Why you should care
Because getting into the win column is a delicately brutal calculus, not to mention one that involves face punching.
“He locked himself in his room. He didn’t come out for almost two weeks. Spoke to no one. Never talked about it.”
Isabel Velasquez is talking about her son, the now 6-foot-1, 240-pound mixed martial arts (MMA) Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez, in the immediate aftermath of a loss just a bit earlier in his career — when he was a high school wrestler. To say his response was a skosh overly dramatic sort of misses the point. Wrestling is not just any sort of competition, even in high school. And any wrestler would agree that Velasquez’s response was dead on.
Cain Velasquez faces Fabrício Werdum in Mexico City on Nov. 15, 2014. Tickets went on sale Aug. 26 and sold out in eight hours.
Based on the fact that this, one of humanity’s oldest sports, requires not just a tourist’s level of commitment, but a total, life-consuming, obsessive dedication if you’re going to do anything other than get beat up. And Velasquez had had enough of getting beaten up.
“The guys who used to beat me up, now when I go back home are, like, ‘When’s your next fight?’” said Velasquez, quiet and bemused as he slid into a booth at a Japanese barbeque place in San Jose, California. This was a few years back. Velasquez was taking a breather from an eight-hour training day at the American Kickboxing Academy (AKA). This is a guy who, under ordinary circumstances, doesn’t seem like he takes breathers, much less likes to take them.
It’s the spirit you have to watch out for. And Cain is deep.
Javier Mendez, head coach
“Cain is a machine,” says AKA head coach Javier Mendez. These words come up a lot when talking to people about Velasquez. Just as frequently as “monster.”
The 32-year-old Velasquez brushes off the “machine” bit. As one of three kids of migrant workers who bounced between Arizona and California, following the crops, he’s seen harder work that went on longer for lesser rewards. But it would be far too pat to say that Velasquez’s work ethic is framed by his desire to avoid farm work. It’s more about what kept him in his room for two weeks after that high-school loss: a conviction that his specific, relentless application of training and skill have only one potential outcome. Preeminence.
“I had this idea that I could do this,” Velasquez said. “When I was wrestling, I always thought about punching, but in wrestling you can’t.” He’d amassed an 86-17 record wrestling for three seasons at Arizona State University. Placed fifth at the 2005 NCAA Championships, fourth in 2006. At 24, he was thinking about next steps. Steps that after some research and sage counsel had him head west to Mendez’s AKA, widely known as one of the most successful MMA teams around. Not in the number of champions in house, but in the aggregate number of wins.
Now that Velasquez has taken his place at the prow of the UFC, a global phenomenon that carpet bombs its programming all over the U.S., it’s easy for their interests (money) and his interests (crushing the world) to combine.
It’s not only the ferocity that breeds the affection, it’s that he’s much harder on himself than he is on anyone else.
“There’s a pretty natural and untapped synergy here,” says MMA journalist Kid Nate. “And having Cain lead the charge into what could be the super-lucrative natural fit of combat-sport-loving Latin American countries could make Cain the man in many more ways than one.” Velasquez tends to keep close company with his wife and daughter, but with commercial endorsements and TV shows, his bankability is getting as fearsome as what he can do in the octagon, positioning him to climb well beyond his rumored net worth of about $5 million.
Watching him shake his head in disgust in the cage during a win over Cheick Kongo or seeing him explode in his second rematch with the only man who ever beat him, the 6-foot-4, 250-pound Junior Dos Santos, it’s clear that whatever fuels Velasquez is deep, sustaining and not without darkness. He seems to chase an enduring perfection more than cash or TV shows or even pride (“Brown Pride,” tattooed right across his chest).
And that, curiously enough, is what makes Velasquez so … lovable. A strange word to use when you consider that the man is ranked first in the whole of the UFC for the most strikes landed per minute, and number three in the pound-for-pound rankings of all the MMA fighters in the world, and that he’s lost only one of his last 14 fights. It’s not only the ferocity that breeds the affection, it’s that he’s much harder on himself than he is on anyone else. Which is saying a lot.
Taking temporary leave of my senses, I asked, “Can I fight Cain?”
“You mix up super-high levels of talent, a work ethic, like Jerry Rice’s legendary work ethic, that would kill most men,” Mendez says, as we dodge heavy bags and watch Velasquez start a workout, “an ability to not be distracted by much, and a killer instinct, and you have pretty much the perfect athlete. Cain is that athlete.”
Despite the headline-grabbing injuries? The torn ACL in 2012, the shoulder surgery in late 2013, the hand injury this spring?
“The body gets injured,” Mendez continues. “It’s the spirit you have to watch out for. And Cain is deep.”
I was inspired by this kind of Knute Rockne-Vince Lombardi talk from Mendez. It was 2009 when I broke the fourth wall of journalistic detachment after a media event, took temporary leave of my senses and asked Mendez, clear as a bell, “Can I fight Cain?”
The room turned to look at me. Mendez shrugged. The boxing coach said, “Don King’s son wants to fight?”
I saw him register the move. The tenor changed, and he did what he does in the cage: poured it on. I felt suddenly like I was in the grip of a tidal wave.
As I made my way onto the mat, the coach at my back inquired, “Is he a fighter?”
“Even more dangerous: a journalist.”
On the mat, Velasquez was as pleasant as a guy who lives to crush can be. Until I decided to act on that sense of pleasantry and “hit for the fences.” Against a man who routinely knocks out sparring partners, guys he knows and likes.
I saw him register the move. The tenor changed, and he did what he does in the cage: poured it on. I felt, suddenly and undeniably, like I was in the grip of a tidal wave. Which is to say, the results were predictable and painful and ended with a choke.
“The math on this is simple,” Velasquez said to me after the six-minute round ended and I stood blinking against the sweat and basking in the sweet smell of my failure and extremely sore neck. “The more you do this, the better you will get.”
The bell rang and he returned to his eight-hour day of doing just that. Following his dictum, I shuffled off to train a little harder, get better and possibly more delusional. In the five years since that first match, like Monty Python’s Black Knight, every time I feel I’ve reached a benchmark I challenge Cain again. Mendez, amused, usually responds, “I’ll ask him.” My goal? A six-minute round. Not to win. Just to survive. Without being humored.
On November 15 at the Arena Ciudad de Mexico in Mexico City, Velasquez will be doing much more than humoring the No. 3 Heavyweight in the world, Fabricio Werdum.
The results are unpredictable, but Mendez closes our talk with what might be the understatement of the year. “Cain’s very hard to beat.”
No arguments here.
Total disclosure: No deputy editors were hurt, much, in writing this article. Eugene S. Robinson is a longtime MMA journalist whose fights with other professional fighters can be read about in his 2007 book Fight: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Ass-Kicking but Were Afraid You’d Get Your Ass Kicked for Asking. His next round with Velasquez? Tentatively scheduled for the night this article publishes.