In the UFC, Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos are so inextricably linked in their rivalry - currently in a one-one split – that their fight this Saturday at UFC 166 is already destined for legendary status. Their third fight in three years, the match is about more than just who’s the champion – it’s to decide once and for all who is the best big man in the world, because when the match begins, there’s really only one stat that will be on everyone’s minds: The fact that the only loss either of them has ever received in the UFC has been at the hands of the other. We went to talk with Velasquez at his training camp in San Jose, CA, to ask him how he’s feeling about the upcoming bout.
The 240-pound Velasquez will walk into the Toyota Center with the 12-pounds of leather and gold that says he is, as advertised, “the baddest man on the planet” - the UFC heavyweight champion. The big question is whether the 31-year-old can return home with the belt still around his waist. His opponent, Junior dos Santos, knocked out Velasquez in 64 seconds back in November 2011 to become the new champion, abruptly ending Velasquez’s initial title reign before it had truly begun. In last year’s rematch, Velasquez dismantled dos Santos for the full 25-minute distance to regain the title. This time, both are deadly serious about taking the series’ 2-1 lead.
“There’s a little added to it, especially with dos Santos being the type of fighter he is and how good he is,” remarks Velasquez of the trilogy’s magnitude. Sitting in a silver and red lobby chair inside his home gym at the American Kickboxing Academy (AKA), Velasquez looks fairly chilled out, having just completed his last day of camp. But once he’s up and sparring with Olympic wrestler and fellow heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier, every time he connects with anything - striking or wrestling - it sounds like a wet towel viciously slapping a leather horse saddle. These fight preparations seem less like training than brutal beatings with headgear and shin pads; watching them fight through the Plexiglas window of the converted racquetball room, it’s clear that Velasquez is all answers and no questions in every striking, clinching, and grappling exchange against Cormier. He’s on-point, ready for dos Santos – and he needs to be, considering dos Santos holds the record for most knockdowns in UFC heavyweight history (11), and second most knockouts (one shy of Velasquez’s eight).
“We’re two of the best guys in this division,” admits Velasquez. “We’re both out there hungry and we both want to win.” The Mexican-American is stern, but uncharacteristically relaxed enough to kick up his feet and lean back in his chair. He’s had to think about the 29-year-old challenger seemingly for his entire five-year career; this saga is at the forefront of every interview he’s given for the last three years, hence why he’s a little loose during this line of questioning. The outcome of Saturday’s fight is uncertain, but they both know that their position in heavyweight history - including the chance to be called the all-time greatest - depends significantly on being able to contain the other. And they definitely both know they don’t want to relive defeat at the hands of the other ever again.
“He’s fast. He’s still strong. He has good technique. He was tough,” says Velasquez. “Overall, he’s a tough dude. I’m expecting a tougher fight for this time.”
It’s no coincidence Velasquez and dos Santos headlined the Octagon’s arrival on network television back at the inaugural UFC On FOX. The UFC waited nearly two decades for heavyweights with this kind of athleticism to develop; they are fighters that carry countries on their back when they walk into the cage (Velasquez, Mexico and America, and dos Santos, Brazil). Their first bout is the most viewed MMA fight in the history of the United States, with 8.5 million Americans tuning into the UFC on FOX’s debut special. An estimated 60 million of dos Santos’ countrymen watched from Brazil as “Cigano” stole the first moment of their rivalry. Velasquez avenged the defeat by landing more than 100 significant strikes and double-digit takedowns in the rematch - something no one else has ever achieved. He didn’t lose a single round, and it seemed that redemption was indeed achieved. The ideal this time, though, is to finish dos Santos so conclusively that there is nothing left to be said.
“Him losing that fight, one thing he can take positively from it, is one thing I didn’t do is finish the fight,” remarks Velasquez when I ask him about last year’s toppling of dos Santos. “As far as everything else, he got beat everywhere. He didn’t do any damage to me at all…I didn’t finish him, but everyone saw the damage I put on him.”
Velasquez is still wary, though. “Fight night, I have to go out there and perform,” he says. “I have to go out there and do what I’ve been trained to do. It has to come my way. I have to go out there and take it.”
Velasquez knows he’s potentially a minute from losing it all again, or maybe 25 minutes from solidifying his current titles and extending his legacy. He has a record amount of takedowns at heavyweight level, and the most strikes per minute in UFC history - if anyone’s capable of taking something away from dos Santos, it’s him. So when Cain Velasquez looks in the mirror, does he see the baddest man on the planet? “I just feel like myself,” he says humbly, not acknowledging the fact that beating a man like dos Santos twice will mean it’s one in the same.
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Photos by Alexis Cuarezma / Getty Images Sport | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2013