Five things we learned at UFC 121
Cain Velasquez proved his trainer right by winning the UFC heavyweight title
Brock Lesnar's early onslaught exhausted him and ultimately cost him the fight
Velasquez's upset victory could help the UFC finally reach the Latino audience
1. Javier Mendez had it right. Four years ago, when Cain Velasquez walked into Mendez's gym in San Jose, Calif., the trainer pegged the wrestler as a future heavyweight champion. Saturday night in Southern California, in front of a crowd emboldened by a young man with Mexican blood running through his veins, Velasquez made good on Mendez's prognostication with a rousing first-round stoppage of Brock Lesnar.
Originally, Mendez wanted the All-American from Arizona State to fight 10 times, see where he was in the hunt for a title, and take it from there. As history will show, Velasquez, 28, needed just nine pro bouts to prove his worth against Lesnar -- the most marketable heavyweight in the sport who, in just seven fights, took the belt and captivated audiences with his power and persona.
It was a superlative performance, one Velasquez called "almost perfect" save for the brief moment when he was sucked in by Lesnar's aggression. Not that anyone but Velasquez could find fault with such a performance against a thickly-bearded giant who, in another time, might have been best suited to be a marauding Viking.
The 20-pound weight difference wasn't at all noticeable when the two engaged. Lesnar literally ran across the expanse of the Octagon and dove at Velasquez. When that didn't put the challenger on his back, Lesnar lunged again and again, including a wild flying knee that didn't do anything but sap him out of energy. Pressure and more pressure. Yet Velasquez never succumbed.
"I felt his strength. I felt his power," Velasquez said. "I was definitely used to competing against guys that were as strong as him. I think I was well prepared for this fight."
Every Saturday during the duration of his training camp, Velasquez worked on wrestling with Daniel Cormier, a multiple-time Olympian who quickly became an integral member of the AKA camp. He drilled religiously with Mark Ellis, a 2009 NCAA champion wrestler for the University of Missouri -- who, incidentally, Mendez projects will be a future MMA heavyweight champion -- on not only defending the onrushing attacks of a wild-beast wrestler, but also applying a single-leg takedown combination. When the moment was right, when Lesnar unloaded his clip and hit nothing, that's when Velasquez forced the big man to the canvas with his single.
The plan: "If the takedown was there," Velasquez said, "take it."
Lesnar battled back to his feet a couple times, but all he could do was scramble and eat punches. Unlike Shane Carwin, who very nearly finished Lesnar in July, Velasquez showed poise in the face of victory. He moved well, threw strikes when they were there, and completely out-positioned Lesnar on the canvas.
He may not have had Lesnar's size or raw athleticism, but he had enough. And coupled with tremendous technique and patience, byproducts both of his time under the watchful eye of Mendez, Velasquez proved himself more than capable of claiming the title.
"Jav has always tried to get my head right, getting me prepared for the big fights," Velasquez said. "That's what he does. I just felt myself working up the ladder in the UFC. Every test has been a good test."
2. Lesnar's opening: Foolish. It's hard to know what kind of impact this had on the outcome -- and based on how things played out it probably didn't -- but Lesnar's decision to bullrush Velasquez from the opening bell can't be considered anything but a major tactical error.
Velasquez expected an early onslaught, yet even he was surprised by the ferocity with which Lesnar attacked at the start.
"I felt surprised how much pressure he put on me," said the new champion. "I definitely did. I tried to take it all in, relax and do my thing."
If the decision to fire out of the gate was the plan from the beginning, it was a major gamble. The adrenaline dump alone would have made it impossible for Lesnar to keep up any kind of pace. Forget five rounds. He wouldn't have lasted two at that rate. Perhaps Lesnar (5-2) and his camp hoped by going after Velasquez they could slow down the challenger, make him defend and struggle under someone bigger and stronger -- that was the assumption -- who knew how to wrestle. Instead, Velasquez parried and jumped to his feet after Lesnar's two takedowns, and the early energy output, as well as the challenger's accurate punches, forced the big man to wilt.
