Part 1 here
UFC 121: Lesnar vs Velasquez
Oct 23, 2010
Velasquez: 9W, 0L
Lesnar: 5W, 1L
Between the Brazilian and the Mexican American, Velasquez was always the favourite of the UFC. He was considered easier to sell to US audiences, and represented a potential path to a lucrative Hispanic market. He was the first to get his chance at the title.
The champion was a massive rhombus of muscle. A decorated collegiate wrestler like Velasquez, he was preternaturally quick on his feet. He’d bounce sideways, crab-like, suddenly plough forwards to drive opponents to the mat. There he’d club them bloody. "Hands like lunch boxes" said colour commentator Joe Rogan, riffing in his other job as a stand-up comic.
Lesnar was a relative newcomer to the sport, and in raw physicality stood in stark contrast to prior UFC heavyweight champions. Some considered him unfair. He was too big, too fast, too strong, heralding a new era where brute power and athleticism would reign over technique.
In a way that the UFC has not seen before or since, Lesnar was perhaps the perfect distillation of profit. He had come from a lucrative career as a pro-wrestler, bringing with him a horde of viewers and valuable mainstream curiosity. Once he had dipped his toe into MMA, he quickly proved that he had a knack for real violence as well as its pretend counterpart.
Lesnar occupied two separate and distinct roles. In his home life, he was a solitary recluse, who hunted, wrestled, ate meat and drank beer. The no-nonsense all-American outdoorsman. His time in pro-wrestling, conversely, had left him with a flair for the dramatic. In defeating Frank Mir at UFC 100, he avenged his only prior loss. He then roared and drooled at the cageside cameras, cut a bizarre promo in the post-fight discussing why his sponsor wasn’t paying him enough, his sexual plans for his wife later that night. Dana White was genuinely baffled.
Even if Lesnar’s Pavlovian reflex to ham it up under the bright lights was strange, the potent blend it formed with the everyman persona and the comic-book physique brought in viewers. The Velasquez fight had over 1 million PPV buys, one of three such fights in Lesnar’s UFC career.
He was white. While the opinions of professional dingbat Bob Arum
were exaggerated, colour has always been a powerful force in the sport. Ugly white-on-black race-baiting roused interest in Chael Sonnen’s title shot against Anderson Silva, and it’s likely not a coincidence that three of the historically strongest pay-per-view draws (Lesnar himself, Georges Saint-Pierre, Chuck Liddell) would not look out of place on a white supremacist recruitment poster.
The parent company of the UFC, Zuffa LLC, didn't reach their current level of success without a healthy level of cynicism. Nothing grips more and better than tribalism, so they set up the fight as an ethnic clash, sold the quiet Velasquez to the public as the man who could become the first Mexican Heavyweight Champ in combat sports history. Some pointed out that Velasquez, born and raised in Arizona and unable to speak Spanish, wasn’t even technically Mexican.
Few really cared. The US is still an immigrant nation, where most hold themselves as having at least two nationalities, their birthplace and their heritage, with no contradiction between the two. Beyond this, ethnic or cultural favouritism rarely concerns itself with facts. Someone will be happy to support their local sports team, even if it’s loaded with imports. Olympic ringers get as many cheers as homegrown counterparts. As long as they win.
Velasquez is obviously proud of his heritage. The "Brown Pride" tattoo strewn in gothic script across his chest was a tribute to his father’s struggles to get to the US, and stirred its own share of controversy. For all that, he’s never been much of a speaker, and it undoubtedly took a little prodding from the bosses for him to come out with the following awkward soundbite in a pre-fight conference call:
Lesnar, for his part, slipped easily back into the wrestling persona, where selling fights on racial animus was par for the course.
Velasquez came in the slight betting underdog. He was the smaller man, by at least 20 pounds. The prevailing thoughts were that his primary advantages were bottomless cardiovascular endurance and more polished striking. Lesnar was considered to be a more effective wrestler, proven to be devastatingly effective with "ground and pound". If he succeeded in getting the takedown, getting on top, then Velasquez would simply be too small to prevent Lesnar from beating him unconscious.
Despite coming from a knockout of Minotauro Nogueira, Velasquez was known as a volume puncher rather than a serious hitter. It was unlikely that he could succeed where the brick-fisted Shane Carwin had failed, and put the champion away early.
Like most of the UFC’s marquee events, 121 took place in Vegas. Still the heart of America’s atavism, still a fight town. Here, you can get away from the commitment of home life and blow your money on gambling or a titty show. Pay your thousand dollars to escape the wearing seasonal tides of elation and despair that come with team sports, sit down under the bright lights, and enjoy the simple pleasure of watching a stranger get his face split open.
In the thronged stadium, Velasquez came to the cage draped in the Mexican flags, to raucous cheers and the mariachi strains of Vicente Fernandez's "Los Mandados". The lights dropped, and Lesnar entered sporting a thick "viking" beard, to "Enter Sandman" by Metallica.
