Cain Velasquez punches Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira at UFC 110. via UFC.com
At this weekend's UFC on Fox 1 show, UFC Heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez faces Junior dos Santos. In this series, we look back at the complete career of the champion, and see what we can learn about Saturday's showdown.
Yesterday, part 1 took us through the first five fights of Velasquez's career. We left him undefeated at 5-0, and on the verge of becoming a serious force in the UFC Heavyweight division. No one had yet been able to threaten Velasquez, and it was time for him to start fighting the big boys. Here in part 2, we look at his journey into the upper echelon of the division and his path to the Heavyweight title. Check back later this week for the conclusion.
Fight #6: Cain Velasquez vs. Cheick Kongo
June 13, 2009, UFC 99
Just as Matt Mitrione at UFC 137, the path to the top for Cain Velasquez led him into Cheick Kongo. Kongo was just settling into his role as gatekeeper, and coming in on a 3 fight win streak. This was Cain's first semi-main event, his first fight on a PPV main card, and the fight that would show the world how dominant he could be. And then, just seconds into the fight, something surprising...
In the first real exchange of the fight, Kongo landed a punch that dropped Velasquez, following it up with a second shot that again wobbled him. And for the first time ever, Cain Velasquez was in trouble. But Kongo's glory was short-lived, as Cain immediately secured a double leg, took Kongo down, and pounded on him for the rest of the round. An abnormality then, right?
Nope. In round 2, it happened again. Cain came in throwing punches, Kongo countered and dropped him, Cain responded with a takedown and controlled the rest of the round. One more time in round 3, and the end result was a Cain Velasquez unanimous decision win, but one that was not without some questions.
Perhaps it was the unreasonably high expectations on the 5-0 fighter, but the general consensus after this fight was that Kongo has exposed Velasquez. Two holes in his game were pointed out.
First, his striking defense. Kongo connected on the feet on more than one occasion, and had Cain hurt. This success came off of counter punching when Cain pushed the action forward. Kongo, a good technical striker, used his accuracy and reach to get inside Cain's punches and land on the chin - a bad sign in the eyes of many.
Second, his inability to finish. For the first time, Velasquez failed to put his opponent away. Despite landing a tremendous amount of ground and pound, Cain never really hurt Kongo. On commentary, Joe Rogan points this out repeatedly, contrasting Cain's "ineffective" ground and pound with the far more damaging strikes of fellow Heavyweight Shane Carwin. This idea was picked up to the point that Cain, dominate win and all, began to be known as "pillow hands" in some corners, and his chances of becoming a champion were called into question.
Keep reading in the complete entry.
Fight #7: Cain Velasquez vs. Ben Rothwell
October 24, 2009, UFC 104
Despite some concerns about his performance, Cain continued his move up the ranks, once again semi-main eventing. This time, he welcomed former IFL top Heavyweight Ben Rothwell to the UFC.
It was not a pretty night for Rothwell. Velasquez unleashed the fight that had, by this point, become somewhat expected of him. He used his cardio to push the pace on the bigger Rothwell, took him down repeatedly, and pounded him until the referee stoppage in round 2. One of the most impressive sights in this fight is the smaller Velasquez slamming Rothwell repeatedly to the mat. In the era of super-sized Heavyweights like Shane Carwin and Brock Lesnar, some viewed Velasquez's relatively smaller size as a potential weakness, but here, he uses his strength and wrestling to completely nullify Rothwell's size advantage.
One other nice aspect of his takedowns here is the way Cain is now mixing them in with his strikes, seamlessly flowing from strike to takedown.
Unfortunately for Velasquez, as with the Kongo fight, this one ended with a bit of a question mark. Cain was in total control throughout, landing numerous shots on Rothwell, but at the exact moment referee Steve Mazzagatti stopped the fight, Rothwell was wall walking in an attempt to break free of Cain's ground control. The end result was never in doubt, but none the less, this was the second straight fight that Velasquez did not end convincingly.
Fight #8: Cain Velasquez vs. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira
February 21, 2010, UFC 110
And with 7 straight wins behind him, Cain Velasquez now makes it to the main event. His bout against Minotauro headlined this Australian card with a classic "young gun" vs. "old guard" style match-up. Whether it was the awareness of his new main event status, the grumbling from critics after his last two fights, or simply the final maturing of a still young fighter, the Cain Velasquez that stepped into the Octagon at UFC 110 was, simply put, the best Cain Velasquez fans had yet seen.
Velasquez again focused on his stand-up, demonstrating a remarkably complete stand-up game that looked to close the holes found by Kongo. Cain shows superb technique here, keeping all his punches crisp, tight, and inside - minimizing the wider punches that gave Kongo those openings. He also shows perfect work on his feet, using fast and smooth footwork to get into position and land a number of kicks. In particular, Cain repeatedly uses a switch kick here that is absolutely phenomenal. The switch kick requires a fighter to quickly switch stances, then throw a fast kick. It's tough to pull off without telegraphing the strike, and is a rare kick to seen thrown so well - especially in the Heavyweight ranks. But Cain uses it flawlessly here. He brings all of this together into a number of nice combinations that incorporate both hands and feet into the same combo.
The end result? At 2:20 in round 1, Velasquez lands an uppercut that sends the notoriously heavy chinned Noguiera crumpling to the mat. The legend is down and out, the young lion victorious.
With this win, Cain not only silences the "pillow hands" critics, he also moves himself into position as the new #1 contender for the Heavyweight crown.
The only thing left in his way? Brock Lesnar.
Check back tomorrow for the final installment.