After Lesnar's victory against Shane Carwin last July, I wrote in this space that he was the most dangerous man on the planet. For that night he was, but it's clear now that I overstated his worth as a heavyweight mixed martial artist. For as big a physical force as Lesnar is, he can't cope with getting hit. He showed this and survived against Carwin. But versus Velasquez, Lesnar wasn't as fortunate. His natural instinct, it seems, is to cover up or run, which isn't all that surprising considering his late entry into MMA. Now 33, the former UFC champion didn't know the realities of the fight game until he jumped in three years ago. It was a huge leap to the challenges of the UFC, and while his loss tonight shouldn't diminish what he accomplished, it serves as a reality check that technique matters in this sport. There's a place for brute strength, sure, but that alone will not work against today's young lions like Velasquez.
3. Young-gun heavyweights clash next. I thought Lesnar would retain his title tonight, so take this for what it's worth. Anyhow, Velasquez's next fight, which could happen in the first quarter of 2011, will come against powerful slugger Junior dos Santos, who offers a totally different set of challenges than tonight's opponent.
"I have to be a much better fighter," Velasquez said. "I have to be evolving. I think he's the best standup fighter that there is a far as heavyweights. He's extremely tough. He has great takedown defense. He gets up when you take him down. He has boxing and is crisp."
Absolutely true. Dos Santos (12-1) had stopped five fighters in a row before plundering Roy Nelson in a bout that should not, but somehow did, go the distance. He's young.. Fast. And hits hard. Very hard.
But dos Santos is not in Velasquez's league when it comes to wrestling, and though the Brazilian has shown the ability to stave off takedowns, he hasn't had to do it against anyone like the newly crowned champion.
Velasquez should be a considerable favorite come fight time.
4. Outreach to the Hispanic market. Much was made on blogs and fight fan forums about the marketing of UFC 121 and Cain Velasquez to the Mexican audience. The UFC billed him as the first potential Mexican heavyweight to win a major championship in combat sports. Velasquez, born in Salinas, Calif., considers himself American but he also grew up paying respects to his Mexican heritage.
The push by UFC appears to have been a huge success, as the nearly 15,000 people inside the Honda Center, many waving Mexican-flag colored garb, were clearly behind Velasquez.
"I think Cain winning the title and holding the title is a big deal for the Latino market," UFC president Dana White said. "Mexico dominated the lighter weight categories in boxing and I think they will in mixed martial arts eventually, too."
The difference between Velasquez and other Hispanic fighters, especially those native to Mexico: wrestling. There will need to be a steep learning curve for many young Hispanic fighters making their way into MMA, unless they're exposed to wrestling at an early age. For now, Velasquez would seem to be the exception. But with a fighter like him to look up to, let there be no doubt that a young crop are already mapping out their careers to the top.
"I feel great being the first Mexican heavyweight champion of the UFC," Velasquez said. "I'm going to keep representing. This belt I dedicate to the Mexican people in the United States and Mexico."
The UFC has attempted to make inroads into Mexico for at least half a decade. Velasquez could be the key to getting that done.
5. Shields still in line for a title shot. Though it may feel as if he doesn't deserve the opportunity after struggling through three rounds against Martin Kampmann (17-4), White confirmed that Jake Shields (26-4-1) will remain at the top of the list of welterweight challengers after capturing his UFC debut on points in the evening's co-main event.
Fighting at welterweight for the first time in two years, Shields suffered as he shed weight to make the division's 170-pound limit. While it was never a problem in the past, this version of Shields, 31, had attempted to bulk up over the last 24 months as he campaigned at middleweight, where he defended the Strikeforce championship against the likes of Dan Henderson. Adding weight, as one would expect, doesn't comport with cutting weight, and by Thursday night he still had 13 pounds to lose to make the contracted limit. That effort clearly hurt him against Kampmann, a very good mixed martial artist who should be kicking himself tonight.
"He cut too much weight," White said. "That's his problem. You don't come in the UFC and cut 20 pounds. That's stupid. He won't do that next time. Considering the things he went through he pulled of a good win against a very tough guy."
White wants Shields to remain at 170, and doesn't see much success in his future if he makes the decision to move up again to middleweight.
"I think if he fights in the 185 pound division here he'll feel a difference," said the promoter. "A huge difference with strength and size."
For now, Shields is like the rest of us: waiting to see who wins the Dec. 11 showdown in Montreal between champion Georges St. Pierre and challenger Josh Koscheck.
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