mma / Columns

Cain Velasquez Looks to Shake Up the Heavyweight Division, Again

February 11, 2019 | Posted by Dan Plunkett
Cain Velasquez

The UFC heavyweight division may just be shaken up this week. If that happens, we can only hope the quake will defy history and its tremors felt for many months to come.

Knock on wood immediately after reading this sentence: Cain Velasquez is scheduled to fight on Saturday. A fighter who at his peak might have been the best heavyweight to ever compete in MMA is now surrounded by questions. At 36, can he still be the same Cain Velasquez that won the heavyweight championship twice, or at least the one that tore through Travis Browne? Will his age, injury history, and general wear-and-tear return a fighter that was best left on the sidelines? Is it possible that Velasquez is still the best heavyweight in the world?

On Saturday, Velasquez fights Francis Ngannou, an unpolished yet monstrously powerful striker that can sleep anyone in the division. On his best day—barring the very real possibility of getting caught by one of Ngannou’s cannonballs—Velasquez would tear through a fighter like Ngannou. He would pressure, keep a pace no heavyweight could match, and simultaneously batter and wear out his foe. To his foes, this was an opponent from their nightmares. Even in the earliest days of his career, nobody wanted to fight Cain Velasquez.

Velasquez headed to the UFC after only two professional fights, not because of a concerted effort on the UFC’s part to scoop Velasquez up early, but because there weren’t opponents on the regional circuit willing to fight him. Prior to his UFC debut, there was tremendous hype for Velasquez emanating from the American Kickboxing Academy, his home gym. He looked like everything he was hyped up to be in his debut, a two-minute thumping of Brad Morris, and then again in his sophomore UFC bout against Jake O’Brien.

The first real test of his career came against Cheick Kongo in June 2009. Although Kongo had obvious deficiencies in his grappling, he was already a proven commodity in the UFC and a significant step up from Velasquez’s prior opposition. Kongo managed to hurt Velasquez in the opening moments of all three rounds, but those were the only moments that went in Kongo’s favor. Velasquez proved his grappling superiority in dominating every other second of the fight.

He moved on to fight Ben Rothwell, and never gave Rothwell a chance to breath. The referee was forced to stop the assault early in the second round. This was the fight that proved Velasquez’s standing as a top heavyweight, but he needed to take another step up before graduating to a title shot. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira was coming off his best performance in years, and a prime, durable Nogueira would give anybody in the heavyweight division issues, particularly an inexperienced fighter like Velasquez. But instead of the expected close fight between the superstar up-and-comer and the slightly-removed-from-his-prime veteran, Velasquez took Nogueira’s head off in the first round to close the show.

That lead to the title, which meant Brock Lesnar. Lesnar picked up MMA remarkably quickly, and through his early bouts made significant leaps in ability from fight to fight. Following a bout with diverticulitis in late-2009 that nearly killed him, that progress stalled and perhaps regressed. He never found comfort on his feet and didn’t react well when his opponent forced the action there. That proved to be the difference against Velasquez, who had found comfort on his feet and who Lesnar couldn’t hold down. Velasquez sent Lesnar tumbling around the mat in a dominant performance that indicated he would be the era’s leading heavyweight. Junior dos Santos felt differently.

Upon his arrival to the UFC, the promotion had immediately put dos Santos in the middle of the battlefield with tough heavyweights. He cut through all of them. Dos Santos carried seven consecutive UFC victories—including five knockouts—into his heavyweight title challenge against Cain Velasquez. What figured to be a monumental tilt to determine the heavyweight flag-bearer for years to come was hindered by injuries. Both Velasquez and dos Santos suffered knee injuries leading into the fight, but neither wanted to withdraw due to the platform: the fight was the sole focus of the UFC’s debut on Fox.

Velasquez was noticeably softer and heavier at weigh ins. It was his first fight in more than a year, having been sidelined after the Lesnar victory with a torn rotator cuff. In appearance and performance, he didn’t look like the mauler that had dominated the first nine opponents of his career. One minute into the fight, dos Santos tagged Velasquez, put him down, and took the title.

Attention soon turned toward a rematch. Velasquez returned to form in his next fight, leaving the mat with a generous coating of Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva’s blood. When the rematch with dos Santos came around in December 2012, fans saw the long battle they assumed they would see in the first fight. This time, it was all Velasquez, who treated dos Santos the way he did every other opponent he faced. He pressured him, kept a pace dos Santos had no answer for, battered him, wore him out, and made dos Santos look like nothing special. A year later, he repeated the performance, only this time he finished a spent dos Santos.

This is where the injuries start to take a firm grasp. When you think of injuries derailing careers, Velasquez is one of the first fighters that pops into mind. After the third dos Santos fight, a shoulder injury kept him on the shelf for a year. A month before he was ready to return for a title defense against Fabricio Werdum, a meniscus tear kept him out of action.

When he returned at last, it was against Werdum in the altitude of Mexico City. Velasquez, renowned for his conditioning, faded badly in the second round. Werdum took over and submitted him in the third round. It would be another full year before Velasquez returned.

He was scheduled for a rematch with Werdum in March 2016 but withdrew with a back injury. In July, he looked as good as ever in taking out Travis Browne, but he was back on the shelf soon enough. The UFC scheduled him for a rematch with Werdum once again that December. Leading into the fight, Velasquez gave an interview to ESPN where he detailed his issues: he was in such pain that it was tough for him to stand for more than ten minutes at a time, and he had already scheduled surgery for early January to hopefully correct the issue. Despite this, Velasquez still intended to compete against Werdum.

In no small part due to that interview, the Nevada Athletic Commission pulled Velasquez from the fight. He hasn’t competed since.

According to his trainer Javier Mendez, Velasquez has been healthy for some time. He spent at least a portion of his time away in the gym helping his teammates, including training with Daniel Cormier for his successful heavyweight title challenge. In December 2018, Velasquez inked a new four-fight deal with the UFC and signed on to face Ngannou.

Now, all we can do is wait and see if the returning Cain Velasquez is the same fighter we saw in July 2016. Then, we can only wait and see if he’ll stay healthy enough to make a major impact on the division and the heavyweight title picture.

Dan Plunkett has covered MMA for 411Mania since 2008. You can reach him by email at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @Dan_Plunkett.

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Cain Velasquez, Dan Plunkett