[b]Velasquez takes big leap
By Dave Meltzer, Yahoo! Sports[/b]
If you live in San Jose, Calif., and talk to anyone in the fighting community, the subject of Cain Velasquez will come up at some point.
It's like a badge of honor at the American Kickboxing Academy, to say you've sparred with and gotten beaten up by Velazquez, where he's the gym's proverbial big dog at one of the most successful MMA training centers in the country.
The stories of the former Arizona State wrestling standout wiping the floor with big-name fighters in the gym are legendary, and usually include throwing several guys in a row - often all name fighters - at him while people marvel at the idea that he simply never gets tired.
Those who have been in with him say he's the guy who some day will be able to beat Fedor Emelianenko and will sit atop the heavyweight rankings.
That's quite a mouthful to say about someone who, when it comes to top-flight MMA competition, is completely untested and has only trained in the sport for a little less than three years.
And for all his hand speed, wrestling ability and conditioning, there are real questions concerning Velasquez's Saturday match at UFC 99 in Cologne, Germany, against Cheick Kongo.
The winner of the match will establish himself, alongside Shane Carwin and the winner of the Aug. 29 Randy Couture-Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira match, as the top tier of names in contention for the UFC heavyweight title that's up for grabs on July 11 when Brock Lesnar defends against Frank Mir. At 6-foot-4, Kongo has the height and reach, as well as more fluid kicks, punches and knees. But most of all, there is a huge experience discrepancy. Kongo, who replaced Heath Herring after he pulled out of the match three weeks ago due to an illness that knocked him out of training, will have his 30th MMA fight. He sports a 24-4-1 record, including 7-2 in UFC competition.
Velasquez is unblemished as a pro, but has only had five pro fights, and none against anyone near Kongo's level. The soft-spoken fighter notes that in his wrestling days, as a medium-sized heavyweight, he had problems dealing with the biggest college heavyweights. To get to the top in UFC, Velasquez will eventually have to deal with two men who fit that mold in Lesnar, a former NCAA Division I champion, and Carwin, a Division II champion. At 25, Velasquez is significantly younger, and his level of wrestling is enough to where on paper he could neutralize the bigger foes. He has quicker hands and better kicking ability, and likely the best conditioning of the three. But when you have big guys who all have power, there are no sure things.
Because he trains so hard, Velasquez has to eat a lot to maintain his 240 pounds on a 6-foot-1 frame. He was somewhat disappointed in his last performance, a second-round TKO over Denis Stojnic on Feb. 7 in Tampa. It was a fight he dominated, but he didn't score a spectacular-looking finish and was taken into the second round for the first time in his career.
Stojnic, a native of Bosnia Herzegovina, was brought in from outside the UFC for Velasquez's last fight because UFC couldn't find anyone within their ranks to take the fight after Velasquez had finished Jake O'Brien in just 2:02 last summer. "I have to sit down more on my punches," he said about the main lesson he learned in the fight. "I got excited and tried to throw too many punches and didn't put the power behind them."
Kongo, who is 34, took the fight on three weeks notice, a choice that surprised a lot of people. The Frenchman is looking at making a run at the heavyweight title, and Velasquez is the guy who a lot of fighters have looked at avoiding because of the unbalanced risk vs. reward ratio. Velasquez's reputation within the sport is at the top level, but because he's only appeared twice on television, a win by Kongo wouldn't elevate Kongo as much in the eyes of the fans in regards to the risk level of losing.
"I have to stay out of his stand-up range and keep pressuring him," said Velasquez, 25. "His takedown defense has improved a lot. He's coming off a lot of wins. As far as his level of striking, he has to be the top fighter I'e faced for sure," he said. When Velasquez started training for the sport shortly after graduating from Arizona State, a few months after placing fourth in the 2006 NCAA heavyweight tournament, the plan was to get him eight or nine fights on small shows before even thinking about UFC. But in the first 20 months of his career, eight different planned fights fell through, and he also missed some time with a broken hand suffered late in 2006.
Opponents backed out, or in some cases, promoters had him on shows, and then couldn't find opponents, largely because of his reputation as a gym monster. There were even guys who showed up at weigh-ins, took one look at him, then backed out. The inability for him to get fights led to manager Bob Cook talking UFC president Dana White into signing Velasquez when he had only a 2-0 record.
Javier Mendez, the owner of AKA, noted that early in his training, after he was daily putting the lumps on veteran banger Paul Buentello in practice by taking him down and pounding him, that, just to be fair, Buentello asked for a stand-up session. Everyone figured that would be the day Buentello would finally get his revenge. But then, just standing, Velasquez still beat down someone who had been doing stand-up for more than a decade.
!It just came natural to me,! Velasquez said. !I put a lot of hard work into it and I'm going to keep improving."