By FIGHT! contributor Matt Burosh
Cain Velasquez dedicated himself to wrestling in high school and excelled at it, racking up 110-10 record before becoming Pac-10 Wrestler of the Year at Arizona State University in 2005 and a two-time NCAA All-American. But something happened halfway through his collegiate career, a shift in attitude that would dictate his career path after graduation.
“I loved wrestling and everything about it, but sometimes in practice or the matches I’d be wrestling and it just wasn’t enough,” Velasquez said. “I wanted to hit the guy.”
The UFC heavyweight continued, amused and embarrassed. “I’d be wrestling, and I’d get into certain positions and think, ‘Oh, I can hit the guy here,’ and even sometimes in practice they’d have three guys rotate in on me so I’d be fighting fresh guys, and someone would [inevitably] get a takedown on me,” he said. “I’d get real frustrated and [I’d get ready to hit the guy], and my coach would yell, ‘Cain!’ and have to calm me down. So yeah, it wasn’t enough to just do the wrestling anymore. I wanted to hit people.”
ASU wrestlers wanting to hit people in the face was nothing new – the school’s wrestling program has produced some damn fine fighters, namely Dan Severn, Don Frye, Dan Henderson, CB Dolloway, and Ryan Bader. But Velasquez’s size and athleticism made him a special case, so Sun Devils wrestling coach Tom Ortiz put in a call to the man who represents Jon Fitch, Forrest Griffin, and Chuck Liddell, DeWayne Zinkin. Zinkin passed the kid’s name along to American Kickboxing Academy trainer Bob Cook, and Cook talked it over with the owner of AKA, Javier Mendez.
“When ‘Crazy’ Bob Cook told me that a ‘Mexican heavyweight’ wanted to come to AKA, right off the bat I was turned off because I’d never really seen a fit, big Mexican that wasn’t overweight,” said Mendez. “But right when I saw him, I was like, ‘What the hell? Now there’s a big Mexican!’”
But it wasn’t Velasquez’s 6’2” frame that impressed Mendez the most. It was the wrestler’s instincts and self-control. “We had him spar some of our fighters in kickboxing and Cain didn’t really know much about it, and so some of my fighters got a little crazy with him, trying to show him who was boss and all that — and so one guy kicked him in the head,” Mendez recalled. “And as soon as that guy kicked him in the head, Cain grabbed him and scooped him up into the air … and then just gently put him down on the ground. And that right there told me, ‘This guy’s got it,’ because he didn’t know how to strike, but as soon as they made contact with him, he turned it into what he knows best and he put them in their place real quick — and he did it without hurting them. That was impressive to me.”
Those instincts were honed during a rough and tumble childhood. “I can remember having ‘little kid fights’ where you’d fight and then go back to playing, which was weird,” he said. “But my dad had told me when I was young, ‘If anyone messes with you, you fight ’em. It’s OK; don’t worry about it,’ so I did that.”
The Velasquez family didn’t have the money for recreational league sports so Cain didn’t participate in organized athletics until school-supported programs became available in junior high “[I got into wrestling because] my older brother wrestled,” the fighter said. “As soon as I started wrestling I knew that [I could use it to win fights].”
Velasquez began using his wrestling to win fights not long after arriving to train in San Jose, Calif., applying the same drive to MMA training that helped him excel in a singlet. “I’d drive a two-hour round trip every day,” he said. “But after training, I was working nights at a bar [near AKA] as a bouncer and sometimes I wouldn’t want to go all the way back home, so I wouldn’t, and the next day my mom would ask, ‘Where did you stay?’
“I’d tell my mom, ‘Oh, I stayed at a coach’s house,’ but I’d actually sleep in my car a lot. I’d be parked outside the Home Depot across the street and then get up whenever it was time to train.”
Velasquez has fought just five times professionally, winning each bout by TKO, finishing all but one in the first round. He has been built carefully, fighting for Strikeforce and bodogFight before joining the ranks of the UFC, but many, including his trainers, think he will challenge for the heavyweight title sooner rather than later.
“I don’t think he deserves a title shot now,” Mendez said. “He needs to prove he deserves it. But the trainer is confident in his charge.
“I think he’s going to be one of the all-time best fighters the UFC has ever had — if he stays injury free,” Mendez said. “You know, before, I thought it was BJ [Penn] who was the most gifted guy I’d ever had. But Cain, he’s blown the lid right off that.”
Mendez continued heaping praise on the 27-year-old. “Cain is the first heavyweight that I see as being a prototype. And by prototype I mean that GSP is a prototype, Anderson Silva is a prototype, a guy that could do boxing, kickboxing, wrestling, or Jiu-Jitsu separately and compete at a world level,” he said. “Cain Velasquez is the prototype of the heavyweight division, in my opinion.”
The prototype will face his stiffest test to date in Cheick Kongo, his opponent at UFC 99 in Cologne, Germany on June 13. If Velasquez wins, he may have done all he needs to to prove he deserves that title shot.
Be sure to pick up the June issue of FIGHT! Magazine to read “5 Minutes with Cain Velasquez.”