In the Ultimate Fighting Championship's heavyweight division, there is Cain Velasquez, there is Junior dos Santos, and then there is everyone else.
Since both debuted in the UFC in 2008, Velasquez (12-1) and dos Santos (16-2) have each stepped into the Octagon 11 times. Both are 10-1 in that span. Both have handed each other their only loss.
So when Velasquez and dos Santos meet for the third time at Houston's Toyota Center on Saturday night, not only is Velasquez's championship on the line, but so is the title of greatest UFC heavyweight of his generation.
"That's the way it turned out," Velasquez said. "He won the first one, I won the second one, so obviously we need a third one that kind of settles the score."
Velasquez, a native of Salinas, Calif., got the ball rolling on the Cain and Junior Era when he pummeled Brock Lesnar to claim the title at UFC 121 in Anaheim, Calif. on Oct. 23, 2010. But a torn rotator cuff suffered during the fight kept him on the sidelines for more than a year.
When Velasquez returned, he faced a red-hot dos Santos in Anaheim. In the first UFC event held on FOX, dos Santos, who for his part hid a knee injury going into the Nov. 12, 2011 bout, clipped Velasquez with a huge right hand and then finished the bout in just 64 seconds, giving Velasquez his first pro loss in his 10th fight.
"I know what it feels like to lose a belt," Velasquez said of the experience. "Those feelings are still in me and I don't want to go back to having those feelings again. So that's what keeps me hungry right now."
Just when it seemed like the Salvador, Brazil native had surpassed Velasquez, though, Velasquez roared back in the rematch, held Dec. 29 in Las Vegas. With dos Santos appearing wary of Velasquez's takedown ability, the latter instead took the fight to dos Santos in the standup, delivering a nasty beating with his slick boxing. Velasquez regained the title via unanimous decision and ended dos Santos' 10-fight win streak in the process.
"I did a lot of things wrong and he did a lot very well," said dos Santos through an interpreter. "He got a very good performance in that fight."
Fight sports observers are notorious for judging fighters based on their most recent performance. So after the second Velasquez-dos Santos fight, the conventional wisdom that dos Santos was too strong and too skilled of a boxer for Velasquez to handle changed overnight to Velasquez being the superior all-around fighter who simply got caught with a lucky punch in the first fight.
While the truth is probably somewhere in the middle, a third battle should be enough to determine once and for all whether this goes into the books as the Velasquez era or the dos Santos era.
One thing you won't see, though, is trash talk between the two. Velasquez and dos Santos have been nothing but respectful toward one another in public throughout their saga, something that hasn't changed leading up to the trilogy fight.
"For me it's an honor to be competing at such a high level with this guy," dos Santos said. "Cain Velasquez right now is the champion, he's the guy I have to beat in this division."
In other bouts of note Saturday, Velasquez's training partner at San Jose's American Kickboxing Academy gym, Daniel Cormier (12-0), meets popular brawler Roy "Big Country" Nelson (19-8) in a heavyweight co-main event. If Cormier and Velasquez both win, Cormier, despite being generally regarded as the world's third-best heavyweight, is expected to drop to light heavyweight to avoid a matchup with his friend. And in a lightweight fight anticipated by hardcore fight fans, popular Mexican-American sluggers Gilbert Melendez (21-3) and Diego Sanchez (24-5) will square off.