On Saturday night, Cain Velasquez will attempt to become the first fighter of Mexican descent in the history of combat sports to win a heavyweight championship. He must defeat reigning champion Brock Lesnar in order to accomplish that feat.
Easier said than done.
Lesnar is an athletic freak. Very few men alive enjoy a similar blend of size, strength, speed and coordination. He used those gifts and his natural fighting ability to win the UFC Heavyweight Championship in just his fourth professional fight -- an incredible feat that highlights just how special of an athlete that Lesnar really is.
Velasquez is a unique athlete in his own right. His foot and hand speed are revered among his heavyweight colleagues, his conditioning is nothing short of legendary, and this guy has both a tremendous wrestling base and standup technique for days.
None of that will matter, though, if Velasquez chooses to stand right in front of Lesnar and engage the champion in a head-on collision.
The key to Velasquez winning, in my opinion, is the use of angles. I really think it is that simple. Don't confuse simple with easy. Those are two very different concepts, and Velasquez's fight with Lesnar will likely be anything but easy.
When the action gets underway, I think that Lesnar will be looking for a quick takedown. The first round of his last fight with Shane Carwin highlights the fact that Lesnar still has some holes in his standup game, so I think he will go with what he knows best -- wrestling.
Velasquez was a two-time All-American wrestler at Arizona State, but I just don't see him finding a lot of success in that aspect of the fight against Lesnar. The size and explosive power differential is just too great, in my opinion. Thus, Velasquez needs to come out using his footwork to make sure he isn't standing directly in front of Lesnar for very long. He should utilize lots of movement, particularly to his own right, which will move him away from Lesnar's right hand. Despite the fact that Velasquez is a much better standup fighter, he must be very careful not to walk into Lesnar's right hand because the champion throws that with bone crushing power.
Velasquez's movements need to be quick shuffles of his feet. He should be careful not to cross his feet when he is anywhere within takedown range, which, with Lesnar's explosive shot, means anything within five or six feet. Crossing his feet will make it more difficult for him to play matador in the face of the charging bull.
As he shuffles his feet to the right, Velasquez should look for opportunities to square up and fire his own right hand over Lesnar's left shoulder. I like him leading with power shots more than pumping the jab because it will be more difficult for Lesnar to walk through a power shot and force a clinch--a position that I think Velasquez needs to avoid at all costs.
When Velasquez does find himself in front of Lesnar and sees that big right hand coming down the pipe, he needs to remain calm and rely on his technique. That means resisting the urge to pull straight back to avoid the blow, a major mistake against a guy with an 81-inch reach. He should instead slip the punch to his left, thereby loading his body for a brutal counter left hook. Lesnar's long arms cause him to take just a bit longer to snap his right hand back into place to protect his chin. Velasquez should be able to use his tremendous hand speed to effectively counter that punch with a left hook.
After the punch lands, Velasquez should change his path and quickly circle to his own left. Just a half step or so. That will open an angle for him to land a straight right hand, while keeping him out of harm's way in terms of takedowns because Lesnar won't be able to just lunge forward in search of a clinch. If he hurts the champion with either punch, Velasquez should open up with furious combinations. Lesnar's natural reaction will be to cover up, just like he did in the face of a standup assault from Shane Carwin in his last fight. Velasquez should not be deterred. Those little vale tudo gloves allow punches to land in the face of an opponent covering up, so he should continue with his assault.
Velasquez should not, however, focus solely on his fists. This guy has some of the best kicks in the game, particularly fully committed leg kicks. He can finish his combinations with kicks to the inside of Lesnar's lead leg. He can also use leg kicks like most strikers would use the jab--leading with them to establish the distance between the pair and also to begin chipping away at Lesnar's aura of invincibility.
Remember, Lesnar's big advantage over everyone, including Velasquez, is his size and explosiveness. Those advantages allow him to use his wrestling skills to really impose his will on opponents. If Velasquez can damage the champion's lead left leg, he will be far less explosive. It will be easier for Velasquez to avoid takedowns. And it will far more difficult for Lesnar to quickly reset his feet as the challenger circles and strikes.
If Velasquez is going to throw leg kicks, they must be fully committed. Haphazard leg kicks are a recipe for disaster because Lesnar undoubtedly has been working hard on countering leg kicks with a right hand down the middle. It is more difficult to land that counter with full power when a kick is thrown with bad intentions. It is even more difficult to land that counter when the kick is at the end of a combination. After he scores with a kick, he should immediately go back to changing his angle to stay out of harm's way and create the next opening for his offense.
