It’s often easy to get taken in by a fighter when he is at his best. We see him not only rise to a challenge but beyond, in his biggest fight, scoring a one-sided dominating win, and we begin to see him as invincible.
We see the power, speed, athleticism, dedication, courage, guts and we are awed.
We know from a lifetime of watching fights that mixed martial arts will humble even the greatest among us. We have seen it time and again, a fighter we believe to be the one who is the exception ultimately proven to be very human.
We believe that the reason it is nearly impossible in MMA to remain undefeated is because of how many ways there are to win, and lose. To a point, this is true.
But it’s also because of the frailties of the human body. It is difficult to remain unbeaten for an extended period in MMA because of the toll preparing for a bout takes on the body.
No one is exempt.
There was a time when Cain Velasquez seemed invincible. I saw his professional debut in 2006, when Fedor Emelianenko was still the world’s dominant heavyweight, and believed that Velasquez could be next.
He was 24 then, a fierce wrestler, and strong with an indomitable will and incredible cardio. He could go at a high pace longer than anyone. “Cardio Cain” they called him.
Nearly a decade after his debut, Velasquez is 33, a young man in the prime of his life yet his body is breaking down. It’s entirely reasonable to assume he’ll never again be what he once was.
On Sunday, he announced via a post on Facebook that a back injury has forced him to pull out of his rematch with Fabricio Werdum for the heavyweight title that was scheduled for Feb. 6 in Las Vegas in the main event of UFC 196.
“All of us fighters have all fought injured at one time or another, but I can't ignore this injury, as my doctor has indicated that not addressing the problems with my sciatic nerve could have longer-term consequences,” Velasquez wrote.
Unquestionably, Velasquez made the correct choice to withdraw from the fight. Fighters battle through injuries all the time, but an injury as serious as a back problem can’t be ignored.
And it makes one wonder if the Velasquez who bullied Brock Lesnar to win the title at UFC 121, who routed Junior dos Santos at both UFC 155 and UFC 166, and who mauled Antonio “Big Foot” Silva at UFC 160 will ever appear again.
Velasquez has had to pull out of fights because of shoulder, knee and now back injuries. It’s a part of life for a fighter.
Their careers are extremely short and the risks are exceptionally high. That’s why whenever a fighter has any notoriety and is looking at a mega-dollar fight, he should do just about anything to make sure it happens as quickly as possible.
No one is going to pay big money for a broken down shell of a former champion.
That’s not to say that Velasquez is a broken down shell of himself or that he won’t be able to return. It’s simply to point out that the fight game is a harsh business and fighters need to get while the getting is good. In this case, the getting is good when a fighter is reasonably healthy and can still compete at an elite level.
Few athletes have the ability to persevere through multiple injury rehabilitations and remain the same fighter. In most cases, the body is forced to make compromises and those compromises negatively impact a fighter’s abilities.
It’s why what bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz did remains so remarkable. Cruz suffered through three major knee injuries as well as a torn groin, fighting a total of just 61 seconds from Oct. 2, 2011, through Jan. 16, 2016.
After all of the trauma he put his body through, and all of the mental strain it had to put on him, Cruz came back against T.J. Dillashaw, one of the elite fighters in the world, and looked as good as he ever had in claiming the UFC championship.
Cruz, though, is a physical and mental freak, and few, if any, could match that.
While fans romanticize the action and see it as a sport, the blunt truth is that it’s a business and one of the harshest you’ll find.
The body is the fighter’s only tool, and when it wears out, there is no replacing it.
The only guarantee is that it will eventually be worn down.
Hopefully, Velasquez isn’t at that point yet, and that he can come back and be at least a reasonable facsimile of the guy who terrorized the heavyweight division for a few years earlier this decade.
The odds are against him, but we can at least hope.
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