Cain Velasquez: Searching For Aztec Gold

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Michael Huang’s profile of Cain Velasquez originally appeared in the Jan. 2010 issue of FIGHT! Magazine. Velasquez will face former Pride and UFC Heavyweight Champion Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira on Feb. 21 at UFC 110 in Sydney, Australia.

In ancient Aztec tradition, young men climbed in rank and status through combat. Specifically, they rose with each battle and the number of enemies they took prisoner. After five or six captives were taken, young Aztec warriors attained the rank of “Eagle” and were on their way to becoming Aztec warrior nobility.

Like his Aztec ancestors before him, rising Ultimate Fighting Championship heavyweight Cain Velasquez continues to win battle after battle. His foes have grown not only in stature and profile, but also in size and experience. Yet, he remains undefeated.

To strap on the UFC’s Heavyweight Championship Belt, however, Velasquez will rely on what’s tattooed on his chest: “Brown Pride”—and it smacks opponents in the face like a left jab.

“When I throw a punch in the Octagon,” he says, with the Mexican flag wrapped around his right fist, “all the Mexican people are throwing that punch with me.”

Indeed, Velasquez draws upon the strength of La Raza, or the people—his people.

CHOPPING TREES

On the other side of the Octagon stood a Redwood, well, make that a Rothwell.

“Big” Ben Rothwell, a former IFL Grand Prix Heavyweight Champion matched his experience against Velasquez’s athleticism at UFC 104. Rothwell was making his UFC debut and talked about making a big splash at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.

Velasquez was having none of it.

“If you want a stepping stone to a title shot or something like that, don’t fight me,” Velasquez says.

His strategy was obvious: Chop the big man to the ground. And it didn’t take long.

About midway through the first round, after Velasquez had repeatedly taken down Rothwell with single legs and used elbows to pound him, Rothwell appeared winded. By the second round, Velasquez rained down La Raza on Rothwell’s face, who stood pinned against the cage. Referee Steve Mazzagatti stopped the fight.

Critics and fans cried early stoppage. Velasquez seemed disappointed. He wanted to finish Rothwell. He has since vowed his next fight would be even more decisive and absolute.

“I want to win super impressively, be the total package,” Velasquez says. “I just have to go back to the gym and keep improving.”

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STRENGTH IN NUMBERS

According to U.S. Census numbers, Hispanics could become the secondlargest race or ethnic group in the United States by 2010.

And yet, despite the considerable growth of the Hispanic population, Velasquez had few Hispanic athletes as role models. Sure, there were boxers like Oscar De La Hoya and Julio Cesar Chavez.

“For me growing up, there wasn’t really anyone like me on TV or anything. As great as they were, most Mexican- American fighters were little guys,” says the 6’1”, 239-pound Velasquez. “There aren’t too many Mexican heavyweights, if any. As far as being someone people can look up to, I don’t feel any pressure to be that role model.”

And from a marketing standpoint, it is difficult not to notice Velasquez. He is an advertiser’s dream.

“There are no Mexican heavyweights out there,” says Javier Mendez, owner and head trainer at American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose. “You haven’t seen anything like him.”

Velasquez is a warrior born. He first donned boxing gloves at age 5 and took his beatings from older brother Efrain, like any younger brother should. They pounded a punching bag and boxed each other. Cain learned to enjoy the taste of combat—he had to. His neighborhood in Yuma, Ariz., ate up weakness like candy.

“He got picked on by some kids, but drugs were the biggest concern around our neighborhood,” says Velasquez’s mother, Isabel. “One day he ran into the house out of breath. He said to me, ‘Mom, I hit him! And it felt good!’ He was very proud of himself for standing up to trouble.”

110 FROM YUMA

On the mat, under the tutelage of head coach Shawn Rustad, Velasquez crushed his opposition, going 110-10 for Kofa (Ariz.) High School. Velasquez ended his high school career as a two-time 5A Arizona State Heavyweight Champion.

But grades forced a stint at Iowa Central Community College, where he became a Junior College National Champion. At that point, Velasquez had all but decided to wrestle for one of the storied Iowa or Iowa State programs, but two men talked him into returning to the desert.

“Our wrestling room wasn’t the greatest, but we worked hard, and I promised him he would become a great wrestler,” says Thom Ortiz, former head wrestling coach of Arizona State University, who also has coached MMA fighters Ryan Bader and CB Dollaway. “I said, ‘you’ll be closer to home,’ and he liked that idea. But frankly, he hadn’t even thought of going to ASU.”

It also was Rustad’s recommendation of ASU that prompted Velasquez return to the desert. And at ASU, Ortiz saw the warrior born come alive.

“He was the guy who showed up to practice 15 minutes early. Then, after two and a half hours of practice, he got right on the bike or ran sprints,” Ortiz says. “The guy is a machine. His best attribute is not the wrestling, not the striking, not the jiu-jitsu. It’s his cardio. Don’t get me wrong, those other three attributes are pretty good. But he will stop at nothing to beat his opponent. Cain will wear down his opponent before he ever will. ‘Never’ is not in this guy’s vocabulary.”

Velasquez dominated at ASU, becoming a two-time All-American. His senior year, Velasquez won 21 straight matches before losing a 2-2 decision to Minnesota’s Cole Conrad in the semifinals of the 2006 National Championships. Cole eventually won the title, and the defeat burns and stings at Velasquez to this day.

