(photo courtesy Josh Hedges/Zuffa)
Deep in the heart of the Acer Arena in Sydney, Cain Velasquez waited.
He was thousands of miles from his home and loved ones, preparing to fight in the main event of a major UFC show for the first time in his career. In a few short minutes, Velasquez would walk down the aisle to face his toughest challenge yet. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira became a icon in the sport by defying the odds, by taking enough punishment to fell a horse and still pull out miraculous victories. Nogueira was struck by a car as a child, a terrible accident that few believed he’d survive. But Nogueira was a fighter, and the only physical reminder of that day was the deep scar crossing his back. He was still considered to be one of the top fight heavyweights in the world, and his game was on a different level than anything Velasquez had seen thus far.
Strangely, Nogueira’s vaunted reputation didn’t faze Velasquez in the slightest. The nerves he usually experienced before a fight were missing in action, replaced by a peace that struck Velasquez as unusual.
“I realized during training that this was a much bigger fight for me. I wouldn’t say there was more pressure, but it did feel a little different. It was a big step up compared to the other guys that I’ve fought against,” Velasquez says. “But on the day of the fight, I was a lot more calm than I usually am. Even walking out to the Octagon, I wasn’t as nervous as I usually am. And it was a good feeling for me, because I’m usually pretty nervous during that time.”
Velasquez had trained for a war. Nogueira had a reputation for being nearly impossible to finish, and Velasquez was prepared to go the distance, to outlast Nogueira and grind out a victory. His cardio was impeccable, and he’d trained diligently to avoid Nogueira’s trademark out-of-nowhere submissions. He was ready.
“In all my fights, I expect a three round fight. I train for a fight that goes back and forth,” Velasquez says.
But the fight didn’t go back and forth. Using technical boxing and speed that made Nogueira look as though he was moving in slow motion, Velasquez landed punches and kicks at will from the beginning of the fight. He’d finally put together the kind of complete game that lived up to the hype he’d received since walking into American Kickboxing Academy for his first day of training.
This was not a good thing for Nogueira. He lasted just over two minutes with Velasquez before being clipped with a beautiful punch to the jaw that dropped him to the canvas. Velasquez delivered a few punches to the limp Nogueira on the ground, but the damage had already been done. The fight was stopped, and Velasquez had secured the biggest win of his carer.
The sudden end to the fight even surprised Velasquez. “I never expected to go in there and have the fight finish like that,” Velasquez said. “I never expected to go in there and have it end up with the ref stopping it like he did. I always have it in my head that we’re going to fight to the end.”
The win instantly turned Velasquez from future heavyweight contender and top prospect into one of the top heavyweights in the sport. He was in the mix for a title shot, the one place he’d wanted to be since he started training for the sport. It didn’t bother Velasquez one bit that he could be more deserving of a title shot than either Frank Mir or Shane Carwin, the two men who will meet to determine the interim champion and next contender for Brock Lesnar.
“I feel like I’m right there. But do I feel like I’ve done enough to outdo Frank or Shane? Have I done enough to outdo them or to outshine them? No. They earned their spot and they’re fighting for a shot at Brock Lesnar,” Velasquez says. “They earned it. But I’m in that same category now, so I’ll just have to wait and see what happens with that fight.”
Velasquez says he’s content to wait for his shot at the championship instead of risking it by taking on another dangerous fight. “I think that for me, the best bet would be to wait. I think it’s my time now, and I’m ready for it,” Velasquez says. “That’s what I want right now. That’s the reason I got into the sport, to get a shot at the title, to fight for that top spot. I can wait.”
Velasquez is soft-spoken and thoughtful in his answers. The only hint of controversy in his career has centered around the “Brown Pride” tattoo sprawled across his chest. A few fans say the tattoo is racist, that it could be gang-related. Velasquez vehemently disagrees. “Those people don’t know why I got the tattoo. They didn’t grow up where I grew up. It’s a saying of empowerment for Mexicans, the thing we say to lift us up and empower us. It was never a gang-related thing,” Velasquez says. “It was my way of saying that I’m proud of where I came from and that I’m proud of my race. I’m proud of my parents and everything they did just to get to this country.”
“You can’t really relate unless you’ve lived through it or your parents lived through it. A lot of Mexicans in the United States, they did the same thing that my grandparents did,” Velasquez says. “They’ve all come across the river to get into the United States. They’ve walked the desert to get into the United States. And they did it all to make a better life for their family.”
Mexico is a boxing-mad culture with a long line of great champions who are worshipped and revered as conquering heroes, but they’ve never had a great heavyweight champion. Velasquez could become an icon, a fighter mentioned among the greats of the sport. He understands what he means, not just for the sport of mixed martial arts, but for the entire Mexican culture. “I’m proud to be that guy for the Mexican people, the guy they can look up to. I would love to be that kind of role model,” Velasquez says. “I got into this sport to be that guy, and I’m glad to even have the chance.”
That kind of lofty talk could easily make a fighter complacent. When you’re told how good you are on a daily basis, it becomes easy to believe it. But despite earning the biggest victory of his career, despite being recognized as one of the top heavyweights in the sport, Velasquez remains humble.
“I feel good. All the hard work I’ve put in is paying off, but I still have to keep getting better. If you fight like I have and relax, if you stop working out or improving, you’re in trouble,” Velasquez says. “The sport is constantly evolving, and you have to evolve with it and keep improving. I love just trying to get better, and I feel like I’m still doing that.”