UFC 160 - Coach Mike's Fact Grinder: Cain Velasquez

USA TODAY Sports

Here, on the eve of the UFC 160 heavyweight title clash between Cain Velasquez and Bigfoot Silva, it's time to take a good hard look at the actual amateur wrestling accomplishments of UFC heavyweight champ Cain Velasquez. This is where I come in with my Factgrinder - a new Bloody Elbow feature analyzing and placing proper perspective on amateur wrestling accomplishments.

After my post on the actual wrestling accomplishments of Jon Jones and Chael Sonnen, I decided to make this sort of thing a regular feature. My colleague K.J. Gould suggested Factgrinder as the name for these posts, I found the suggestion to have a nice ring, and here we are.

I've said before that I gravitated towards MMA largely due to the presence of my favorite amateur wrestlers. I then fell into writing about MMA in part because of MMA writers' and commentators' lack of any clear ability to place the amateur wrestling resumes of fighters into proper perspective. The breaking point was when Joe Rogan commented in 2007 that Matt Grice's 4 Oklahoma high school state wrestling championships were worth 6 California state championships. This demonstrated to me utter ignorance as to the relative importance of different amateur wrestling accomplishments. Now my Factgrinder is here to set the record straight on the exact meaning of a fighter's wrestling resume.

I should lay out a few guidelines about this feature before I discuss Cain Velasquez's amateur wrestling accomplishments.

  • This is not meant to be a predictive tool. I am aware of the difference between the effectiveness of wrestling on a mat, and its effectiveness as applied in a cage. Still, it is important to get a handle on the actual meaning of wrestling accomplishments to gain perspective on the qualifications of the athletes in MMA, as well as to eventually determine how faithfully wrestling pedigree manifests itself in a combat athlete once he becomes a MMA fighter.
  • I'm not going to spend much time discussing high school accomplishments.
  • The highest possible wrestling pedigrees are earned in the Olympic wrestling styles of Greco-Roman and freestyle on the senior level (senior in this case meaning there are no age restrictions). Achievements in these styles and grouping in the U.S. Open, world/Olympic team trials, world championships/Olympic games and various international tournaments hold greater weight than collegiate accomplishments. If a wrestler does well enough on this level, he earns the right to be called "world class". I attempted to establish a baseline for what constitutes a world class wrestler in my very first post on BE.
  • Below senior level accomplishments are collegiate accolades. Among the various collegiate groupings, NCAA Division 1 serves as the gold standard. If a wrestler has competed in a lower division, then his success can only be properly understood by relating it to success on the Division 1 level.
Without further ado, let's grind the facts on Cain Velasquez-

I observed a decent level of shock from MMA fans regarding the degree to which Cain Velasquez out-wrestled Brock Lesnar when they fought each other. Looking back on their competitive wrestling resumes, it's clear this shock was misplaced. The keen observer could make a somewhat compelling case that Cain had a superior amateur wrestling career.

Cain was definitely a better pound-for-pound wrestler than Lesnar, and he was certainly more decorated in both of the Olympic styles, where he preformed very well on the age-group level and even on the senior level. Both were junior college national champs, and while Brock did more on the Division 1 level, Cain was in the Division 1 semi-finals twice - just as many times as Lesnar. In both of Cain's semi-final appearances, he lost in competitive matches to Cole Konrad, whom I believe was a superior wrestler to Brock. Furthermore, I've heard more than a few claim that if stalling were more aggressively enforced by the referee, Cain would have beaten Konrad in the 2006 semis. This would have been Cain's second win over Konrad, whom he beat in a 2004 dual meet. Cain was also consistent, as a senior, his only loses were to the three heavyweights who placed in front of him at nationals - three very good heavies in Steve Mocco of Oklahoma State, Cole Konrad of Minnesota and Greg Wagner of Michigan (Thanks to my friends as D1CollegeWrestling.net for some research help there).

Velasquez's collegiate career started at Iowa Central Community College, a junior college wrestling power. While there, he won an NJCAA national championship, just like current UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones, who later wrestled for ICCC as well. For the most part, high level wrestlers like Cain wind up wrestling at JUCOs for one of two reasons: either they wrestled in an obscure high school program and didn't get attention from big NCAA programs, or they had grade issues to work out. I don't think exposure was a problem for Cain. While his two high school state championships in Arizona wouldn't garner him national attention on their own (Arizona produces occasional top level wrestlers like Henry Cejudo and Anthony Robles, but it is pretty far from an elite wrestling state), Cain twice placed in both freestyle and Greco at the USA Wrestling Junior National Championships in Fargo. These placings alone would have put him on the radar of top Division 1 programs as a big time recruit.

