arts. We have teams that we’re associated with, yes. But as far as the whole sport together, we’re not really working together for the same goals. It’s a little different, it’s a little more self-centered.
“WWE might seem that way, but it’s not. It’s people working together. It’s the people in charge like [WWE executive vice president] Triple H helping everyone to be their best. And that to me is something that I haven’t experienced since I was in college or in high school. That’s what was great. Just a really positive work environment, so it was awesome.”
Velasquez, 36, said he has started watching WWE regularly with his wife Michelle and daughter Coral and the entire family has gotten into it. Velasquez, a Mexican American, grew up being a fan of American pro wrestling as well as lucha libre, Mexico’s version of the entertainment medium.
When he went to the Performance Center, the main goal for Velasquez, he said, was just trying to find out if he could do it. The answer? A resounding “hell yeah,” Velasquez said.
“It’s obviously a different sport, there’s a whole different way of doing it,” he said. “So for me, just to take the opportunity to see if I could even do it, does it translate over to what I’ve done in the past to this? Or is it totally different? I found for me, I learned the stuff just really quickly from past experiences, from wrestling and from MMA. It’s like working with someone instead of working against them and try to beat them, which I thought was super cool.
“I felt like the transition for me, I felt like it was pretty easy,” he said. “Not pretty easy … but it was. I’m pretty athletic for a big guy. I learn by watching. Somebody doing something, I can do it pretty well. I’ve never been a guy to be sitting in a classroom and try to learn that way. That’s never been me. But to be in a setting like that, where you’re hands on, that’s the best way I learn.”
Velasquez would hardly be unique in making a transition from the UFC to WWE. Signed to WWE right now are UFC veterans like Rousey, Matt Riddle and Shayna Baszler. The list of former UFC fighters doing pro wrestling elsewhere is even longer, including the likes of Tom Lawlor, Josh Barnett and others. The current WWE Universal champion is, of course, Brock Lesnar, the former UFC heavyweight champion.
Lesnar lost that UFC belt to Velasquez in 2010. Velasquez said he’d be down for a rematch against Lesnar — in either medium.
“There or the fight game,” Velasquez said with a laugh. … “Both — back to back.”