Cain Velasquez (right) file photo: Dave Mandel | Sherdog.com
With the title on the line, UFC heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar’s defense against Cain Velasquez at UFC 121 on Saturday at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif., represents everything we want combat sports to be about.
It’s only the biggest title in sports, folks, and while the fans in California and on pay-per-view will no doubt be focused on the main event, there are some solid fights on this lineup in addition to the Lesnar-Velasquez showdown. Let’s break it down.
UFC Heavyweight Championship
Brock Lesnar (No. 1 HW) vs. Cain Velasquez (No. 4 HW)
The Matchup: Lesnar’s performance against Shane Carwin was a quantum leap. He overcame adversity in the cage and survived a big-time threat to his championship with his second-round submission of the unbeaten challenger. It was the kind of victory -- and humble post-fight interview -- that went a long way towards reshaping Lesnar’s image and fans’ opinion of him.
Enter Velasquez, another unbeaten challenger, with the mojo and intensity to match. Everything Lesnar is -- a big heavyweight, brash and seeming to have tons of people rooting against him merely because he’s famous -- Velasquez is not. He’s just a tough fighter with a blue-collar approach who has steadfastly worked himself into a title shot thanks to increasingly impressive performances.
What makes Velasquez most interesting is how he fights, more like a lightweight than a big man. He mixes up punches and kicks with little tipoff to either and blends the striking-to-grappling game with seamless ease. His work rate at the American Kickboxing Academy is a thing of legend, and that kind of long-run conditioning is what he will need to keep afloat against the bigger Lesnar, who will be 20-plus pounds heavier come fight time.
The Pick: On the UFC “Countdown” preview showcasing the fight, one of Lesnar’s trainers asserted that his stamina was not a problem and that people should stop questioning it. That, however, is a well-meaning point if not a very likely moot one, because Lesnar is not likely to go five rounds in a fight for several years.
He’s too big and strong, and if you do not get him early, as Carwin attempted, you’re probably not going to be around once he takes you down. Lesnar’s performance in the Frank Mir rematch was a terrifying revelation of what a man of his size and athleticism can do. He scuttled our perceptions of what a heavyweight on the bottom could reasonably be expected to do and will be a destructive force against anyone unfortunate enough to be caught underneath him.
To survive, Velasquez is going to either catch Lesnar early or have to go through hell and escape some bad spots in a titanic struggle. This is what heavyweight championship fights are all about, and the guess here is that Velasquez is game and wily enough to either step to Lesnar early, stun him and set the tone for a stoppage or hang tough in the critical first two rounds and rally.
The key for Velasquez is to switch angles, circle away from Lesnar and deny him the setup for his classic power double-leg takedown, which seems virtually unstoppable. Unless he scores a quick stoppage, Velasquez is inevitably going to end up on his back, where he will need to force scrambles and keep moving. Staying in a static position, as Mir was forced to, dooms one to certain defeat.
Velasquez will also have to plant seeds of doubt in Lesnar’s head early, by putting leather on him in the first round to force takedowns and clinches. For his part, Lesnar is exceptionally athletic, and his stand-up is improving. Forget about how he covered up and pretty much ran away when Carwin buzzed him -- anyone would. Lesnar has huge power even in glancing blows, and that will be a threat if Velasquez does not keep him off-balance with movement and astute timing.
Either way, the pick here is Velasquez in a high-octane, back-and-forth heavyweight classic. He will win in three, by KO.