My guess is that Cain went to ICCC to shore up some academic issues. Unfortunately, when he returned to Arizona to wrestle for Arizona State as a sophomore, he continued to have some classroom struggles. He was declared ineligible for the 2004 post season in what was, up until that point, a very promising debut season on the Division 1 level.

Cain managed to turn things around. His final two years of eligibility saw stellar post-seasons with Pac-10 championships, and All-American finishes at the NCAA tournament (All-American meaning a top 8 finish at the national championship), placing 5th and then 4th at the 2005 and 2006 national championships respectively.

In my retrospective on Chael Sonnen's wrestling career, I mentioned how all NCAA All Americans aren't equal. In all of Chael Sonnen's appearances at the NCAA tournament, he placed eighth once - and in the process, Chael beat one wrestler who would go on to himself be an All American. In Cain's two NCAA appearances he beat four different wrestlers who would themselves achieve All American status, and placed in front of twelve.

Cain had a great scholastic career and he holds claim to some fairly robust achievements in the Olympic styles.

In 2002, Cain was a FILA junior national champ in freestyle, and qualified for the junior (20 and under) world team. The USA doesn't always perform that well at the junior world championship, but our junior world teams consist largely of wrestlers who go on to accomplish great things in wrestling. The only other junior world team members currently in MMA who come to mind are Bubba Jenkins(gold at junior worlds) and Mark Munoz (silver at junior worlds); both won Division 1 championships after their time on the junior world team. Some regard the junior world championship as the second most prestigious wrestling championship in the world behind the senior world championships or Olympics. Unfortunately for Cain, he didn't get to compete at junior worlds. From 2001-2005 FILA capriciously followed a policy of only holding junior worlds biennially and 2002 was an off-year.

Cain's 2002 FILA junior freestyle championship was accompanied by a third place finish in the FILA junior Greco national championship. Considering the fact that prior to researching for this post, I had no recollection that Cain had any Greco accomplishments, this result served as a bit of a surprise. Apparently, in high school and his first two collegiate years, Cain was one of the country's best Greco heavyweights in his age group. He was also very close to winning a double FILA junior national championship (both freestyle and Greco), which is a pretty gaudy feat.

Velasquez notched a 7th place finish at university nationals in freestyle, which was also in 2002. Seeing as how Cain was only 19 at the time, and most his competitors were significantly older, this was a notable result.

This provides reasonable segue to launch into a brief discussion of the significance of university-level achievements. These pop up from time to time in a fighter's background, and seem to lead to some misunderstandings.

The university age group, I suppose, was created by FILA with the intention of providing a world championship for students. This doesn't make too much sense as most of the champions at the senior world championships have "student" listed as their occupation. Instead, the university world championships operate as sort of a grouping for wrestlers who are good, but not on track to ever be their country's very best. A University world championship functions sort of like the WWE's intercontinental championship - it's a nice thing to win, but a long way from the top.

Domestically, university nationals is certainly a tough tournament and place winners are almost always good Division 1 wrestlers. That said, an All American finish at university nationals does not hold nearly the same gravity as as Division 1 All American status. When MMA fighters list "university All American" as an accomplishment it often confuses the non-wrestling initiated in the media and elsewhere, who see "university" and assume it means "NCAA". I saw a prominent MMA writer erroneously describe Chael Sonnen as a two time NCAA Greco champion. Chael was a two time university champion. He couldn't have won an NCAA Greco championship as Greco-Roman wrestling is not an NCAA sanctioned sport.

Returning to a discussion of Cain Velasquez, his greatest Olympic style accomplishment was a 5th place finish in the 2003 senior US national championship in freestyle. Senior nationals (more widely referred to as "The Open") is a tournament where you will fairly regularly see NCAA champions fail to place. Making this performance particularly impressive was Cain's age.

This 2003 senior nationals tournament occurred before Cain's 21st birthday. Rarely do heavies this young place so high at national tournaments on the senior level. Unfortunately, this would be the last time Cain would place in a senior national championship; subsequent appearances failed to yield comparable results.

The Factgrinder Final Analysis

In the grand scheme of things, how good a wrestler was Cain Velasquez? In college he was one of the very best in a very good crop of heavyweights, he just couldn't quite make it to the top. Had Cain made serious Olympic runs in 2008 and 2012, the story probably would have been the same. I figure that if Cain Velasquez fully committed himself to freestyle wrestling he would probably have placed in the 4th or 6th range at the Olympics trials, just a tier down from the top guys.

The Factgrinder final analysis has determined that while Cain Velasquez was not the greatest that amateur wrestling had to offer, he was pretty damn close and a good bit closer than most would realize.

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