“Cain does not take defeat well,” Isabel said. “It pushes him even more. He gets that work ethic from his father.”

Like Father, Like Son

For Efrain Velasquez, repetition was how he came to live in the United States, and perhaps how he came to be a truck driver. He learned to love the solitary life on the road at an early age.

But let his son tell that story.

“When my dad was 18 years old, he wanted to cross to the United States to make some money and help out his mom and to make a better life. So he just walked the desert until he got here,” Cain says. “He’d make money then bring it back. Then he’d go back again. He did something like 15 trips across the desert.

“So people started coming to him asking, ‘Can you help us out and take us across?’ Efrain said he wasn’t doing anything special. ‘I’m just walking across the desert. But if you want to come with me, that’s fine.’ A guy from the Mexican army went with him one time, and the guy couldn’t make it. He just stopped walking at one point, and my dad had to leave him there. So, even guys from the army couldn’t keep up with my dad.”

Apparently Cain’s famed cardio and love for the desert is hereditary. It also was through repetition that a young Cain sculpted his body through working in the fields, pitching watermelons all day for 12 years. That ability to translate movements from repetition has made Velasquez a dangerous learning machine—dangerous because of how fast he learns.

“The guy doesn’t stop training,” Ortiz says. “But it is his ability to understand what a guy is trying to do to him and learn from a mistake quickly that makes him tough on the mat.”

Indeed, during one tournament years ago at East Stroudsburg University, one unfortunate soul caught Velasquez in a cradle, earning back points and nearly pinning him.

“If it were a freestyle match, that was a pin, but the ref didn’t call it,” Ortiz says. “I told him that.”

Velasquez managed to wriggle free but was still down 5–0.

“I was worried for the guy after Cain got free and stood up,” Ortiz says. “You could see it in his eyes.”

In the next four minutes, Velasquez scored 22 straight points.

“That pissed him off, like the Cheick Kongo fight,” Ortiz says.

Indeed, Velasquez took Kongo’s best shots straight on the chin at UFC 97, staggering him, but also igniting him.

“That’s his will. He didn’t learn that at American Kickboxing Academy.

He didn’t learn that at ASU or in high school. That’s pure Velasquez. You don’t teach that.”

Rising Aztec

By his junior year at ASU, Velasquez had taken a healthy interest in MMA.

Wrestling wasn’t enough.

“If I got taken down, I’d be ready to punch the guy,” Velasquez says. “It’s always seemed natural for me. Then I saw mixed martial arts and said that’s what I want to do.”

Velasquez was ready to leave school after his junior year, but Ortiz convinced him to wait one more year. Not for wrestling’s sake, but rather, to make sure he earned his bachelor’s degree.

“I told him he’d be great at it, and when he finished his degree, I would be the first to put him in touch with people I knew,” Ortiz says. “He held up his end of the bargain, so I held up mine.”

Ortiz flew Velasquez to San Jose for a three-day workout at American Kickboxing Academy to connect with one of Ortiz’s old wrestling colleagues, MMA mega-agent Dewayne Zinkin. A former All-American wrestler at Cal State-Fresno in the early 1990s, Zinkin liked what he saw in Velasquez.

Velasquez was sparring with a former highly ranked heavyweight kickboxer, Jean Claude Leuyer, who threw a head kick that Velasquez summarily caught, slamming Leuyer down.

Before Velasquez was back in Arizona, Zinkin faxed over a contract, Ortiz says.

“Before I sent Cain up to AKA, I asked myself ‘where would I send my own son?’ I trusted Zinkin, and he trusted I was sending him a good fighter. He faxed a contract over, and on the cover sheet it read: ‘Can I sign him yesterday?’”

Velasquez had come full circle, having been born in Salinas, Calif. In signing with Zinkin Entertainment and AKA, he had returned to San Jose, just mere miles from his birthplace.

For The People

However, not everyone was pleased about Velasquez’s choice of vocation. After all, Cain was the first Velasquez to earn a college degree. Even his best friend since third grade, Anthony Ortiz, was skeptical.

“My dad didn’t know what it was,” Velasquez says. “I tried to explain it’s like kickboxing. So he watched some tapes, and he was hooked. My mom understands now, too, and supports me. But Anthony didn’t. I said ‘Dude, you’re my best friend. You got to have my back on this.’ But he didn’t. That’s because it was all new to him.”

Winning the support of friends and family was one hurdle, but Velazquez faced another before he could appeal to his growing fan base: learning Spanish. While his older brother and sister grew up completely fluent in Spanish, Cain did not. He understood Spanish, but couldn’t speak it.

“I just never spoke a whole lot of Spanish with him,” Isabel says. “But he went out and learned how to speak it. I told him if that’s your image, your ‘Brown Pride’ tattoo, you better know how to speak Spanish.”

His popularity among La Raza is surging. Where the Aztecs rewarded young warriors for taking prisoners, Velasquez is taking none. At UFC 104, the heavily Hispanic crowd lustily cheered for their champion after he addressed them in Spanish:

“I’m thankful that all the Latino fans are here with me. I will fight, and I will win for you.”

Shortly before UFC 100 in July, the UFC flew Velasquez down to Mexico City and Velasquez made use of that Spanish.

“They sent him there for two weeks and the people treated him like royalty,” Ortiz says.

For this Aztec warrior, it might only be a matter of time.

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