On December 29 in Las Vegas, former UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez will attempt to regain his crown from Junior dos Santos in the main event of UFC 155. Undoubtedly one of the top big man in the sport today, Velasquez arrived in the Octagon with talent, determination and a host of expectations a little over three years ago. Here’s our first look at Velasquez before his UFC 83 bout with Brad Morris in 2008.
New Blood for the Heavies - Cain Velasquez makes his UFC Debut
Ever notice that when a stellar collegiate wrestling star makes his transition into mixed martial arts, striking is never an issue in those formative months of development? Learning jiu-jitsu can be a frustrating chore, figuring out that what worked on the wrestling mat may not work in the Octagon can be equally baffling, but when it comes to punching, elbowing, and kicking, that’s like being a kid who wakes up on his birthday and finds out he got a snow day off from school as well.
Heavyweight prospect Cain Velasquez most certainly agrees.
“In the wrestling room we’re all pretty much beating each other up already,” he laughs. “We just don’t have any gloves on and our fists aren’t closed, but we’re smacking each other across the head; that’s what hand fighting is.”
And truth be told, if the stars had been aligned differently when the Salinas, California born Velasquez was growing up, he may have wound up not as a promising mixed martial artist, but as the first Mexican-American heavyweight boxing champion.
“My dad wanted me to box, and I wanted to box too,” recalls Velasquez, and despite lacing up the gloves and learning a few things from his father while hitting the heavy bag, the time and financial commitment necessary to send him to a boxing gym on a daily basis kept him from pursuing the sweet science. Then junior high school intervened.
“I got into wrestling and that was it for me,” he smiles. “It was all wrestling.”
Throughout junior high, high school, and college, Velasquez applied the fighting mentality ingrained in modern-day Mexican icons like Erik Morales, Marco Antonio Barrera, Juan Manuel and Rafael Marquez, and Israel Vazquez to his wrestling, and the results speak for themselves: junior college national championship for Iowa Central Community College in 2002, two-time All-American status for Arizona State, Pac-10 wrestler of the year in 2005, two top five placements in the NCAA Championship tournament.
“It’s not something I think about and I think I have that already,” said Velasquez of the warrior spirit epitomized by Mexican fighters. “That’s my fighting style and that’s my wrestling style – to go out there and brawl. I put a lot of pressure on guys, I throw a lot of punches and kicks, and that’s just the way I fight. It’s the Mexican heart.”
Given Velasquez’ success on the collegiate level, there was little question that he was going to pursue mixed martial arts as a career when he graduated, despite earning his degree in education, and though he briefly considered sticking around for the 2008 Olympics, fighting was where his heart was.
“My junior year, I knew already that I wanted to fight when I was done,” said Velasquez. “I told my coach (Thom Ortiz) and he said ‘worry about wrestling now, and when you’re done wrestling we’ll figure out something for you to do and find a camp for you.’ And when I was done, he hooked me up with AKA and the rest is history.”
AKA (American Kickboxing Academy) is home to some of the UFC’s top contenders, such as Jon Fitch, Josh Koscheck, and Mike Swick, as well as world-class battlers from around the MMA world and various visitors who pop in to the San Jose gym for quality work. If you can make it in this gym, you’ve got what it takes to compete in the Octagon.
“To see where these guys have been and to see how I train with them shows me where I’m at,” said Velasquez. “Just having top guys from around the world come in and train with me, that kinda lets me know ‘okay, I’m at this level right now.’”
Almost immediately upon his arrival in the gym, the buzz started about Velasquez, his work ethic and his potential to shake up the heavyweight division, with all of this coming before his first fight, while he was still learning the fundamentals of the fight game. And though the striking came pretty easy, the jiu-jitsu end of things took a little more time for him to get comfortable with.
“Between wrestling and jiu-jitsu you have to have different mentalities,” said Velasquez. “Jiu-jitsu is more flowing, while everything you get in wrestling is from work. If you get a single leg, you’ve got to work to get the guy down, and with jiu-jitsu it’s more flowing, and the action is more controlled. That part of it was the biggest change. The striking and all that, I think I made the adjustment pretty easy for myself; I felt comfortable striking so that wasn’t so bad.”
In October of 2006, Velasquez took less than two minutes to pound out Jesse Fujarczyk, and two months later he was in St. Petersburg, Russia, halting Jeremiah Constant in four minutes of the first round. 2-0, two impressive wins, and the 25-year old looks to be the goods. On Saturday, he’ll get to prove it when he makes his UFC debut against Australia’s Brad Morris in Montreal. It’s a long way from St. Petersburg.
“This is the biggest show in fighting and this is what I’ve been waiting for,” said Velasquez. “Those other fights were just like wrestling matches during the season. This is like the Nationals. I had to work my way up the ladder to get to the finals; that’s what it feels like.”
He’s not getting an easy mark in his Octagon debut either, as Morris comes to the UFC with a 10-2 record and a reputation as one of the top fighters from the ‘Land Down Under’.
“He seems solid all around and there doesn’t seem to be a weak spot in his game, standing or on the ground. He seems real strong as well,” said Velasquez, whose only access to Morris’ previous bouts has been through the wonders of YouTube. But that’s okay; he’s been through tournaments in wrestling where he didn’t have all the answers on upcoming opponents and he still prevailed. He feels that his preparation in the gym, coupled with an experienced corner led by ‘Crazy’ Bob Cook, will hold him in good stead come fight night.
“We’re just gonna have to play it out, see what happens during the fight, and then adjust,” he said. “I’m gonna go out there, do what I do, play my game and if we do run into any problems, I’ll adjust with my corner.”
So, with the heavyweight division currently wide open, will we see a fighter like Velasquez moved up the ranks quicker than usual, and is this virtual rookie prepared for what may come in the next year or so? You know the answer before the question is even finished being asked.
“I’m ready for anything,” said Velasquez. “I’m gonna have to fight those guys eventually, so I feel ready, and I’m gonna keep improving no matter what. It’s time to go.”
And while Velasquez is a soft-spoken young man who doesn’t need to beat his chest to let the world know who he is, in his own way, he sees his destiny, and he’s not shy about revealing what that just may be.
“I’m non-stop, I don’t get tired out there, my game is good all-around, and I want people to see that I’m gonna be the next big thing,” he said. “That’s what I want people to keep thinking about, that they can’t wait to see me fight again.”
UFC 83 – April 19, 2008 – Bell Centre – Montreal, Quebec, Canada
The pre-fight talk about Cain Velasquez labeled him as the heavyweight division’s next big thing. The former Arizona State wrestling standout did nothing to dismiss that notion in his UFC debut, as he improved to 3-0 as a pro with a first round TKO win over Brad Morris.
Just seconds into the bout, a left hand to the head hurt and dropped Morris (10-3). The 25-year old Velasquez followed his foe to the mat, using strikes from a variety of different angles to keep the Australian from getting his bearings back. Amazingly, with a little over three minutes left, Morris was able to make his way back to his feet, but another combination by Velasquez put him down again. This time there would be no reprieve, with the follow-up barrage forcing a stoppage from referee Steve Mazzagatti at 2:10 of the opening frame.
UFC 155 Flashback - Velasquez Debuts in the UFC
"I want people to see that I’m gonna be the next big thing,” he said. “That’s what I want people to keep thinking about, that they can’t wait to see me fight again.” - Cain Velasquez, 2008