SAN JOSE, Calif. – Most people’s vision of what a world heavyweight champion would do immediately after finishing his evening workout wouldn’t include mopping up the sweat left on the mats.
At this stage of the game, Cain Velasquez could probably get away with no longer doing his gym’s dirty work, but that’s just not him. Velasquez (9-0) defends his title against Brazilian Junior dos Santos (13-1), making him the centerpiece in the most important UFC show in a number of years, its network debut.
But most days, which consist of his multiple workouts at the American Kickboxing Academy gym, he’s in a room filled with fighting stars. In the wrestling room on any given afternoon, you can look around and see Jon Fitch, Daniel Cormier, Josh Thomson, Gray Maynard, Kyle Kingsbury, Justin Wilcox and countless others rolling around on the mat. Except when media has been filming of late, in that room, he’s just another hard-working face.
Well, except on sparring day. Long before Velasquez beat the much-larger Brock Lesnar last year to capture the UFC crown via first-round stoppage, AKA’s fighters already talked of him as being the mythical king of their jungle. Even before he signed with UFC, it was considered the badge of honor, the proof of toughness, when you’d agree to go into the old boxing ring and spar with him. While not going 100 percent in these training sessions, Velasquez went hard enough without getting tired that everyone was made a believer. They took their lumps, but he didn’t go so hard that they wouldn’t live to tell the tale. He’d roll through big names and small names, fresh opponents, one after the other for five minutes at a clip, seemingly like a machine.
Football legend Herschel Walker, one of his training partners, spoke about him with almost reverence in his voice, saying in all the sports he had competed in, he had never seen such a well-conditioned heavyweight.
His reputation in the fight game spread so fast that after his first two fights, he was unable to find opponents. As a beginner, he went 16 months between his second and third fights. There was a knee injury involved, but it was more one opponent after another dropping out once they heard the stories about who the monster had agreed to fight. It wasn’t anyone’s plan for him to go to UFC after only two pro fights. His handlers wanted him to go into the big leagues with more than six minutes of total cage experience. But it came to the point that there was no other way he could get consistent fights.
It didn’t get much easier in UFC, as he had no name value to the public, but his reputation was well known among the fighters, so he was the guy most fighters wanted to steer clear of. The reason hard-headed Dennis Stojnic was imported into UFC from Bosnia was because, at the time, UFC didn’t want to rush him into facing the top heavyweights, and the middle-level heavyweights wanted nothing to do with him. Of course as champion today, things have changed as he’s everyone’s target.
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"He hasn’t changed, not one bit," said trainer Javier Mendez about the fighter who he had long predicted would some day be the top heavyweight in the sport.
UFC and Fox officials are hoping this 29-year-old son of a migrant Mexican farm worker will, by getting exposure on network television, bring back the glory days of the boxing heavyweight championship. The other goal is to establish the sport within the Latino community, which has long supported boxing and pro wrestling as much if not more than any culture in the world, but has been slower in embracing MMA. But if Velasquez is to do it, it will be with his fists and his wrestling ability, and not his mouth.
It’s just not in his genetic makeup to call attention to himself, or say anything negative about his opponents. He’s quiet and introspective, he comes across as a man who is constantly thinking about his ultimate task at hand. Whether he’s sitting in the corner taking a breather, or running endlessly on the treadmill, he appears to be visualizing his game plan being executed on dos Santos.
Whether it’s a packed Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif., with his music blaring and the crowd going crazy, as will happen on Saturday night, or a small building where he started his career five years ago, when he’s walking to the cage, it makes no difference.
"Either way, when I’m coming to the cage, I’m just thinking about my game plan," he said.
From a mental standpoint, Velasquez’s first year as champion has been one of frustration. Velasquez tore his rotator cuff in his right shoulder in his victory over Lesnar last October. He spent six weeks going through rehab, attempting to avoid surgery, until finding out the tear was so severe there was no other option. This left him on the shelf for months, interrupting a routine of hard training that dated back to childhood on the amateur wrestling mats in Arizona.
"It was definitely frustrating a lot of times," he said. "I’m a guy that wants to be at the gym and to train. And just getting that taken away from me was definitely tough. But I just try to keep my head in things at the moment. I would try to do stuff for UFC, you know, signings, just to keep me busy. I spent my time with my family and I had to get my head away from just thinking about being hurt and doing something positive."
"The rehab was fine," he said. "Just the doctor and the injury, it takes a while for it to heal. And with the whole rehab stuff in the beginning, it’s just letting it heal by itself, not really doing anything to aggravate the shoulder. So the first couple of months, I mean, it was tough, because that’s when I really couldn’t do anything. And then once I got the green light to start doing more extensive rehab, then we did range of motion, we start weight training light to get the strength back into it slowly, and then just kind of built up on it from there.”
Even with the time off, Mendez figures the Velasquez who goes into the cage on Saturday will be about a 10 percent better fighter than the one who beat Lesnar last year. But he’ll need it, as Dos Santos may not possess the physical size, strength or wrestling ability of Lesnar, but he’s a far more complete fighter.
"I’m nervous, don’t get me wrong," Mendez said. "Not so nervous that I can’t sleep at night. But if I was on the other side coaching against Cain, I’d be a lot more nervous."
[ Yahoo! Sports Radio: Jim Ross on Velasquez-dos Santos]
If there has been a change in Velasquez, it is that he’s more comfortable around the media, and noted it hasn’t been as overwhelming as it was for the Lesnar fight.
"Then, the cameras were following me for three weeks [for a UFC Prime Time show]," he said. "This time [with a regular single-episode show], it was a few days and they were done." "That’s just part of the job and I’m definitely happy to do it. It hasn’t been overwhelming. I think it’s been just the right amount for me to work on this and it’s been good. I’ve been nothing but happy with it."
Southern California, the site of Saturday night’s fight, has become Velasquez’s unofficial home turf. UFC had never broken through to the Hispanic audience when Velasquez was heavily promoted in the No. 2 fight at UFC 104 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles on Oct. 24, 2009. On that night he overwhelmed Ben Rothwell, who figured to be his toughest test up to that point in his career. With Mexican flags waving all over the arena, it seemed to be his breakthrough as a star.
Then, when he finished Lesnar to win the title at the Honda Center, in a show promoted around the idea of Velasquez attempting to become the first major Hispanic world heavyweight champion in a major combat sport, SoCal-based reporters at the finish noted the deafening crowd reaction was as loud as any at an area sports event in many years.
With a network audience, in what will always be remembered as the first show of its type, the stakes are going to be magnified, particularly from a historical standpoint. But for Velasquez, the trappings will make no difference, and it’s all about the months of concentration and visualization and following the plan. All the way down to mopping the mat when he’s done.
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