Is Velasquez aka the next champion?
SAN JOSE, Calif. – It’s Friday at the American Kickboxing Academy, the final major day of training for Cain Velasquez for his upcoming heavyweight title fight with Brock Lesnar.
This is no Johnny-come-lately gym. It’s been in its current location and run by Javier Mendez, a former world kickboxing champion, since the mid-1980s.
In recent years, A.K.A. has gained prominence with the rise of mixed martial arts, and fighters from around the world have migrated to San Jose to join one of the sport’s top fighting camps.
However, A.K.A. has never produced a world champion from one of its full-time trainees. But those in the camp are talking like it’s inevitable that won’t be true after Saturday night, when Velasquez faces Lesnar at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif., in what is among the most intriguing heavyweight championship fights in company history.
For years, Mendez has stated that the most talented fighter to walk through the doors of the gym was Velasquez, who moved to San Jose from Arizona right after the 2006 NCAA wrestling tournament. That was quite the statement. The list of fighters who’ve trained within those walls is endless and has included B.J. Penn, Frank Shamrock, Cung Le, Jon Fitch, Josh Koscheck, Lyoto Machida, Jake Shields and Gilbert Melendez. At the time Velasquez joined, he had a 2-0 record.
“Can you imagine the possibilities?” Mendez said when Velasquez first arrived. “A Mexican as world heavyweight champion. It’s never happened in combat sports.”
After Friday’s practice ended, Mendez gathered all his pro fighters and gave a speech, noting that in the gym’s history they’ve never had a self-created UFC world champion. It wasn’t Penn’s and Machida’s home gym when they were champions. It was the home gym of Frank Shamrock during his late-’90s run, but he arrived in San Jose as an established world-class fighter.
Velasquez expects to become the gym’s crown jewel.
“All the work has been done,” said Velasquez, 28, after his final major workout. “It was a good training camp. I had good partners. All the angles have been covered.”
Velasquez spent much of the final session hitting pads, hitting the heavy bag and shadow boxing, largely as a warm-up. For a guy who’s been the subject of an intense media campaign the past few weeks and will headline what will be one of the five biggest pay-per-view events of any kind this year, inside the gym he’s kept a low profile, working out by himself or with a partner holding pads.
Until it was sparring time.
In his last session, Velasquez did one round each with John Devine, a big local heavyweight; Herschel Walker, still a remarkable physical specimen and one of the greatest all-around athletes in the world during his prime; and fighter Mike Kyle. Velasquez never flinched, no matter how hard the punches. He never breathed heavy, with no difference from the beginning of Round 1 to the end of Round 3. Every time he even thought about a takedown, his partner was on his back, at times with impressive high throws.
During this camp, one thing he’s worked on in particular is being on the bottom, a position Velasquez has been in only for a few scant seconds in his eight-fight career. In camp, Velasquez has been held down by the likes of Daniel Cormier, a better wrestler than Lesnar; Bobby Lashley, a strong international class wrestler with a powerful top control game; and Mark Harris, the 2009 NCAA heavyweight champion.
“The strategy on my back is not to take punches and look for a submission, but to get back up,” Velasquez said.
Said Mendez, “He sometimes gets out immediately, and sometimes it may take 30 seconds, but he always gets out.”
But no matter who he trains with, the problem is there’s nobody possessing Lesnar’s unique strengths in the sport. And A.K.A. agrees with him.
“The one thing missing in camp is that we couldn’t bring in Brock Lesnar as a training partner,” said Bob Cook, who has managed Velasquez and been one of his trainers from the start. “There’s nobody else in the world like him.”
Velasquez’s reputation for conditioning has been known since his UFC arrival. He’s regarded as one of the best-conditioned heavyweights the sport has ever seen.
“We saw it from the first or second day he was here,” Cook said. “It was something he was born with.”
But Mendez bristles at talk that Lesnar is going to get tired, saying he’s seen no evidence of it in Lesnar’s previous fights.
“He went three rounds with Heath Herring and was fine. We expect this is going five rounds, and we expect him to be there all five rounds,” he said. “If you go in with the idea he’s going to get tired, what happens if he doesn’t?”
And they concede this fight is anything but a given.
“Cain is more skilled than Brock Lesnar at every aspect of the game,” Mendez said. “But can that overcome the size and strength? That’s the big question. If they execute their game plan and we don’t, they win. I think I know what their game plan is, and it’s a good one. But if they execute their game plan and we execute our game plan, we win. If it goes to a decision, we’re winning the decision.”
Mendez wouldn’t elaborate on the game plan past one word: “movement,” which makes sense. One would think Lesnar would use his size to push Velasquez into the cage, and use knees and punches from short range.
Velasquez would want to avoid Lesnar’s head-on rush with side-to-side movement, and turn it into a boxing match. Still, though not a skilled boxer, Lesnar can hit hard – and Velasquez can be hit. But Velasquez’s overall stand-up game is superior.
Velasquez was 250 pounds with eight days to go before the fight, and expects to end up near that weight come fight time. The previous day Lesnar said he was 265 pounds, and as of a few days before the fight may drop just below that number. He’s thick and has lower body fat than for any UFC fight to date. Lesnar said he won’t have to cut any weight.
If Lesnar is to be believed, all the hype about the 40-lb. weight difference could end up less than 15 lbs., and will likely be about 20 lbs. max.
Still, no matter what the weight, Lesnar has strength far beyond the number on the scale, and when he comes charging, he’s a living bulldozer. Velasquez has fought in UFC between 238-243 lbs., but wrestled at Arizona State at 250. After the knocking out the legendary Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira in his most recent fight, Velasquez, knowing his next opponent would be either Lesnar or Shane Carwin, went through a heavy lifting phase and added about seven pounds of muscle before the hard camp started.
But they also concede another advantage for Lesnar is his background in pro wrestling.
Lesnar has performed before big crowds as a college wrestler, bigger crowds as a pro wrestler, including being the main event in two shows that drew more than 50,000 fans, and in every UFC fight he’s been in. Velasquez has fought before big crowds at the NCAA tournament and in UFC events, but only once – his Feb. 21 win over Nogueira in Sydney, Australia – was he the focal point of the events.
“He’s performed before 50,000 people,” Mendez noted. “That’s to his advantage.”
Velasquez noted that he’s fine with all the added media pressure, which only will increase as the fight approaches, but it’s still a tenfold increase over anything he’s ever had in the past.
“He was having trouble with it a few weeks ago,” Mendez said. “We had to tell him, ‘This is what you’ve worked your whole life for, and this is part of being a champion. You can make it go away if you lose.’ ”
He hasn’t complained since.