Cain Velasquez assumes the rare role of underdog in rematch
LAS VEGAS — "Let's stop talking about that old fight," Cain Velasquez said quietly. "This is a whole new one."
The former UFC heavyweight champion was technically correct. The fight he was hyping — if his calm, stone-faced demeanor can properly be termed "hyping" — at a press conference along with his opponent, Junior dos Santos, and promotion president Dana White will indeed be live at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on Saturday night. That means it is, yes, a new fight.
But "a whole new one"? Not so fast. What happened back on Nov. 12, 2011 — what made Velasquez a former champ and affixed the shiny belt around Dos Santos' waist — is something that both men will carry into the octagon for the rematch.
For dos Santos, that's probably a good thing. He's brimming with confidence and smiled throughout Thursday's press conference and other promotional appearances. He is soaking in all of what it means to be a champion — not just any champ, either, but the heavyweight champion of the world, an honor that comes with the unofficial but distinguished title of "baddest man on the planet." Sure, it's possible the granite-fisted Brazilian will walk into the octagon overconfident and full of himself, but Junior doesn't seem to be the type to take anything lightly.
What of Velasquez, though? What does such a harrowing defeat do to a man — his championship gone, his unbeaten record tarnished, the biggest TV audience in UFC history having watched him get vanquished in a mere 64 seconds? Clearly, Cain would love for that first UFC on Fox fight to vanish from our collective memory. During a conference call with MMA media a week ago, his mantra was, "It's in the past." He said it over and over, but guess what, Cain: The past has a way of weighing us down.
And while Velasquez doesn't care to dwell on the past, a look into the future isn't any more comforting. Should he lose to dos Santos again, that could put him in the heavyweight division's version of no-man's land. A fighter who has twice lost to the man who holds the championship belt shouldn't hold his breath while awaiting another title shot. Just ask former middleweight champ Rich Franklin, who lost his title to Anderson Silva, dropped the rematch as well and, since then, has never been considered a serious challenger in the division. Just ask Josh Koscheck, a former Velasquez teammate who is a two-time loser to welterweight belt holder Georges St-Pierre and no longer in the mix among 170-pounders. For Cain, that saddles this rematch with added pressure. Like the past, it weighs on you.
It's difficult to get a fix on the state of Cain Velasquez going into Saturday night's bout. Physically, he appears to be in a far better place. Of course, even though Velasquez fought the first fight with an injured knee, so did Dos Santos. But those physical limitations might have had different effects on each man's psyche that night. Perhaps the reason Junior came out so aggressively is that he didn't want his balky knee to come into play in a drawn-out fight. And maybe we can chalk up Cain's cautiousness to his concern over a bad leg. Or we can just go with the analysis of that famous old fight fan, Freud, and say sometimes a knockout is just a knockout.
Either way, Velasquez has a lot to think about. And it's not clear what is churning around inside his head. You can't read into his stoicism in the leadup to this rematch because, well, he's always that way. But something is different. It has to be. Here's a fighter who knocked out eight of the first nine men he faced, finishing six of them in the first round. Cain had the look of an indomitable champion until he ran into a Dos Santos right hand a little over a year ago. True, Velasquez got right back on track by demolishing Antonio Silva via first-round TKO in May. But now he's stepping back into the cage with the guy who owns the big right hand that crumbled his invincibility -- the guy who wears the brass-and-leather strap that Cain still sometimes refers to as "my belt."
If Velasquez truly sees himself as a champion in exile who's returning to reclaim what's his, he'll notice on Saturday night that things are different in his old kingdom. He'll be the first to walk out to the octagon and first to be introduced, as is the custom for challengers. And he'll hear announcer Bruce Buffer bellow "former champion" during that introduction and, moments later, proclaim Dos Santos as "UFC heavyweight champion." Perhaps that'll add fuel to Cain's motivational gas tank. Or maybe it will just be sharp slap of reality.
Thursday's press conference was largely uneventful, with both fighters speaking with admiration for the other, not even a whiff of Chael Sonnen in the room. But a couple of small things did not go unnoticed. First, just as the proceedings were getting under way, an MGM Grand exec greeted the media and announced that the hotel's sports book had updated the odds on Dos Santos to minus-230, Velasquez to plus-180, "making Dos Santos a little over a 2-1 favorite." As Cain heard that, his jaw visibly tightened. He later was asked about the odds and shrugged them off, saying, "The only thing that matters is Saturday night." But being a 2-1 underdog and "my belt" are concepts that simply don't mesh.
Later, the fighters were asked about what it was like to prepare for a rematch, and Dos Santos said something interesting: "It's more a rematch for Cain Velasquez. For me, it's another fight." I knew what he was saying: that as the challenger, especially one who was dethroned by the reigning champ, there's a whole extra level of significance to this title fight for Cain, while for Junior, as champion you just take on the next guy the UFC stands in front of you. Velasquez didn't get that nuance, though. "It is a rematch," he insisted, breaking into his only smile of the afternoon. "I mean, we're fighting again."
Yes they are. And as Velasquez himself put it, "This is definitely the biggest fight of my career." He followed that pronouncement by saying that he goes into every fight thinking it's his biggest ever. But even he would acknowledge that losing for the first time last fall makes this rematch with Dos Santos different from anything else he's faced. Before that, the norm for Cain was to walk out of the cage the winner. Now he wants things to be normal again. "I just want to go out there and do what I normally do," he said, "and that's be aggressive, you know, dominate. I expect that."