The UFC heavyweight title picture just got that much more crowded, as Cain Velasquez emerged a bona fide contender at UFC 110 Sunday following his first-round technical knockout of fighting legend Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira in Sydney, Australia.
Velasquez, 27, a two-time All-American for Arizona State University, never needed to lean on his wrestling pedigree, instead catching the former Pride and UFC interim champion with a right hand that sent the Brazilian to the canvas for the stoppage at 2:20 into the first round.
The bout was viewed as one of two frontrunners in deciding returning heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar’s next challenger. Frank Mir and Shane Carwin will meet for the promotion’s interim heavyweight title at UFC 11 on March 21 in Newark, N.J., as Lesnar recovers from an intestinal infection that required surgery. Barring injury, UFC President Dana White said the victor of that bout will fight Lesnar in the summer. White reaffirmed that plan on Sunday, but also said Velasquez remains in the mix.
“Because of Brock’s absence, it’s a little plugged up right now in the heavyweight division, but this guy?” White said. “In my opinion, Nogueira’s probably the best heavyweight of all time, and (Velasquez) absolutely demolished him tonight. He’s for real and he’s in the line right now.”
When Velasquez was asked if he felt he was ready for a title shot, the reserved American Kickboxing Academy product seemed confident.
“I think so,” said Velasquez. “Whatever the UFC says, I’m going to be ready for it.”
The undefeated Velasquez has patiently climbed the heavyweight ranks since his promotional debut at UFC 83 in April 2008, rattling off six straight victories in the Octagon. Only one of the Salinas, Calif., native’s wins has gone to a decision.
Nogueira was, by far, the most accomplished challenger on Velasquez’s docket to date and the victory sends out a strong message to the rest of the division, which also includes periphery contenders Junior dos Santos and Gabriel Gonzaga.
“I’m getting better,” said Velasquez. “I really pride myself in working hard, always improving and I think I’d have to be my best to fight those guys, so that’s what I’m going to do.”
There has also been a growing thought among fans that Velasquez might be the only contender with the appropriate skillset to topple the heavier wrestler Lesnar. Velasquez had his own thoughts on a potential bout with the champion.
“For me, I have to fight a smart fight and get with my coaches and figure out a good game plan,” he said. “Definitely, with those kind of guys -- super big, strong -- you’ve really got to worry about the power. I think this could be a war; you’ve really got to fight to the end. You’ve gotta really try to tire them out, but that’s easier said than done.”