The news of Cain Velasquez’s injury and decision to step out of his upcoming title fight with Fabricio Werdum will not come as a major shock to avid followers of mixed martial arts.
Indeed, Dana White’s Facebook post to announce the news was so drab and straightforward that he seemed almost expectant of the situation.
Having delayed or pulled out of multiple fights at this stage of his career, Velasquez has been a source of unending frustration for the organization and fans alike. But it could/should have been so different…
Rewind to 2011 and the build up to the heavyweight clash between Velasquez and Junior Dos Santos. Widely considered the two top heavyweights in active MMA, this was the fight to establish an undisputed king in what had become a much maligned division. It was also the beginning of a new era for the UFC with their debut show in a newly established relationship with Fox Sports – a landmark moment in the sport’s relatively short history.
A flood of promos for the fight were released, each proclaiming the dawning of a new ‘Baddest Man on the Planet’: Cain Velasquez. Unfortunately for the UFC, Velasquez would go on to be knocked unconscious in just over 60 seconds, much to the embarrassment of the promotion’s president Dana White who struggled to hide his disappointment on live TV.
The UFC has oft been accused of bias and in having a vested financial interest in one fighter winning over another (Conor McGregor anyone?). In Velasquez they had a popular, undefeated heavyweight who, through his established Mexican roots, had the potential to unlock a new PPV demographic and the money that goes with it.
The Hispanic market had been long coveted by the UFC not least because the fervour to which they support their combat athletes – think Oscar De La Hoya or Julio César Chávez Junior in boxing. However, perhaps even more important was the engagement of an audience that differed from the stereotypical white male (with obligatory Tapout T-shirts and ugly tattoos), which the UFC had often been negatively associated.
Velasquez solidifying his status as the UFC Heavyweight Champion, live on Fox TV was going to elevate the sport once again in terms of credibility, casual fan interest and crossover appeal. What the UFC didn’t know was that Cain had suffered a debilitating injury in advance of the fight and this would be the touch paper for an increasingly tense relationship between fighter and promotion.
The decision to fight against Dos Santos that night was a huge turning point in Velasquez’s career. Not only did he lose his title, but he lost it on mainstream television in one of the biggest nights in UFC history. In short, the risk was conclusively not worth the aspirational reward. Ever since, his planned fights have been plagued with delays, cancellations and his own faith in his body has proved his biggest battle.
Velasquez unquestionably deserves to be mentioned among the greatest heavyweights in MMA history but his legacy has been tainted by repeatedly failing to appear when required to compete. The injuries suffered by Velasquez became so regular that White himself has ranted furiously about the training methods used by Velasquez’s gym (the American Kickboxing Academy) and their head trainer Javier Mendez. White went as far as to label their methods stone age and accused them of being negligent in their preparation.
So what’s next for the heavyweight division? Velasquez has now become such a risk in terms of fight preparation and promotion that you have to wonder just why the UFC would choose to invest in him any longer. How White must long for a McGregor or Rousey-type heavyweight who could spark interest in what has always been a fabled division in combat sports.
The UFC have made no secret of their desire to have a marketable and successful heavyweight champion, particularly with the circus that has been the boxing heavyweight division in recent times. But the question is whether or not they can put their faith in Velasquez and his failing body to fulfil that desire.
With UFC 200 only a few months away a rescheduled match with Werdum would seem like a valid option. The UFC could put the fight just below the co-main of Holly Holm and Meisha Tate without having to wonder about buy rates and the potential risks of Velasquez picking up another injury. Coincidentally and perhaps fortunately, news emerged yesterday of an injury to Werdum, which makes this timeline even more realistic in terms of recovery and preparation for both. No doubt the UFC could have the ever-willing Stipe Miocic waiting in the wings if anything was to go wrong.
For Velasquez the individual, this must all seem like a horrible dream. Championed by teammates and sparring partners before he ever set foot in mixed martial arts’ premier promotion, a long stint with UFC gold seemed almost a formality.
Now at 33 years of age, he is on the wrong side of his prime and fast running out of time to make the type of long-term impact that was expected of him. Hard decisions are required by the individual, his team and indeed his promoters.
The problem for Velasquez is that not all of these parties will have purely his best interests at heart. But it could/should have been so different…
Stuart O’Shaughnessy, Pundit Arena