Watching again, it’s easy to see how the timeless tackiness of Vegas is where the anachronism of the UFC sits best. The primal nature of the fight, set to a fast-outdated crummy nu-metal soundtrack. It inherited boxing’s carnival elements: the girls walking around the cage in their tight shorts holding up the round cards and eliciting whistles from the fans cageside, and the trumpeting ring announcer calling out,
Childish window-dressing not only accepted but expected in a city which sells things as fundamental as violence, sex and money.A subtle veil would be not only inappropriate but somehow disrespectful.
The announcer, Bruce Buffer, leaves the cage, they lock the fighters in. The referee backs up. The veneer is yanked away.
Lesnar thundered across the cage. In another time in his career, he had tried out for the Minnesota Vikings, and recorded a 4.7 second 40 yard dash. Astonishingly fast for such a huge man.
He closed the distance almost immediately and hurled himself into a takedown, wrapping his arms around Velasquez who sprawled atop him as he charged. They clinched up and exchanged, Lesnar throwing hard knees into the body of the challenger as Velasquez flurried at his head. Lesnar thudded a flying knee into the other man’s ribcage. He clipped Velasquez with a jab, who charged through it. Lesnar switched levels, drove inside Valesquez’ advance and ran him to the floor.
The challenger was trapped under the champion’s bulk. This, perhaps, quick and unexpected, was checkmate. Lesnar’s path to victory.
Rumours had occasionally arisen around Lesnar’s training. He was a hard worker, an athletic freak, but he was unwilling to spar with opponents who would push him technically. Despite retaining a touch of inexperience, he insisted on working out at his own gym, balked at the idea of travelling elsewhere to work on his skills. The two roles, the diva showman who listened to no man and the quiet recluse who kept to himself, were disparate. Between them they left a void.
Velasquez folded his shins underneath Lesnar’s legs, his knees outside in the butterfly guard position, and flexed, levering the massive fighter off him as easily as if the muscles and the tattoos were a thin layer stretched over a fundamental hollow.
Back up. The two strained in the clinch against the cage. Lesnar pulled Velasquez down again, and the Mexican sprang back to his feet.
From a distance, the contest was still the larger man overwhelming the smaller one. Closer in, the picture clarified. With enormous fists flailing about him, Velasquez slipped and ducked by inches. Lesnar redlined the vast engine of his physicality, driving it further into full-weight winging blows in the hope or confidence that it would come through for him again, while the challenger was dreadful focus, black eyes searching for the line through. He ducked a left, unslung ever straighter, sharper combinations, popped a gash in Lesnar’s cheek. Flipped the script, grabbed his own takedown, flung the champion to the mat. Hit Lesnar with jackhammer lefts and rights as the champion lumbered to his feet -too slow!- pinned him to the cage with a three punch combination.
Off-balance, Lesnar threw an awkward back-handed blow.
There can be no question of his bravery. He entered into a brutal, humiliating sport when many lucrative and less dangerous careers were open to him. For all that, he was a latecomer, and sometimes even a veteran fighter’s training abandons them and breaks under pressure. There’s a dizzying touch of empathic vertigo in the reveal- these are not machines, or actors, just individuals locked into a metal cage or trapped by a rope enclosure, and one of them is scared. Here, with that artless backhand, the moment of panic had arrived quick and terminal.
Velasquez greeted another Lesnar takedown with an uppercut. Lesnar staggered, scrambled to escape, slewing wildly across the octagon in his haste. Quick but unhurried, Velasquez closed in. He landed another combination, and as Lesnar tried to throw back, the challenger locked up the double collar tie and kneed him to the body.
Lesnar collapsed, covering his face, and Cain fell on him. Lesnar had survived the Carwin fight when the challenger had knocked him down. Carwin had battered away like a berserker, his blows coming more and more slowly as the round went on, bouncing off the meat of the champion’s arms. He was wheezing and exhausted by the second frame.
Velasquez was different. He stood over Lesnar, watched him with that awful single-mindedness, and where Lesnar’s arms did not cover, he hit him. When Lesnar covered the spot, he hit him elsewhere. When Lesnar was slow to cover, he hit him multiple times, a wolf taking quick and savage bites at a dying bull.
Lesnar hauled himself back up one last time, and Velasquez smashed him back to the mat. Lesnar went foetal, crimson with exertion and blood, and Cain tore away at him until the referee mercifully pulled him back to end it.
A contest between two fighters who would always come forward, reduced to the simplest elements, had resembled a physics experiment: Imagine two spheres rolled towards one another. One of them is visibly larger. The smaller ball repels the bigger one, and there is an instinctive realization that it was heavier and more centred. Made of some denser, tougher material.
When he had defeated Nogueira for the chance to take on Lesnar, Velasquez had been blank and unemotional, staring off into the distance as if already seeing that straight, uninterrupted path to the belt. Now, finally, he broke into an enormous smile. The first Mexican Heavyweight Champion in combat sports.
Dos Santos applauded from cageside. "Undefeated champion," he said with a big smile.