Velasquez reluctantly accepts role in spotlight
Seconds after the bell rang to begin their heavyweight championship match in the main event of UFC 121 at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif., Brock Lesnar roared out of his corner at Cain Velasquez. It wasn’t much different from the way linebacker Ray Lewis charges after quarterback Ben Roethlisberger upon the snap of the football in a Ravens-Steelers game.
Having a snarling, angry 280-pound man such as Lesnar bearing down on you with intent to do major harm would reduce 99.99 percent of the population to a quivering mess.
Velasquez, though, is part of that 0.01 percent who actually enjoys that part of mixed martial arts. It’s what he’s had to do since stopping Lesnar in the first round and capturing the Ultimate Fighting Championship heavyweight title on Oct. 23 that has been kind of scary for Velasquez.
He’s been on something of a victory tour the last few weeks, attempting to capitalize on his high-profile triumph over the grizzly-sized Lesnar. He was a guest on George Lopez’s “Lopez Tonight” show and is in the midst of a UFC-mandated marketing tour that has taken him to New York, Toronto, Miami, Arizona and Mexico.
Velasquez became the first Mexican-American heavyweight champion in any combat sport when he beat Lesnar, and the UFC and his management team at Zinkin Entertainment want to take advantage of that. Though the fight is believed to have sold slightly more than 1 million on pay-per-view, much of that is attributable to Lesnar, who is far and away the biggest draw in the sport.
Beating the man doesn’t make one the man, at least not in a ticket-selling or pay-per-view sense. As a result, Velasquez had to hit the road only days after his stunning win in an attempt to raise his profile. And that, to him, was the difficult part.
Velasquez, 28, is a quiet man who would prefer to just train, fight and spend time with his family. Doing interviews, making personal appearances and playing the role of a star are foreign to Velasquez and comprise the part of modern MMA that he could easily do without.
“This is the hard part for me, the work part,” Velasquez said. “I love to train and I love to fight. The media, all the attention, I can do without it, to be honest with you. I’d be happy without it. It comes with the territory, though. The UFC is the biggest show in the world and if you want to do that, you have to take everything that comes with it, the good and the bad.
“I’m doing the best I can. It’s not my thing and it’s not what I’m good at, but the UFC knows what they’re doing and they know how important this is, so I am doing my best.”
Lesnar is a human sound bite and has a natural feel for hyping a fight. Though Lesnar would prefer his privacy as well, his days as a professional wrestler helped prepare him for the responsibilities of generating interest in a bout. In a perfect world, perhaps, the most talented fighters would be paid the most money, but in a competitive entertainment market, it’s the guys who sell the most tickets and the most pay-per-views who are rewarded most handsomely.
Velasquez isn’t as comfortable or as natural with his interviews as Lesnar, but he’s willing to do his best. So, the tour hasn’t been a total disaster for him, though he did have a big scare when he arrived at Lopez’s studio for taping on Oct. 25 and was handed a script.
“The show was a lot of fun, but it was just doing an interview and I’ve done hundreds of interviews, so that was no different and no big deal to me,” Velasquez said.
What was different, though, was that Lopez’s producers wanted to do a skit at the opening in which Velasquez pretended to intimidate Lopez and play a bad guy. A bit of acting would be involved. And that’s when Velasquez began to sweat a little.
“I got to the studio and when they gave me this script and said, ‘You’re going to have to do some acting,’ my legs started shaking so badly,” said Velasquez, who is 9-0 overall and 7-0 in the UFC. “I wasn’t expecting that. I’m definitely no actor.”
His legs were shaking badly when he had to do about a 30-second skit with Lopez, but he said that he was “super calm, completely relaxed,” in the cage against Lesnar.
That’s because he had trained for the day he’d fight for the heavyweight title ever since he left Arizona State as a two-time All-American wrestler and decided to turn pro as a mixed martial arts fighter. Velasquez debuted in Strikeforce in 2006 and stopped Jesse Fujarczyk in just one minute, 58 seconds.
That was no surprise to his coach, Javier Mendez, who knew the second he saw Velasquez working out at his gym – the American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose, Calif. – that Velasquez was destined for greatness.
“I put all the time in because I wanted to be a champion,” Velasquez said.
He was tested by Sports Science prior to the fight with Lesnar, where it was discovered that he had the cardiovascular endurance of a marathon runner. He punched harder than any boxer they’d ever tested and the force he applied on a takedown was similar to the kind that Indianapolis Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney applies coming off the edge to blast a quarterback.
Knowing that, perhaps it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that he was able to handle Lesnar so easily despite giving up three inches in height and perhaps as much as 35 pounds in the cage that night.
But as MMA grows and becomes more mainstream, fighters are going to have to do these kinds of tours more often.
Velasquez accepts the role, but it doesn’t mean he relishes it.
“I’m a pretty simple guy and if I’m not training, I’d rather just be home spending quiet time with the family,” Velasquez said. “I don’t need all the hype and the attention. That’s not what motivates me.”
But given that the tour is now becoming part of the heavyweight champion’s job description, Velasquez admits it clearly beats the alternative. It wouldn’t have been a good thing for him had it been Lesnar on this tour.
“I guess the way to look at it is that if I’m doing all this, it means I’ve been successful,” he said. “And really, that’s why I do everything I do, to win. When you win important fights, these are the kinds of things that come along with it.”