Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.
It was hardly a surprise to hear the adulation surrounding the return of Cain Velasquez at UFC on ESPN 1. Velasquez had been on the shelf for over two and a half years, longer than any other period during his career, which is saying something. Of course, Velasquez isn’t just some dude coming back from a long layoff; as you most certainly heard, he’s the “greatest heavyweight of all time.” At least, you’d think that’s the case given how often it has been said.
There is a difference between myth and legend, though they are often used interchangeably. Legends are grounded in a reality that became exaggerated over time; myths are entirely fictional accounts meant to explain something otherwise unexplainable. In the same way it is easy to confuse these terms, it can be hard to separate the legend of Velasquez from the myth.
Whether or not you believe he is the greatest heavyweight ever, there’s no doubt that there’s truth to the sentiment. By the time he was a 2-0 UFC debutante in 2008, word surrounding him was that he was a champion in the making. The question wasn’t if he’d take the title but when. He validated those claims in the next seven fights, handily defeating everyone put in front of him on his way to claiming the title with a jaw-dropping beatdown of then champion Brock Lesnar. There could be no denying that Velasquez was not just an ordinary champion. He was destined for greatness.
Becoming an undefeated champion in the modern era was impressive enough, but it wasn’t just what he did; it was how he did it. He absolutely brutalized opponents, finishing six of his seven opponents on his first championship run, four of them in the first round. For years, the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s heavyweight division was defined by behemoths: from the towering Tim Sylvia to the Titanic Trinity of Lesnar, Shane Carwin and Frank Mir, each of whom cut weight to hit the 265-pound limit. Then Velasquez, who was the height of a point guard and 20 pounds under the weight limit, radically changed our concept of what heavyweight greatness looked like. He was fast, strong and relentless, a marauder in the Octagon. Aside from a 60-second knockout loss to Junior dos Santos -- which he definitively and emphatically avenged twice -- he was untouchable.
When people say that Velasquez is the greatest ever, it isn’t just because his run from 2009-13 was as good as virtually any heavyweight run; it’s because that version of him would almost certainly beat any heavyweight from any era in his prime. It’s hypothetical and unprovable but hardly controversial. Yet that’s how legends are created: In the absence of concrete proof, reality becomes exaggerated. Unfortunately for Velasquez, his opportunity to cash in on his greatness was derailed by injuries.
The longer he rusted on the sidelines, the more mythical he became. The desire to see him back and the belief that he could be unstoppable eclipsed the fact that he was stoppable, inside the cage and especially outside of it. His what ifs started to equal, if not outpace, his actual accomplishments. When, after nearly two years on the sidelines, he lost to Fabricio Werdum at UFC 188, it wasn’t because he was a flawed fighter like everyone else. It was because he was fighting at altitude. Surely, Sea Level Cain would have snapped Werdum like a twig. When he lost to Francis Ngannou on Sunday in Phoenix, it wasn’t because “The Predator” has decapitating power. It was because he tweaked his knee. Surely, Ngannou wouldn’t stand a chance against, uh, Healthy Knee Cain?
Listen to his post-fight interview: “He didn’t touch me,” even though Ngannou clearly did. “It was a freak accident,” as if any injury to one of the most frequently injured fighters on the roster is a freak one. Sometimes, the unexplainable is only unexplainable because it’s unacceptable.
Myth is important to Velasquez, and that’s not an insult. You have to believe in your own myth. There’s no other way to battle back from the brink, not in a sport as delirious and psychotic as MMA. To be the best, you have to believe you’re the best, and to believe you really are better than everyone else is pretty [expletive] insane. If a fighter doesn’t think he’s great, he’s absolutely right. Yet beneath the legend and the myth of Velasquez is the man. More than anything, that’s what his injuries remind us of. No matter how great he is or could have been, no matter how indestructible he has looked, he is every bit as breakable as any man. No amount of savage beatdowns or hyperbolic praise can prevent ligaments from tearing.
Which brings us back to the question du jour: Is Velasquez the greatest heavyweight of all time? As of now, probably not. While he’s certainly in the discussion, his resume does not stack up well against other elite heavyweights. I wouldn’t count him out just yet, though. This is the heavyweight division, where fighters find success after prolonged losing streaks and often well into their 30s. Velasquez suffered a tough loss at UFC on ESPN 1, no doubt, but if there’s anyone who can bounce back from a tough loss, it’s someone who believes in the stories they tell themselves with utmost conviction. Luckily, the man, myth and legend that is Velasquez has that quality in spades.
Eric Stinton is a writer and a teacher from Kailua, Hawaii. He has been writing for Sherdog since 2014 and has published fiction, nonfiction and journalism in Bamboo Ridge, The Classical, Eastlit, Harvard Review Online, Honolulu Civil Beat and Vice, among others. He currently lives with his fiancée and dachshund in Seoul. You can find his work at ericstinton.com.