From the moment Brock Lesnar started in MMA, many dismissed him as a gimmick because of his background as a pro wrestling star. He became the sport's biggest draw, at first, largely based on his name and size and because a lot of people wanted to see the "fake pro wrestler" get beaten up by a "real fighter."
Those people are still waiting. In the last year, the venom toward Lesnar that was obvious among the fans in Lesnar's fights against Randy Couture and Frank Mir is largely gone. People have come to respect his work ethic, that he's proven himself against far tougher competition than virtually any newcomer in modern MMA history, that he became world champion, and that he's come back from adversity, both in and out of the cage.
Still, there has always been an excuse as to why Lesnar's wins "don't count." Heath Herring was notoriously weak against wrestlers. Couture was 60 pounds lighter and 45 years old when they met. Mir didn't have the wrestling background to stop him. Shane Carwin had the wrestling background and the power, but he didn't have the gas tank.
Cain Velasquez, who Lesnar faces on Saturday night at the Honda Center, has the youth, the wrestling, the overall skill set, and the gas tank. Is that enough to overcome Lesnar's size, and more important, the power he'll be giving up against Lesnar, whose size, strength, explosiveness and speed seems tailor-made for the heavyweight division?
Lesnar (5-1) and Velasquez (8-0) have both trained in MMA a for little more than four years. Each has wrestled at the top level since childhood. The reality is, no matter which man wins, both fighters are probably not even close to their full potential.
Lesnar himself concedes he's still learning, but at 33, age will become a factor soon. Velasquez, 28, will likely be significantly better barring serious physical damage.
Velasquez is actually the more skilled wrestler, but in giving up 15-20 pounds, his effectiveness is questionable once the cage door locks.
In the standup game, there is little doubt Velasquez is more skilled. However, Velasquez has only shown one-punch knockout power in one fight, against Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira. However, Nogueira has suffered many beatings in his lengthy career, putting Velasquez's power under scrutiny. Lesnar hits hard, and Velasquez can get hit and rebound, as shown in his win over Cheick Kongo. In that fight, Velasquez bounced right back from being rocked every time because of his ability to immediately take Kongo down and get out of trouble. But a rocked Velasquez will not be able to take down Lesnar at will.
At the same time, a rocked Lesnar won't be able to survive many minutes waiting for his opponent to gas out, as he did after he was hurt by Carwin.
Lesnar is tabbed as a 6-to-4 favorite on the Las Vegas books, a number that has gone down in recent days as most of the money this week has come in on Velasquez. A week ago, almost all the money was on Lesnar.
Most in the MMA world favor Velasquez, but that has been the case in Lesnar's fights with Couture and Carwin, and he proved people wrong.
The shift in betting is understandable. Fans saw a huge athletic man beat top fighters. Velasquez is smaller and until recently hasn't been as heavily hyped. Velasquez also hasn't had spectacular or memorable finishes nor has he beaten anyone at Lesnar's level of competition.
In theory – and this is why UFC often books undercard fights between two equal-level wrestlers – the idea that if both men can neutralize the others' wrestling ability, you get a standup fight. If that is what happens here, Velasquez is more skilled, and would likely win unless he gets staggered with a big punch. Lesnar has not been comfortable on his feet, certainly not like Velasquez, so in a 25-minute fight, that advantage should get more pronounced with time. But with big men and small gloves, and two men that have not shown great defensive boxing standing, anything can happen.
That would likely describe the Velasquez game plan. The key is not to stay in front of Lesnar. From that position, Lesnar can explode straight forward and get the takedown, or use his power to drive Velasquez into the fence, leaving no distance, which would negate Velasquez's boxing and footwork.
For Lesnar, the key is to implement his wrestling, both the ability to take Velasquez down, but also keep him there. Velasquez's specialty is scrambling to his feet.
In Velasquez's eight professional fights, not only has he won every round, but he's never been in a disadvantageous position for more than a few seconds. Unlike Lesnar, whose mettle was tested in the Carwin fight, Velasquez's ability to deal with adversity is unchallenged. Win or lose, there is a very good chance that will change on Saturday in a 25-minute fight.
Another key to the fight is the effect of time, particularly in the later rounds. A tired fighter will have a difficult time getting takedowns late. Even fresh, getting takedowns will be tough for both men.
The key to look for early is if Lesnar can easily take Velasquez down in the first round, and how well he can hold him down. If Lesnar is able to keep Velasquez on his back, can he hurt him in that position? If the takedown game becomes a struggle early, and if Lesnar can't damage Velasquez on the ground, or keep him down, that would figure to favor Velasquez late. If Lesnar just explodes and takes him down and hurts him early, that could establish a pattern for the fight. If Lesnar can't get the takedown early, or worse, gets taken down himself, that's going to be a huge psychological edge for Velasquez. Part of Lesnar's confidence is in being the bigger, stronger athlete who in his college wrestling days, did not have trouble with handling smaller opponents.
The other key is finishing. While Velasquez has better movement, can finish Lesnar? No matter how great his condition, he fought Kongo and Ben Rothwell by completely overwhelming them with punch after punch on the ground. With Kongo, he didn't finish him, or hurt him badly, but won a one-sided decision. With Rothwell, he was able to rag-doll a 280-pound opponent and overwhelm him with punches.
Even though Velasquez's record shows seven TKOs in his eight fights, he doesn't have the kind of finishing ability as other fighters. And while Velasquez has more experience, he's only got a few months edge in training.
Lesnar has been an athlete in the spotlight since his junior year of college. While Velasquez was in big wrestling tournaments, he was never the focal point. The experience under pressure favors Lesnar.
Velasquez was the better high school wrestler, winning two state championships in Arizona, and compiling a 110-10 record. Lesnar, who grew up in South Dakota, where the population and competition level wouldn't be as deep, was 122-37 in high school, finishing third in the state as both a junior and senior.
Both were junior college national champions, although Velasquez won his national title as a freshman, while Lesnar placed fifth as a freshman, and it was really his sophomore year at Bismark Junior College where he turned his career around. Lesnar was better at the Division I level, winning a national championship and compiling at 55-3 record at the University of Minnesota in 1999 and 2000. Velasquez's best finish was fourth place as a senior, and had an 87-17 record at Arizona State from 2004-06.
But Velasquez is younger, and in theory, has an advantage of never taking time off high-level competition. Lesnar was in pro wrestling and tried pro football between 2000 and his MMA start in 2006.
How all these factors play out that makes this the most intriguing heavyweight fight since Lesnar vs. Couture. With the overall quality of the participants, this is arguably the highest-level UFC heavyweight title fight in history.