When undefeated Cain Velasquez steps into the cage at UFC 104 to face Ben Rothwell, he’ll carry with him more than just the usual pressure of having to win a fight.
Velasquez is one of the top prospects in the UFC’s heavyweight division, an undefeated superstar in the making who could put himself in the title picture with an impressive win over the former IFL star.
But for Velasquez, October 24th will be just another day at the office.
“There’s no added pressure for me. I have a job to do in the cage and a job to do in the gym,” says Velasquez. “I have to go out and win impressively. If I don’t, whatever anybody says about me means nothing. I have to make those comments count.”
Velasquez was originally slated to face Shane Carwin at UFC 104. But when heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar returned from surgery quicker than expected and asked for an opponent, the UFC made the decision to pull Carwin from the bout and give him a title shot.
Velasquez and Carwin were on equal footing in the division, and both were worthy of the title shot. But Carwin was chosen for the role, mostly due to comments he posted on the internet denouncing Lesnar’s actions after his UFC 100 win over Frank Mir.
Friends of Velasquez indicate that he was angry at being passed over for the shot, but Velasquez downplayed the reports.
“It was discouraging at first,” says Velasquez. “It is what it is. I will eventually be in that position, so it’s not a problem. They gave me Ben Rothwell, and I have to focus on the task at hand.”
Does Velasquez believe he’ll earn a title shot with a win over Rothwell?
“That’s for the UFC to decide, and whatever they decide is fine,” says Velasquez. “I will get my chance sooner or later. I don’t play the what-if game. The Carwin fight was a great opportunity, but now I’m fighting Ben Rothwell.”
The former two-time All-American wrestler from Arizona State has long been considered one of the brightest prospects in the sport, regardless of weight class. Fellow fighters at American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose speak with reverence about the work ethic, cardio and intensity Velasquez displays in the gym.
Rothwell represents the toughest test of a career that has largely seen Velasquez go untested. Cheick Kongo stunned Velasquez several times during the June meeting between the two, but Velasquez powered through the punches and earned a unanimous decision victory.
It was easily the biggest win of his career, but it’s distant history for Cain.
“It should have been different, but I’m not doing the same thing again,” says Velasquez. “I worked on the things I needed to work on after that fight.”
In Rothwell, Velasquez faces a unique challenge. The former IFL standout is an unknown commodity to the majority of the UFC’s fan base, and a loss could damage the efforts to market Velasquez as a legitimate contender. The company already has difficulties pushing him to the mainstream because of the “Brown Pride” tattoo splashed across his chest. A loss to Rothwell would make the job even more difficult.
Velasquez sees Rothwell in a different light, however.
“I think people know Ben Rothwell,” says Velasquez. “He had a big following in the IFL. It will be an exciting fight, because you know he’s always going out there to put on a show. We’ll let it all hang out, and it will be an exciting fight.”
UFC 104 could represent a turning point for Velasquez, a night that could see him transition from prospect to immediate championship contender. But if there’s any extra pressure weighing on him, he won’t show it.
“It’s just like any other fight. I think of every single fight as the most important of my life,” says Velasquez with confidence. “I don’t look at what’s coming after this. I just have to take care of business right now.”