Cain Velasquez casts a penumbra over the UFC heavyweight division. With a 14-2 record and two heavyweight title wins and defenses, he’s unquestionably one of the greats. For a long time, he was the mythical creature all heavyweights compared themselves to. But Cain hasn’t fought in two years now, and that’s an eternity in the fight game. Like an ex-boyfriend/girlfriend, his departure has allowed us to objectively evaluate his worth.
The question is no longer how good was Cain Velasquez, but how good he is.
After dropping his debut against Frank Mir, Brock Lesnar promptly rattled off four easy wins during which he took and defended the UFC heavyweight title twice.
Only 6′ 3″ but cutting to the 265 lb limit, Lesnar is the best fast twitch athlete in the history of heavyweight. Compensating for his rudimentary skill-set with his minotaur DNA, Lesnar was literally too big and fast for his opponents. He only needed one explosive takedown at which point he could use his size to hold opponents down and beat them to a pulp. When a bulked up Mir and mountainous Shane Carwin came up short, people wondered if the dawn of the super-heavyweights had come.
Cain proved that no, it hadn’t.
Turns out that heavyweights naturally have power and strength, and it is cardio and speed that’s at a premium. Lesnar wasn’t used to his lunch fighting back and quickly tired before being TKO’d. After a fluke KO loss to Junior Dos Santos, Cain would win the belt back and defend it twice. Fabricio Werdum and Stipe Miocic followed this trend, focusing on cardio and volume over explosive strength.
Drowning on land
Let’s do a little math here. Cain loses less stamina attempting takedowns than an opponent does by defending them, and he’ll shoot every chance he gets. You can see why this is problematic for heavyweights especially, right?
Cain’s top game is the ground equivalent of the Diaz brothers’ boxing in that it favors volume over power. But since he’s a heavyweight, even a gentle caress has natural power behind it. Fighters wear Cain’s ground and pound like a Halloween mask. His kickboxing isn’t technical, but it’s relaxed with natural power. Similar to Chris Weidman, this smooth delivery gives him deceptive hand speed. Opponents are wary of his vaunted wrestling and try to create space whenever they can, pulling steam off their own punches. Consequently, Cain routinely beats up more polished strikers on the feet.
He’s knocked out his opponent in every single win except two. Cheick Kongo managed to catch him early in his career and survived with his dignity intact. Junior Dos Santos survived by the virtue of having a titanium coconut where his skull used to be. FYI, it didn’t help in the trilogy fight.
A question of quality
The heavyweight division is still laughably shallow, but it has evolved since Cain’s heyday. Let’s look his top wins.
The pair of beat-downs he inflicted upon Junior immediately pop into mind, and they are undoubtedly his best performances. But Junior is notorious for his poor ringcraft and repeatedly put his back against the cage and circled with his hands down. The few times he sat down on his punches or switched to elbows, the results were devastating but his overall game plan was terrible. Yet Cain still needed 58 minutes to beat Junior twice.
After that, it gets a bit bare bones.
Brock Lesnar needed PEDs to get a decision over Mark Hunt. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira’s loss to Cain was the start of a 2-5 run that saw him unable to overcome all but the most mediocre competition. Bigfoot Silva’s second loss to Velasquez would mark a run in which he’d only win a single fight in his next ten. Travis Browne’s loss to him marked the beginning of a four-fight skid.
Yes, his loss to Fabricio Werdum can be partially attributed to the altitude of Mexico City. But he was also unwilling to wrestle the BJJ standout (understandably) and found his head snapped back by a beautiful counter jab. Werdum’s ability to stand his ground while striking swung the momentum of the fight drastically in his favor. The altitude simply helped the conclusion arrive sooner.
Where does he fit in now?
Stipe Miocic has cemented himself as the UFC’s greatest heavyweight, and possibly the greatest heavyweight of all time. It’s ridiculous to think Cain is on the same level, even if a fight between them wouldn’t be a complete wash.
But what about a fight against Francis Ngannou? Stipe’s defense on the feet is far superior to Cain’s, but even he barely got out of the way of the Cameroonian’s ferocious power. A sea-level rematch against Werdum would be interesting, but the Brazilian is slated to face Alexander Volkov in a couple weeks. His best bet would be a fight against Curtis Blaydes, but he’s got a date with Alistair Overeem.
Cain is still good. REALLY good. But we must shed the idea that he is still the best in the division, or even in the top #3. He finds himself in a position we never thought we’d see him in: clawing his way back to the top.