Over the past decade, Javier Mendez has built San Jose’s American Kickboxing Academy into one of the nation’s premier mixed martial arts training centers, with top fighters coming from all over the world.
When Mendez lists the five most talented fighters he’s seen walk through his doors and train, at least one name on the list will surprise you, if you’ve even heard of it.
No. 5 is Josh Koscheck, a former NCAA wrestling champion who is one of UFC’s top ranked welterweights. He came one takedown away from possibly beating Georges St. Pierre last summer.
No. 4 is Frank Shamrock, the former UFC champion who was the premier U.S. fighter of the late 1990s.
No. 3 is Cung Le, the current Strikeforce middleweight champion who was the top U.S. San Shou fighter before going into MMA.
No. 2 is B.J. Penn, the UFC lightweight champion, now ranked No. 3 in the Yahoo! Sports pound-for-pound rankings.
And No. 1 is Cain Velasquez.
If you do a double take and think "who is Cain Velasquez, and what is he doing on this list?" you wouldn’t be alone. Velasquez is a former Arizona State University wrestling star. In the 2006 NCAA tournament semifinals, he lost a close and controversial criteria decision after tying 2-2 with eventual NCAA champion Cole Konrad.
He’s only had eight minutes total of MMA competition ring time in compiling a 3-0 record.
On Saturday night, Mendez is figuring the world will take notice of the gym legend known in San Jose and spoken about with reverence by almost everyone as "The Killer," when Velasquez faces former Purdue heavyweight Jake O’Brien on UFC’s Spike TV special from Las Vegas.
"Right now, he could walk in and be a good pro boxer," said Mendez about someone who, aside from fooling around with gloves with some friends, had never even put on boxing gloves until August 2006. "He could not only be a good kickboxer, but he’s K-1 level (the Japanese group which is top organization for heavyweights in the world). He won a world championship in Jiu Jitsu (World No Gi world champion in the blue belt division in late 2007, 17 months after his first class). He’s the fastest learner I’ve ever had. And nobody trains harder. He trains harder than the lightweights."
Mendez, who said Velasquez today could beat Randy Couture, said he saw something in him the first day he came through the door for a tryout. Velasquez was sparring with Jean Claude Leuyer, a top heavyweight kickboxer in the 90s who threw a head kick at him to show the newcomer who was boss. Velasquez received the kick and immediately slammed Leuyer down.
"Right then, I said, 'He’s in,'" said Mendez.
But the real turning point came less than two months later. Velasquez was handing Paul Buentello, the gym’s best known heavyweight, his lumps in practice by using his wrestling to throw Buentello around.
Buentello came in banged up one day and asked Mendez if he and Velasquez could go at it strictly boxing, but what happened shocked everyone.
"He (Velasquez) beat him down," said Mendez. "I was blown away."
The idea was for him to get 10 or so fights on smaller shows before approaching UFC. But after missing a few months after breaking his hand in a Bodog Fight card in St. Petersburg, Russia in late 2006, his reputation was such that one fight after another fell through when opponents kept pulling out after they investigated who they were to be facing. He went without a fight for 16 months until his UFC debut.
Arizona State wrestling coach Tom Ortiz, who recruited him from high school, attributed a lot of his success to being such a mentally focused trainer.
"He always wants to train," said Ortiz. "We’d have to tell him it was time to stop."
Ortiz felt that Velasquez’s childhood background growing up in Yuma, AZ led to his work ethic. Velazquez worked the fields with his father at the crack of dawn, picking up and hauling watermelons for hours at a time, so he grew up with doing the same thing over and over again. It developed a mentality that thrived on repetition training in wrestling before MMA.
He was a high school state heavyweight champion in Arizona in 2001. The next year, he was national junior college champion at Iowa Central Community College. In his two years at Arizona State, he placed fifth in 2005 and fourth in 2006 at the NCAA’s as an undersized heavyweight who would have to eat heavy to keep his weight at 240 pounds, battling men like Konrad and current Olympic team superheavyweight Steve Mocco who would cut weight to make 285.
But there was a part of Velasquez’s mentality that wrestling itself wasn’t enough, which is why he decided against staying at Arizona State to help coach and try for the Olympic team.
"When I locked up (in matches), I wanted to do more than just wrestle," Velasquez said. "I wanted to punch."
He talked about leaving school after his junior year to get into MMA, but Ortiz told him if he promised to finish his senior year, he’d put him in touch with the right people to get him started.
"I think in a year he can beat Fedor (Emelianenko)," said Daniel Puder, who has many times taken his lumps in training from Velasquez. "The thing is, he’s got the greatest conditioning of anyone. He’s got the speed of a lightweight and the strength of a heavyweight. You can’t out-quick him. "You can’t out power him. You can’t outlast him. He doesn’t just beat people in the gym, he massacres them. It’s almost impossible to last a round. His only weakness possibly is to get him with technique. But you can only get a move on him twice, because he learns instantaneously."
But there is a big step between being the toughest guy in the gym, even at a gym filled with world class fighters, and dominating in competition.
O’Brien, 10-1, poses an interesting challenge. His wrestling pedigree is similar and he has a lot more big show experience. But there are questions regarding anyone who comes back from a broken neck, and he suffered his first pro loss, to Andrei Arlovski, in his most recent fight.
The match was put together with the idea that their wrestling will cancel out, so to speak, and that Velasquez can avoid being taken down by O’Brien, and thus it will turn into a stand-up battle. But MMA is often unpredictable.
Velasquez is one of UFC’s three project heavyweights along with Brock Lesnar and Shane Carwin that have debuted this year. All there are All-American heavyweight wrestling powerhouses and physical freaks that the company is hoping will carry the division depleted with the losses over the last several months of Couture, Tim Sylvia, Arlovski and the flaming out of Mirko Cro Cop.
Velasquez destroyed Brad Morris in his UFC debut on April 19 in Montreal in a prelim match in 2:10. He came in touted about his wrestling credentials, but it was his fast and heavy hands that came into play. UFC officials were upset time ran out on the pay-per-view before the match could be aired on tape, as it was clear there was something there. So this time he will be put on live.
It’s premature to shine up a championship belt, let alone the Hall of Fame plaque based on gym hype.
"But think about this, a dominant heavyweight champion, and he’s Mexican," said Mendez, in talking about not just his ability, but potential marketability. "There’s never been anyone like that yet."
- Cain Velasquez
- Javier Mendez