It is a select group of fighters who step into the Octagon early in their careers and convince everyone watching that championship gold is in their future.
Georges St-Pierre was that way.
You immediately saw the talent, the potential, and the athleticism. Though he came up short in his first attempt to capture the welterweight title, the “future champion” label remained, and the French-Canadian superstar has since gone on to exceed everyone’s lofty expectations by putting together the greatest career of anyone to have competed in the welterweight division.
Jon Jones earned that label as well.
In just his second UFC appearance, the skinny kid from Endicott, New York showed fans a glimpse of the future, dominating veteran Stephan Bonnar with a blend of unorthodox striking and impressive wrestling despite the fact that he lacked polish.
Watching Jones in his first few appearances, you knew that once the rough edges were smoothed out, and the holes in his game were filled, “Bones” would ascend to greatness. Like St-Pierre, the UFC light heavyweight champion has also lived up to his advanced billing, establishing himself as a dominant force in a deep and talented division, joining St-Pierre and middleweight champion Anderson Silva in a triumvirate of champions widely held to be the three best fighters in the sport today, if not of all-time.
Cain Velasquez was tabbed as a future champion when he arrived in the UFC as well. An agile and explosive heavyweight with a strong wrestling base and the markings of someone who could develop into a dominant force, early stoppage victories over Brad Morris, Jake O’Brien, and Denis Stojnic cemented the Arizona State University product as a force to be reckoned with in the heavyweight ranks.
Two-and-a-half years later, Velasquez reached the summit, brutalizing Brock Lesnar en route to a first round stoppage victory at UFC 121 and the UFC heavyweight title.
But before he could establish himself as the dominant force in the big boy ranks, Velasquez dropped the title, suffering the first and only defeat of his career just 64 seconds into his initial title defense against Junior dos Santos. While he’d reached the pinnacle of the sport, his time at the top didn’t last long, and left many wondering if it was “Cigano” and not Velasquez that would be the man to carry the heavyweight division going forward.
In the 16 months since he lost the title to dos Santos, Velasquez – and the heavyweight division – has come full circle. The man many tabbed as the future ruler of the weight class once again sits atop the division, gold around his waist, and a pair of emphatic victories added to his resume.
The heavyweight division has never had a truly dominant champion; a fighter who forged a legacy similar to the ones being crafted by Jones, Silva, and St-Pierre.
The most consecutive successful title defenses in the heavyweight division? Two, a record shared by Lesnar, Tim Sylvia, and Randy Couture, while Lesnar’s 707-day stretch as champion that included an extended absence while battling diverticulitis stands as the longest individual reign in the history of the division.
On the eve of UFC 160, Velasquez is primed to defend his title, and begin to establish himself as a dominant champion the likes of which the heavyweight division has not yet seen.
“To me right now, that’s the most important thing – to defend it, and to hold on to it,” says Velasquez of the UFC heavyweight title. “This is the position I want to be in, so I have to go out there and perform. This is what I’ve been working hard for, this is what I got into this sport to do – to be the #1 guy, and not just get the belt once or twice, but to keep accumulating a bunch of belts. That’s what I want to do, that’s what I’ve envisioned in my career, so I’m here now, and I’m going to keep doing it.”
Five months ago, Velasquez avenged the lone loss of his career to reclaim the heavyweight title. Fighting at his usual relentless pace, he battered dos Santos for 25 minutes, completing 11 takedowns and landing more than 100 significant strikes, leaving the Brazilian to stand bruised and swollen in the center of the Octagon as UFC President Dana White wrapped the championship belt around Velasquez’ waist once again.
“Avenging the loss was probably the most rewarding feeling that I got,” admits Velasquez, who pushed his record to 11-1 with his UFC 155 win over dos Santos. “To get back on top -- I’m not sure if a lot of people out there believed that I could do it from the first fight, and (having witnessed) how Junior dominated people in the past. To do it the way that I did it was definitely rewarding.”
Saturday evening, the 30-year-old champion will face another familiar foe when he shares the cage with Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva as he makes his second attempt at successfully defending the heavyweight title for the first time in his career.
A reshuffling of the fight card at UFC 146 turned Silva into the man to welcome Velasquez back to the cage after his loss to dos Santos, and things didn’t go well for the hulking Brazilian. Less than 10 seconds into the bout, Velasquez put Silva on the canvas, and began an unrelenting ground-and-pound assault, the mat painted red with the former Strikeforce competitor’s blood.
Despite his previous success against Silva, Velasquez takes nothing for granted. He’s been in this position before – the heavyweight champion, poised to defend the title and truly begin his reign – only to have things go sideways in an instant. Instead, he views Saturday’s main event as a clash between two challengers battling for championship gold, and to the victor go the spoils.
“This is a whole new fight,” says the soft-spoken champion. “Obviously, we saw what Bigfoot can do in his last two fights, so I can’t take him lightly. He’s a tough competitor – really dangerous in the Octagon – so I’m not expecting anything less than a hard, grueling fight.
“That first fight between me and Bigfoot, I take a lot of stuff from it here and there, but this is a whole new fight. Anything can happen in this fight. He is dangerous, so I’m not taking this guy lightly.
“I’m envisioning a whole new belt, and it’s up to Bigfoot and me to go out there and get it. It’s not that he’s coming to take mine away; this is a whole new one, and we’re both contenders for that belt, and we’re both equally hungry. That’s how I see it. This is a fight I have to win.”
Not everyone tabbed as a future champion reaches their potential and wears championship gold.
In that regard, Velasquez has already achieved much more than countless fighters that have crossed the threshold into the UFC Octagon, having twice heard Bruce Buffer boom the words “…and NEW UFC Heavyweight Champion” as the crowd erupted.
But Velasquez is not satisfied with what he’s accomplished to date. He’s proud, but there is more work to be done. As far as he’s concerned, he hasn’t reached his full potential, and he won’t stop until he’s become the long reigning, dominant champion the heavyweight division has always been missing.
“I’m not there yet. I’ve only gained the belt twice, and that’s not where I want to be. I want to keep accumulating belts, so I’m not there yet. I’m not happy with where I’m at yet; I want to keep doing this, and stay in this position for a long time.”
Cain Velasquez: Here Comes the Reign
"He’s a tough competitor – really dangerous in the Octagon – so I’m not expecting anything less than a hard, grueling fight." - Cain Velasquez