Under steady watch of Mendez, Velasquez readies for UFC 121
Cain Velasquez challenges for Brock Lesnar's UFC heavyweight title on Saturday
The main event of Saturday's UFC 121 is one of the year's most anticipated bouts
Velasquez has blossomed under the watch of grounded trainer Javier Mendez
SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Javier Mendez simply won't acknowledge that Cain Velasquez might lose Saturday to UFC heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar. It would go against every instinct he's felt related to Velasquez since the fighter stepped into his gym four years ago.
"I don't want to go there," the trainer said two weeks ago. "My attitude is, he's winning no matter what."
Mendez told me and many others before Velasquez's mixed-martial-arts debut in October 2006 that the Mexican-American fighter would one day become UFC champion. When the two-time kickboxing titleholder says something like that, having earned a reputation as a straight shooter, it's noteworthy.
For instance, half an hour after Velasquez wrapped a wrestling session with two-time U.S. Olympian Daniel Cormier, Mendez downplayed the chances of one of his top fighters, veteran lightweight Josh Thomson, whom he would corner against Gesias "JZ" Cavalcante on a Strikeforce card at the HP Pavilion later that night. Speaking in a hallway of the massive new gym that will serve as the home of the AKA fight team when it officially opens for business in 2011, Mendez said Thomson suffered through the worst training camp of his career -- which is saying something -- and he barely seemed fit to fight. He essentially expected Thomson to lose, but as bad as the lightweight looked in camp, Mendez offered one caveat: The guy is a former champion and champions find a way. Thomson did, winning a decision aided by some questionable judging.
The point is, Mendez doesn't spit-shine anything.
A fighter's status at AKA, which resides in a strip mall but looks, smells and sounds like a fight gym, is largely determined by the wall on which a fighter's photo hangs. Entering the facility from the front, large images of belt-wearers like Thomson, Cung Le, BJ Penn and others, including Mendez, are to the right. Across a sea of blue often sweat-soaked mats, the contender's wall lingers to the left. This is where 28-year-old Velasquez's photo can be found.
"The only reason I got into the sport was to be the champ," Velasquez said. "I wanted to be the best. I wanted to fight the best. I wanted to have that belt."
In his ninth fight, he'll get his first crack.
Velasquez wrestled for Arizona State and dreamed of winning national championships and Olympic medals. But by his junior season, something else began to motivate him. Velasquez wanted to fight for a living. Friends and family tried to talk him down, yet anyone who watched him in the ASU wrestling room knew better. Velasquez had to stop himself from punching teammates. Not that he sought it out of some misplaced rage; wrestling just brought it out of him.
When Mendez watched Velasquez train for the first time, he was in awe. Sparring with a kickboxer, Velasquez, who knew nothing of striking, took a foot to his head, which, because of its mass and dimensions, is usually what people first notice about him. Velasquez responded by lifting his training partner in the air and placing him on the canvas. A couple of minutes later, bang, another foot to the face. The response slam was a bit harder this time. Not mean. Not vicious. Just a friendly warning.
"First day he was in the gym and I said, 'Oh, my God, I've never seen that,' " Mendez said. "Normally guys get pissed off. He doesn't."
Mendez waved off extra sparring. "He's got it," the trainer told one of his coaches. He didn't need to see anymore. This kid was worth his time.
Velasquez could have also lost it when Mike Kyle roughly snatched a limb and cranked an armbar during his first few months becoming familiar with submissions. Kyle was the heavyweight hotshot, or at least he thought he was. There were others with experience like Paul Buentello, but Kyle -- a UFC veteran who repeatedly was in trouble with regulators for illegal actions in the cage, including an 18-month suspension for attacking an opponent after the bell -- was the one everyone knew had an attitude.
So they rolled, Kyle tapped Velasquez, jumped up and raised a ruckus. "I'm the champion!" he yelled. "I'm the best." It was enough to get Mendez out of his office to see what the deal was. Two months later, they hit the mat again. Submissions didn't come for Kyle this time. Instead, he was the one caught in all manner of chokes and joint locks. Velasquez didn't respond how Kyle would have. Rather than celebrate, he stopped and offered to help correct Kyle's mistakes.
"This whole time Cain's attitude has been the most humble in the world," Kyle said. "It helped humble me as a person and as a fighter."
Mendez found ways to test Velasquez, and each time the fighter responded well. Box much better Buentello with only your left hand. OK. Hit the heavy bag a thousand times. OK. Whatever he was tasked with, he did. Velasquez soon earned his own reputation. He was determined not to be anything but a tireless worker and a family man, which, like the "Brown Pride" tattoo scrawled across his chest, were ways to show respect to his father, who illegally made his way into the U.S. from Mexico seeking a better life for his family.
Mendez didn't know what to make of that tattoo, which has generated some discussion over its meaning and intent. When it first came up, he didn't believe Velasquez when the heavyweight promised it wasn't gang-related. In time, as Mendez grew to become close friends with Velasquez (he is godfather to Cain's daughter), the trainer saw it for what it was and envisioned an emergent societal role for the heavyweight.
Mendez said he told Velasquez two years ago, "I think there's a message with you and I don't know what it is yet but having that tattoo on your chest is saying something. People are going to look at that and judge you. But when they get to meet you and see you, that whole judgment will be thrown way off. That's a story to be told in itself. People are going to look at you and admire you. You're this guy that looks like a killer. All of a sudden mothers and fathers are going to look at you and listen to you talk. That image of what you are isn't who you are.
"I think he's going to change people's opinions," Mendez said. "It's for the good."
Both know that cannot happen -- or, at least, it can't as soon as they might like -- without a win at UFC 121 this weekend in Anaheim, Calif.
"From Day One, when I first walked in the door, when we first started working together, that's what Javier talked about," Velasquez said. "That's what he prepared me for."
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