If Velasquez finds himself in a situation where he is getting tangled up with the champion, he should get forget knees or other Thai-style inside strikes and get out of Dodge. Lesnar has proven that when he gets his hands on an opponent, a takedown isn't far behind. Once the action hits the ground, it is going to stay there for just about as long as Lesnar wants because of his freakish size and strength combined with his amazing wrestling base.
Velasquez wants no part of fighting from his back against Lesnar. Trust me on that one. I'm sure his Jiu-Jitsu coach, Dave Camarillo, has grand visions of his star pupil scoring a submission win in that situation, but when he sits down and really thinks about the pros and cons of playing the guard game against Lesnar's ground-and-pound attack, I would be shocked if he truly felt good about Velasquez's chances in that position. Thus, the former Arizona State University wrestler should do whatever it takes to get back to his feet if he falls victim to a takedown. Risk everything to get up because I don't think Lesnar has advanced enough BJJ skills to catch Velasquez, who is a purple belt, in anything other than some form of an arm triangle or side choke. Velasquez can take some chances when trying to get back to his feet, as a result.
Similarly, Velasquez should not deceive himself to believe that he can outwrestle the champion. Velasquez was a great collegiate wrestler. I know that. But he wasn't any better than Lesnar. And his lack of size and strength compared to Lesnar will be the difference maker.
With that said, if Velasquez is somehow able to take down Lesnar, he will put himself in a great position to win. Lesnar can't possibly be comfortable fighting from his guard. He didn't look that comfortable in the fact of Carwin's ground and pound in his last fight. There hasn't been enough time for a dramatic change in Lesnar's skills since that fight. Thus, Velasquez should really be able to effectively score when reigning down blows in that situation.
But again, I just don't see how Velasquez will be able to get the fight to the ground, unless he uses strikes to knock down the champion or otherwise force him raise his hands high enough in a defensive posture to open the door for a double-leg takedown. The former should be his preferred way of accomplishing the feat. The latter opens the door for Lesnar to sprawl, clinch and slam the challenger.
In addition to really relying on angles to set up his offense and avoid the takedown, Velasquez should force Lesnar to fight at a very high pace by continually applying pressure. I do not doubt the fact that Lesnar is a supremely conditioned athlete. Nonetheless, it is very difficult, if not nearly impossible, to carry that amount of muscle and fight at a high pace for five full rounds. If Velasquez can drag Lesnar into the third, fourth and fifth rounds after forcing him to fight at a high pace for the first two rounds, then I think the difference in conditioning will be apparent. I think Lesnar's size will then become a hindrance, rather than an advantage. Velasquez's speed and technique will create greater and greater problems for Lesnar on the feet.
I truly believe that Velasquez goes from the underdog to the favorite once the fight hits the championship rounds, unless he spends the majority of the early rounds on his back defending Lesnar's ground and pound.
At the end of the day, Velasquez knows that his big edge in this fight is in the standup realm. As mentioned, Lesnar still has a few big holes in his standup game. Carwin almost took advantage of those holes. He almost landed a knockout blow. Velasquez doesn't have quite the same destructive punching power as Carwin, but he has faster hands and better technique. He can easily put away Lesnar with a quick, precise combination or a perfectly timed left hook.
Can he do it? Can Velasquez become the first fighter of Mexican descent to win the heavyweight championship? We will find out on Saturday night.
• 28 years old
• 6'1, 245 lbs
• 77-inch reach
• 8-0 professional record (6-0 UFC)
• 87.5% knockout rate (7 out of 8)
• 62.5% first-round knockout ratio (5 out of 8)
• 1-0 against current or former champions
• Knockout of the Night twice (KO1 over Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira on February 21, 2010, TKO2 over Denis Stojnic on February 7, 2009)
• Current layoff is 244 days (KO1 over Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira on February 21, 2010)
• Longest career layoff is 490 days leading up to his UFC debut
• Two-time All-American wrestler at Arizona State (2005 and 2006)
• 2005 Pac-10 Conference Wrestler of the Year
• 2002 Junior College National Champion in wrestling
• Jiu-Jitsu purple belt under Dave Camarillo