Cain Velasquez: Time To Believe The Hype

The main event of UFC 110 was one of the most anticipated heavyweight matches in recent months, with many observers predicting that the clash between young, powerful wrestler Cain Velasquez and the veteran, resilient grappler Antonio Nogueria would produce a scientific battle with Velasquez trying to impose his will on the ground while Nogueria hunted for a submission. Instead, we saw Cain Velasquez dominant the future Hall of Famer in a way that nobody (not even Fedor) has ever managed. While it wasn’t the expected fight of the night it was a remarkable, breakout performance from Cain Velasquez as he finished Nogueria within three minutes after dissecting him in  a fluid, devastating kickboxing performance.

Throughout 2008 and 2009, the UFC aggressively promoted Cain Velasquez as one of the most promising and exciting young prospects in the heavyweight division. Countdown specials would breathlessly talk about his success in college wrestling and stress the physical attributes that those successes were based on. He was shown to be a fighter that ticked all the boxes, a fighter who was just as big and strong as the other super-heavyweights but was also quick and had excellent cardio. This combination of size, speed and stamina was shown in convincing victories over lesser competition, with his first three UFC fights seeing him quickly finish his opponents.

It was his fourth victory that raised doubts about his game. Stepping up in competition to take on elite striker Cheick Kongo, Velasquez showed none of the killer instinct or willingness to stand and trade that he had demonstrated against lesser competition. While he was able to take Kongo down at will, he was unable to take full advantage with his ‘ground and pound’ lacking power. Worse, during their brief exchanges on the feet at the start of each round he was repeatedly rocked as his poor defense left his (immediately solid) chin exposed. Velasquez was derided for relying on ‘lay and pray’ as was forced to run down the clock, unable to finish Kongo on the ground but also unable to risk being drawn into a kickboxing fight that he would certainly lose. While some questioned the quality of his opponent, his performance against Ben Rothwell at UFC 104 answered some of those doubts with Velasquez once again showing the power and killer instinct needed to finish the fight. Even so, doubts still remained about his stand-up games with many still expecting Nogueria to outclass Velasquez standing with the same technically sound boxing game that had brought him victory against Randy Couture.

Well that certainly didn’t happen!

Velasquez was in rare form on the feet, not only beating Nogueria to the punch but successfully picking the angles to connect with hard kicks to the legs, mid-section and the upper body. This was no fluke or flash knockout, Velasquez outclassed Nogueria on the feet with a superb kickboxing performance that saw he combine aggressiveness with a tight, technically sound selection of punches and kicks. Velasquez excelled in every facet of the standing game with his striking having the same explosivenes of his takedown while his headmovement and footwork was much improved.

For Nogueria this was a bitter, crushing defeat. After being finished by Frank Mir it seemed that time was running out for the former Pride champion, with many believing that his legendary battles in Japan had sapped his famous resilience. But after the full extent of his medical problems leading up to that fight were revealed and his lively performance and clear victory against Randy Couture at UFC 102 most assumed that Nogueria had turned the corner. And yet, Nogueria was never able to get going against Velasquez with the American overwhelming him in a way no fighter has ever done before. While it would be wrong to write Nogueria off (indeed should Mir lose to Carwin he’ll almost certainly be involved in what would be a huge, money spinning grudge match) it does seem that he is doomed to struggle against the young super-heavyweight wrestlers that while technically inferior have the ability to stop the fight going to the ground and the power and speed to punish him standing.

The future for Cain Velasquez however is much brighter. A quick, one-sided victory against one of the most decorated and respected heavyweights in the history of the sport confirms that the hype was true, he really is one of the most exciting young fighters in the division. In his last two fights he has shown significant improvement, as he has taken steps to address the flaws that were highlighted in the Kongo fight. Above all he has confirmed that he is not simply a wrestler reliant on bullying opponents on the ground, but that he’s a true mixed martial artist who can win fights on the feet as well. While he will probably have to wait until after the winner of Mir-Carwin takes on Brock Lesnar (particularly if Mir wins) he’s made a clear statement that he’s the real deal and is a serious contender for the world title.

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