Much has changed since Cain Velasquez last appeared inside the Octagon. | Photo: Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com
Hola, amigos! The Ultimate Fighting Championship’s ridiculously loaded summer schedule rolls on and lands in Mexico. The Octagon’s second trip to the world’s second-largest city represents the second attempt from its heavyweight champion to compete in Mexico City; and as expected, UFC 188 on Saturday at Mexico City Arena will have a distinct Latin flavor, with Cain Velasquez as the centerpiece.
Related » UFC 188 Fight-by-Fight Preview
HOW WE GOT HERE: Death, taxes and UFC champions’ bodies falling apart. Some things never change, and that applies to heavyweight titleholder Velasquez. He and current interim champion Fabricio Werdum were penciled in to fight in the company’s debut on Mexican soil at UFC 180. However, a Velasquez knee injury put the kibosh on the promotional takeover South of the Border. Mark Hunt filled in on 26 days’ notice against the Brazilian, as they fought for a so-called “interim title.” Werdum stopped the former K-1 World Grand Prix winner with a flying knee, keeping his path to Velasquez clear ... Two of MMA’s best non-UFC lightweights of the past five years throw down in the co-main event. A slow-burning rivalry between former Strikeforce champion Gilbert Melendez and former Bellator MMA titlist Eddie Alvarez finally comes to a head. The two spent the last half decade staring at each other across promotional lines, teasing a potential co-promotional bout that never came to fruition. Like so many times before, the UFC scraped together a matchup time nearly forgot.
QUIET LEGACY: Perhaps no fighter in the modern era has slowly and quietly developed an outstanding career quite like Werdum, an unquestionable all-time top 10 heavyweight. “Vai Cavalo” came into Pride Fighting Championships as a pure world champion jiu-jitsu player and stood out as a quality fighter. He was always a valuable heavyweight throughout his career no matter promotion he was in. Then he started to improve under the tutelage of Kings MMA coach Rafael Cordeiro. Butt-scooting was replaced by the Thai clinch, and pulling guard was replaced by striking combos. The man tapped out submission masters Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Fedor Emelianenko and knocked out K-1 World Grand Prix winner Hunt; and if he outwrestles NCAA All-American wrestler Velasquez, he becomes the new king of beating fighters at their own game.
THE GOLD STANDARD: Headlining the prelims on FX is a showcase fight for 2008 Olympic freestyle wrestling gold medalist Henry Cejudo, as he faces Roufusport product Chico Camus. The roster’s only gold medalist has the potential to bring badly needed attention to a flyweight division floundering to build contenders for pound-for-pound standout Demetrious Johnson. John Dodson is the leading contender to rematch “Mighty Mouse,” but he is coming off a pedestrian win over Zach Makovsky. Joseph Benavidez dispatched John Moraga at UFC 187 but remains a long shot for a third chance at the champ. The UFC has made no announcements as to who Johnson’s next dance partner will be, leaving the Smartest Guy at the Bar to think the company is leaving the door cracked for Cejudo. He would have to look fantastic against Camus and get the fans on his side, but contenders have been rushed into the championship cage before. While still unpolished, Cejudo has shown grit, confidence and aggression in the UFC. Food for thought: No matter what odds Cejudo gets for a potential title shot against Johnson, the oddsmakers will almost certainly give him a better chance than they gave him to win gold in Beijing in 2008.
USELESS FACT: Velasquez has not defended his title since October 2013 -- 602 days, to be exact. That is an eternity in the fight business, even by Velasquez’s standards. In the time since the world’s top heavyweight made the walk, Conor McGregor went from unranked featherweight to Jose Aldo’s most profitable contender, Chael Sonnen’s fighting career unraveled, Johnson and Ronda Rousey defended their titles four times and Donald Cerrone fought eight times, going 8-0.
SAY WHAT: Werdum is a popular figure in Mexico. He does a lot of Spanish-language programming for the UFC and spends plenty of time South of the Border. He is also quick with his comments. During one of the UFC’s fantastic “Embedded” videos ahead of UFC 188, Werdum said he was more Mexican than Velasquez, who was born and lives in the United States but whose parents were born in Mexico. I am no cultural anthropologist, but questioning the ethnicity of someone with “Brown Pride” permanently etched on his chest should not be a statement made casually. Questioning his heritage is a pot best left unstirred. A random run-in between the two at the fighter hotel in Mexico led to Velasquez brushing aside a handshake from Werdum, with the champion having heard his comments. Velasquez responded on a later “Embedded” with a mixture of Spanish and English: “It’s fine if you want to say things like that. We’re not going to be friends the next day. If you’re going to be like that, then be like that. Don’t badmouth me and then try to be my friend. Don’t do that. That’s so stupid. I’m not your buddy, for one. I’m going to whoop your ass.” One benefit of being a man of few words is that when you do speak, people take it seriously, especially when you are a professional face smasher.
AWARDS WATCH: This is a no-brainer, right? Alvarez and Melendez have multiple “Fight of the Year” nominees on their résumés, but two of the early decade’s best non-UFC lightweights are one loss away from starting their Octagon careers on an awful foot. Expect fireworks … Tecia Torres came into Season 20 of “The Ultimate Fighter” undefeated; she was the third-ranked strawweight in the house and was picked second overall. She lost twice during the show, halting her momentum. The American Top Team product is matched up against the 2-0 Angela Hill. She should make the experience deficit look massive en route to a post-fight performance award … There is an excellent matchup on the prelims between surging lightweights Johnny Case and Francisco Trevino. Case has looked impressive so far in the UFC and should give Trevino his first loss, scoring an extra $50,000 for his troubles.