Considering what we already know about how hard it is to hold onto the UFC heavyweight title for any length of time, it’s a little insane that Cain Velasquez once thought he could defend it with a bum knee.
That was the first time he fought Junior dos Santos, back when the UFC made its debut on the FOX network in November of 2011 and the heavyweight title fight was the one and only attraction on the broadcast.
Before the fight, there were rumors. Rumors about training injuries. Rumors that, if the UFC didn’t have so much riding on this one fight, Velasquez would have pulled out. Rumors that the Velasquez camp quietly denied, and kept denying or at least declining to discuss in detail even after their fighter suffered a 64-second knockout loss.
“We knew,” fellow heavyweight and AKA training partner Daniel Cormier told MMAjunkie.com (mmajunkie.com). “Everybody knew he was hurt. But he’s just not the guy who’s going to say he can’t fight. It was the first FOX fight and it was a huge deal for the UFC. If you know Cain, he’s all about representing that company. He was going to go out there and give it his all, just do what he could. But he was kind of forced into a situation where he had to stand with a guy you really don’t want to stand with.”
After the fight, we learned that dos Santos had a knee injury of his own, one that might have forced him out of any other bout, but not that one. Of course, due to the difference in their styles it probably didn’t affect his game plan nearly as much as it affected Velasquez’s, and anyway he won. When you win those fights the lesson you take away tends to be one about persevering, pushing through adversity, all that stuff. When you lose it’s different.
Maybe that’s why, now that he’s reclaimed the UFC heavyweight title, Velasquez’s takeaway from his first experience with the belt is pretty specific.
“With the injuries I had, trying to defend it the first time, and knowing that when I have a game plan I have to go execute it right away and not wait around, all that stuff is something I can bring in to my next fight,” Velasquez said.
Or, as head trainer Javier Mendez put it, “The difference this time around is, I don’t think he’s going to put himself in jeopardy ever again. He’s not going to fight unless he’s 100 percent healthy and ready to go.”
Maybe it’s a bit of revisionist history to place that much blame for the loss on the injury. You could argue that a bad knee might have kept him from being as mobile or aggressive as usual, but it was still a JDS punch to the head – not the knee – that put him face-down on the canvas in Anaheim, Calif., that night.
Still, you look at their rematch, when Velasquez was healthy, and you can’t help but wonder if there’s some truth to it. If he really did push himself into a fight he never should have taken, all so the UFC didn’t lose the fight it had been hyping for weeks on FOX, how does that change our perspective on Velasquez’s place among UFC heavyweights? How does it change our notion of the volatility of the weight class in general?
If you buy the explanation that the injury beat Velasquez as much as dos Santos did, then it’s easier to imagine an alternate universe where Velasquez is still undefeated, where he never lost the UFC heavyweight title, where our concept of the UFC heavyweight strap as the toughest belt to maintain ownership of is being slowly eradicated by each new Velasquez win.
It’s just that, back here in the universe we actually live in, it’s not that way at all. Because of that one loss, we still think of UFC heavyweight champion as a temp job, just like we still think of Velasquez as the guy who’s 1-1 against dos Santos and still in need of a rubber match. And one thing we know about MMA fans is that they don’t want to hear a word about your injuries after you lose a fight, so they definitely don’t want to sit around pondering what might have been if only you’d stayed home that night.
That doesn’t mean Velasquez and his team don’t think about it, though. MMA fighters show up to work injured all the time. We know this. But that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a good idea, especially if you’ve got a belt to defend and a knockout artist to deal with.
Velasquez says he’s learned that lesson the hard way, and won’t make the same mistake twice. Whether that’s the missing piece that finally results in a UFC heavyweight championship run that’s more like a dynasty than a summer rental, we’ve have to wait and see.
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