Cain Velasquez and the Evolution of the Heavyweight Game

Fightland Blog

By Dan Shapiro

Photo by Scott Halleran/Zuffa LLC

Before he was the UFC heavyweight champion of the world, Cain Velasquez was, for a brief time, known as “Sugar Cain.”

It was a moniker given in jest at the American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose, California, Velasquez’s home base, meant in stark contrast to the Mexican-American mixed martial artist’s overwhelming and overpowering style. The name never stuck.

“There’s nothing sweet about the way … I fight,” explains Velasquez.

Not long after Velasquez abandoned the nickname altogether, along with a few others given to him, he went on an unprecedented run, winning eight of his first nine bouts by knockout en route to claiming the UFC title in 2010. And now, just four days away from his UFC 188 title-unification bout against Fabricio Werdum, Velasquez continues to defy his natural instincts on this journey from All-American wrestler to world champion.

The transformation of Velasquez, who has always been a natural on the ground and in the grappling department, has come on his feet, in the standup game, redefining the heavyweight MMA game as we know it.

“Some guys have natural power … I didn’t have it … I was green I didn’t know anything about striking,” offers Velasquez. “I needed to really work on it, as far as technique. I feel like now, the way my technique is now, I’m able to hit hard and throw that in practice and in the fights. But I didn’t have any power when I first started. The technique wasn’t there.”

Back when Velasquez debuted in the UFC in 2008, heavyweight fighters, the top-echelon ones at least, pushed the limits of the 265-pound weight limit. Crossover star Brock Lesnar bullied his way to a title, while Shane Carwin captured an interim strap with bulldozers for fists.

Twenty pounds lighter than the heavyweights of the previous era, Velasquez, along with his head trainer Javier Mendez, reimagined heavyweight fighting, adding stamina and cardio work into the requisite repertoire for the sport’s largest competitors.

“I’m not a big heavyweight so I need to be fast out there,” adds Velasquez. “I need to be able to hit fast and defensively be really fast and not get hit.”

Photo by Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC

Velasquez brought an unparalleled athleticism into the Octagon. But that quickness and relentless style soon opened the door to injury.

Not only did Velasquez tear his rotator cuff while winning his first UFC title, keeping him from action for the majority of 2011, but he has remained inactive for the last twenty months while recovering from a torn labrum, suffered in his most recent outing, an October 2013 TKO win over Junior Dos Santos.

“It is what it is,” comments Velasquez. “The number-one thing is to recover 100-percent, not to come back too early where you re-injure something.”

But that is exactly what happened …

Just three-and-a-half weeks prior to his initially scheduled meeting with Werdum in November 2014, Velasquez ruptured his MCL in the training room. It was a devastating blow for the California native, the son of Mexican immigrants, as his triumphant return to the land of his ancestors would have to wait. Velasquez was forced to withdraw from his UFC 180 main-event bout; he sat cageside while Brazilian jiu jitsu ace Fabricio Werdum claimed the interim strap.

However, the experience of watching another man wear the belt he was nearly forced to relinquish was a merely inconvenience, rather than a devastation, for Velasquez. And looking back on his failed bid to headline the UFC’s first event in Mexico, Velasquez brushes off the topic by casually mentioning that “not being able to fight sucked.”

Now completely healthy for nearly five months, Velasquez is finally set to make his comeback, fighting on the Mexican soil he so greatly covets. And at this point, he has evolved into more than just a massive specimen of unbridled athleticism. Velasquez has become a mentor to a younger generation of Mexican MMA fighters looking to break into the UFC through The Ultimate Fighter: Latin America.

“We have two of the guys training with us—Moggly [Gabriel Benitez] and Alejandro [Perez]—they’ve been training with us. And they came out with early to Mexico City to train with us cause they’re fighting on this card also,” states Velasquez. “I respect them for that. I was just trying to be there to help them … we definitely have life long friendships just from that.”

All that remains now, for Velasquez, before his title-unification bout against Werdum this Saturday are a few final preparations. And as for old “Sugar Cane?” Well, it could have been worse. At least Velasquez wasn’t dubbed “Ken Doll” like teammate Luke Rockhold.


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