Is Cain able to take Lesnar’s title?

SAN JOSE, Calif. – When Brock Lesnar was on his back getting pounded on by Shane Carwin in the early part of their heavyweight title match July 3, some people in the mixed martial arts business saw it as the visual proof the powerhouse heavyweight champion had a major weakness that had been exposed.

For example, Lesnar’s most famous rival, former champion Frank Mir, went to the gym the next day to dissect the tape. He and his partners talked about how they now knew Mir could knock Lesnar out if a third meeting between the two could be arranged.

But Lesnar’s next opponent, Cain Velasquez (8-0), who gets his title shot on Oct. 23 at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif., was cageside for the Carwin fight and didn’t interpret what he saw the same way.

“I think it showed what kind of a champion Brock really is,” the soft-spoken Velasquez said after a recent workout at the American Kickboxing Academy gym. “I feel he’s proved a lot. The way he came back, what it shows is that the next time, the referee isn’t going to be quick to stop the fight.”

Unlike Lesnar’s previous opponents, Velasquez isn’t predicting either a quick or an easy fight Oct. 23, saying he’s both preparing and expecting the fight to go the full five rounds.

The former Arizona State wrestling standout has nothing negative to say about the champion. You aren’t going to hear mocking remarks about how “this isn’t fake,” referring to Lesnar’s pro wrestling background, or critiques of the less refined aspects of Lesnar’s MMA game. There will be no questioning of Lesnar’s character, no sound bites about how if he taps Lesnar on his chin that Lesnar will go out, or claims that Lesnar doesn’t have the character to be a true champion.

His thoughts on the fight are simple. He’s going to the gym and working hard every time, ramping up the workouts in the last two months and working on a game plan. He expects the key to his game will revolve around constant movement.

“I can’t just stand there in front of him with no movement and let him explode for a double [-leg takedown],” he said.

A long back-and-forth war is the most likely scenario. While Velasquez put Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira’s lights out in his last fight, he doesn’t have Carwin’s punching power. Velasquez is also unlikely to fade the way Carwin did, nor leave himself open for a submission. Neither man will be easy to finish early, and late. Because Lesnar sweats profusely, getting a submission will only be more difficult.

Velasquez expects to work constantly with high level wrestlers between now and fight time. Daniel Cormier, who was on the 2004 and 2008 Olympic teams, trains at the gym and through his connections with the Olympic team they expect to bring in the top level of wrestlers in the country. Mark Ellis, the 2009 NCAA heavyweight champion, has been in camp.

“The wrestling is going to be a big part of it,” he said. “He’s primarily a wrestler and I come from a wrestling background. But the fight will come down to everything. I expect there will be boxing, jiu-jitsu, kickboxing and wrestling.”

Neither man has ever fought past the three-round mark. Velasquez went 15 minutes against Cheick Kongo, dominating 90 percent of the fight on the ground. Lesnar had similar results in his only match that went the distance in a non-title fight, an even more one-sided win over Heath Herring.

“You have to do the time (five rounds) in the gym,” he said of his twice-weekly sparring sessions. “I’m going to be doing five rounds every time I spar.”

The similarities between the two fighters are striking. Lesnar and Velasquez both grew up and developed strength and mental toughness working on farms from a young age. Both wrestled from childhood. Velasquez was the better high school wrestler of the two, winning two state titles in Arizona. Both won a junior college national title, and placed twice in the NCAAs, but Lesnar’s record in college was better than Velasquez’s and Lesnar won a national title. Both had similar mentalities about wrestling, and somewhat burned out on the sport at the end of college, neither opting to try for the Olympic team.

Velasquez’s ASU head coach, Thom Ortiz, noted that Velasquez during his senior year had already talked of wanting to get into MMA, and that mentally he saw a wrestling match as a fight and was frustrated that so many tactics he wanted to employ weren’t allowed in the sport, making him a natural for MMA. Lesnar, before MMA became popular, used to talk about his wrestling matches as the closest thing to a legalized fight.

While both have similarities in background, and both started training for MMA in 2006 – Velasquez a few months before Lesnar – they are altogether different as both fighters and personalities.

Velasquez, as a small heavyweight, took to the sport quicker from a technical standpoint. He had the wrestling and conditioning from day one.

He won a blue belt world championship in jiu-jitsu barely a year after his first lesson. His striking showed holes against Cheick Kongo, where he was rocked hard three times, but he recovered immediately and used his wrestling to immediately get out of trouble each time. But in his knockout win over the legendary Nogueira on Feb. 21, in Sydney, Australia, Velasquez showed a disciplined and controlled offense of punches and kicks standing, and far stronger defense.

Lesnar relies more on his physical gifts, power, explosiveness and ridiculous speed for someone so large. Velasquez, who weighed 242 against Nogueira, expects to be about 245 pounds come fight time, which would mean he’ll give up around 25 pounds in the cage. Unlike Lesnar’s previous opponents, Mir and Carwin, he’s not looking at adding bulk to try to compete with Lesnar’s power.

“If I get too big, I’ll be sacrificing speed,” he said.

Lesnar, who turned 33 on Monday, recently agreed to the Oct. 23 fight date in what will be, along with the St. Pierre vs. Koscheck bout, one the two biggest fights left on the 2010 schedule.

While a lot of sports insiders have tabbed Velasquez, who has never lost a round in competition, as the best of the new generation of heavyweights, Lesnar opened as a slight 9-to-8 favorite on the Las Vegas books. With Velasquez’s respectful nature, the build to the fight is likely to be very different from the normal bombastic sound bites that Lesnar and most of his opponents have given en route to Lesnar’s career average of about 1 million buys per pay-per-view appearance.

Velasquez, who turns 28 on July 28, may have gotten the moniker of “The Monster” in the gym years back when his trainer, Javier Mendez, and fellow AKA fighters started talking about him as a future heavyweight champion, but he’s a quiet monster who doesn’t talk big. So others are left to tell the stories of Velasquez dominating big names in the gym, talking about his skill set and his endless cardio.

Training partner Herschel Walker shakes his head and says Velasquez has the best cardio of any athlete he has ever been around, but Velasquez plays it down. He said he gets tired just like everyone else, well, maybe not as fast, but learned at a young age doing menial labor to mentally fight his way through it.

“In college, I felt the guys were as strong as I was for the first half of the first round,” Velasquez said. “But by the second round, there was a difference, and by the third round I felt a lot stronger.”

Lesnar, five years older, had a similar reputation for conditioning as a college wrestler at the University of Minnesota. People looking at his hulking upper body and figuring those big muscles need oxygen and his tongue would be hanging out after a few minutes of MMA competition have been left disappointed thus far.

“I’m going to have to follow the game plan to perfection,” said Velasquez.

Dave Meltzer covers mixed martial arts for Yahoo! Sports. Send Dave a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Monday, Jul 12, 2010