The time, place and opponent is perfectly apt for Cain Velasquez’s return


If there was one gripe to be had with UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez, it’s the lack of frequency with which we see him. For reasons that remain the source of perpetual debate, he seems to be equally adept at sustaining injuries as he is doling them out. Subsequently, when he enters the octagon for his title unification bout with Fabricio Werdum at UFC 188 in Mexico City on Saturday night, it will signal the end of an 18 month absence from competition.

Of course, the paltry cage time has created a significant consensus of cynicism towards Velasquez; so often has his affinity with calamity seen bouts postponed, delayed or rescheduled, the world’s greatest heavyweight now fails to conjure the sort of fanfare befitting of his talents. However, 11th hour disasters notwithstanding, even Velasquez, or the insane training methods of AKA, couldn’t sabotage this colossal clash of titans. Furthermore, the narrative around which his return has been scripted, could not be more apt.

Rarely, if ever, is a fighter afforded the opportunity to reassert himself against the best possible opponent; in the best possible setting; at the perfect moment in time. So often does this apparently cold, random universe appear to conspire against the sport, its combatants and fans, it can be difficult not feel like we’re all at the wrong end of some elaborate cosmic hoax. Maybe, just maybe, the fighting gods are cutting us all a break, and nobody more so than Velasquez.

Let’s consider the evidence. This fight was meant to happen last November, then, with just a month to go, news emerged that Velasquez had sprained his right MCL in training-surprise, surprise. Having coached opposite Werdum on TUF; Latin America, Velasqeuz’s omission threatened to derail the UFC’s long-awaited first event on Mexican soil. Not only that, the Zuffa promotion had lost the figurehead for their planned expansion into the region.

Understandably, to preserve the show, the brass created an interim title for which Werdum and Mark Hunt would square off at UFC 180. Carrying on in his rich vein of form, Werdum clinched the strap with a Matrix-esque flying knee TKO in the second round. Such was the high-octane drama of the bout, the lack of Velasquez was not felt so acutely, as he sat stoically cage-side with crutches in tow.

As the son of Mexican emigrants, Velasquez has always displayed pride in his heritage in the most explicit manner possible.  Long since has it been a dream of his to compete in Mexico and he was duly crushed when the initial match-up went awry. Now that he’s back, the UFC have made it so that Velasquez – the first Mexican heavyweight champion in any combat sport – can finally display his gifts in the home of his ancestors.

Although they are by now well accustomed to Werdum, who has spent his last two training camps in Mexico, there is no question which athlete the locals favour. In comparison to his opponent, Velasquez may have ropey Spanish, but he is the people’s champion and is revered as such.

If, indeed, timing is everything, then Velasquez has got his right on the money. Needless to the say, the heavyweight landscape has changed significantly during his most recent convalescence and, in that time, a new batch of unlikely contenders have come to the fore.

After Velasquez mauled Junior Dos Santos for a second time in his most recent outing at UFC 166, there was prevailing thought that he had all but cleared out the division of credible contenders. It was unquestionably deflating, and even though Werdum was waiting in the wings, at that time his most notable victory in the UFC was over Big Nog, so was scarcely viewed as a legitimate threat – at least not by this writer. It’s almost as if the weight class needed its champion to fall on hard times so it could mature accordingly.

With the unlikely re-emergence of Ben Rothwell, Andrei Arlovski and, to a lesser degree, Alistair Overeem, there is no shortage of would-be usurpers. Granted, Velasquez must first navigate Werdum, which might just be a more hazardous undertaking than the bookmaker’s estimates suggest.

You see, it’s Werdum on which all this rests. If Velasquez were to claim a victory over an unworthy foe, then the stars will no longer look aligned. For the champion to complete a compelling comeback for the ages it must come at the expense of a formidable nemesis, which Werdum most certainly is.

Over the last two years, the Brazilian has made quantum leaps in his striking and now arguably possesses the most comprehensive skill-set the champion has ever encountered. No more just the BJJ aficionado, Werdum has complemented his elite grappling with a beautifully tapered striking arsenal.

His victory over Travis Browne was akin to a belated coming of age and vanquished any doubts surrounding his ability to hold his own with the elite.

Unlike JDS’s linear power-punching attack, Werdum has the acumen, offensive diversity and range to possibly stifle Velasquez’s perpetually-forward moving death march. His seemingly innocuous barb about Velasquez not really being Mexican has evidently vexed the usually statue-like Velasquez.

The thing is, since Velasquez pulled off MMA’s version of the David and Goliath story in dethroning Brock Lesnar to win the title for the first time at UFC 121, he has acquired an air of robotic invincibility, flash knockouts by Mr Dos Santos aside. When at maximum expression, the former ASU wrestler transforms into a marauding tornado of flawless technique and remorseless destruction.  Thus, as admirable as Werdum’s improvements have been, they are unlikely to be sufficient enough for him to progress from interim to undisputed status.

The stage has been perfectly set for Velasquez; it’s up to him to go ahead and hold up his end of the bargain. If he does, let’s hope it’s not another age before we see him again.