For Arizona’s newest favorite son Cain Velasquez, his surreal and magical journey from breaking his back working the lettuce fields of southwestern Arizona with his father to standing in the center of the UFC’s octagon at MGM Grand’s Garden Arena in Las Vegas Saturday night, with thousands of fans in the building and millions around the world screaming his name and the most prestigious championship belt in sports wrapped around his waist has been all about his unmatched work ethic, his relentless drive to be the best and his determination to give his family a better life. So he spends his days, weeks, months and years working, sweating, bleeding and sacrificing — just like his father Efrain did.
As the greatest Arizona-raised athlete reflected on his journey when I interviewed him following his five-round domination of Junior Dos Santos last December to win back the belt he had lost to ‘Cigano’ in a crushing first-round knockout a year earlier, his gruff, intimidating voice grew softer by the word.
“My dad left everything he ever knew and risked his life to come to this country — illegally — and give us a chance at a better life,” said Velasquez. “He worked those fields all day, every day and he never complained. He taught me how to be a man, a warrior. I take his work ethic and his lessons with me everywhere I go, and they’ve driven me to where I am today.”
And boy have they ever driven him. After multiple wrestling championships and a stellar football career at Kofa High School, a junior college national championship and two-time All-American status at ASU on the mats, the 30 year-old husband and father is a two-time UFC Heavyweight Champ with a 10-1 record coming off a dominating win over a fighter many thought might be unbeatable. He’s also the “baddest man on the planet” and one of the most famous athletes in sports. He has a new, eight-fight deal with the UFC — “a no-brainer” according to UFC boss Dana White, endorsement deals with huge companies and a team of managers and business advisors to handle his career outside of the cage.
“I’m extremely blessed,” he told me. “Wrestling and fighting have given me so much.”
Saturday night, in front of the entire world, Cain will look to keep his momentum going and defend his title in a rematch against Brazilian monster Antonio “Big Foot” Silva, a massive and powerful striker with the ability to finish — and hurt — his opponent with one shot, anytime. When these two men met last summer, Velasquez, still reeling from his loss to Dos Santos the previous November, almost immediately caught Silva’s attempted leg kick and threw the giant on the ground, relentlessly pounding him with punches and elbows until the fight was stopped 3:36 into the 1st round. No man had ever pounded Silva that way, but for Cain it was just one step toward reclaiming what he felt was rightfully his.
“I was healthy and feeling great. I wanted Junior again and I wanted my belt back and (Silva) was in my way,” Cain told me without one shred of emotion on his face.
After that win, Velasquez relentlessly pounded Dos Santos in their title rematch and proved to the world he is the best fighter in the division and maybe the world.
“Junior beat me bad, on national TV, and he took my belt. I wasn’t leaving that cage without it again,” he said. “Plus I let my fans down. I can’t do that again.”
Those fans number in the millions, from his Mexican roots through his home state and around the world, every one of them will be walking into that cage with Cain tonight, and he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I love my fans,” he told me. “Thank you all for your incredible support. After my family, I fight for you.”
When he steps into the cage with Big Foot tonight, Cain will be the huge favorite, and he’ll be giving up some size and power. But he has huge advantages in wrestling, cardio and precision striking, and his will to win is second to none.
“He does have a good right hand, with a lot of power,” he told Ryan Bader, Aaron Simpson and me this week on The Power MMA Show. “We need to be smart and use our quickness, but I feel like our overall game plan is solid. I have to use everything to my advantage. I can’t take him lightly.”
Tonight, with the eyes of the world fixed squarely on him, look for the healthy and focused Velasquez, whose athletic powers are at their absolute peak, to dominate “Big Foot” again and continue his run as heavyweight champ.
“I feel great. All the work has been done. It’s time to take care of business.”
And take care of business he should. Look for Cain to finish ‘Big Foot’ again and keep the UFC’s Heavyweight Championship belt right where it belongs- around the waist of our greatest athlete, our greatest champion, our Cain Velasquez.
“When I’m exhausted, sweating and bleeding, and I want to stop, I think about my father working 14-hour days loading lettuce onto a truck in that 100-plus degree heat and never once complaining. That’s all I need to keep me going. That’s all I need to keep fighting.”