On a February night in Sydney, Australia, two ultimate fighters on opposite ends of their careers stepped into an "Octagon" to do battle. On one side, a Brazilian legend and former champion trying to recapture his glory; facing him, an underdog and relative newcomer from the American southwest with something to prove.
Two minutes, 20 seconds and a flurry of punches later, a referee signaled that the fight was over. Cain Velásquez, 28, the upstart, stood victorious in that eight-sided cage. He had knocked out renowned fighter Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira – a victory that sent him on his way to becoming the No. 1 contender in the heavyweight division.
“It was a little bit surreal,” said Bob Cook, Velásquez’s coach and trainer. “I expected Cain to win that fight. But I was a little surprised it came that early.”
In mixed martial arts, it’s not hard to distinguish Velásquez from other fighters. He’s the one in the ring with “BROWN PRIDE” tattooed across his chest and one of the few Mexican-Americans in the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s heavyweight division. And he’s the one, following a victory, with his arm raised high, a Mexican flag wrapped around his fist.
“When you talk about me as a fighter, I like being known as a Mexican fighter,” said Velásquez. “I think Mexican or Hispanic should be mentioned.
“There aren’t a lot of Mexican heavyweights, so in this sport I am a role model,” he added. “I just try to work as hard as I can.”
It has paid off: Velásquez is undefeated in eight fights in the ring.
Beyond the fighting, the ring serves as a platform for the young fighter to put his heritage on full display. A daily reminder of his roots, Velásquez sports a tattoo that honors his parents, especially his father, whose journey to America laid the foundation for his own work ethic, tenacity and success.
“I got it so I could show people I’m Mexican,” Velásquez said of the tattoo, “and I’m proud of where I come from.”
Velásquez was born in Salinas, CA. His father, Efraín, moved the family to Yuma, AZ, when Cain was only two years old.
“It wasn’t like a small town, but it wasn’t too big. It had small town values and I liked being so close to the border,” he said. “On the weekends my parents would make it a thing to take us down to México.”
An immigrant from México, the elder Velásquez crossed the border numerous times before he was permitted to stay in the U.S. legally. When asked how his father resolved his immigration status, the son said he met and eventually married his mother Isabel, a U.S. citizen.
Velásquez credits his father’s determination for putting him in the position he’s in today.
“He crossed over for work. He just kept coming back,” he said. “He did it for a better life, for all of us.”
Efraín Velásquez initially lived in a van while working in Salinas, as his family – including Cain’s brother and sister – waited in Yuma for their father to return after the migrant season. Velásquez's parents still migrate back and forth from Yuma to Salinas.
“Dad still works for the lettuce factory,” he said. “He drives trucks for them.”
In his early years, the younger Velásquez dreamed of a different career – one that involved fighting. He considered boxing, but eventually settled on wrestling.
“I wanted to box growing up, but as far as funds…you had to pay for that,” he recalled, signaling the point when he shifted to wrestling. “All I really needed was me.”
Velásquez won two state championships wrestling at Kofa High School in Yuma. Following high school, he relocated to Iowa Central Community College to improve his grades. While there, he won a national championship at the junior college level.
“My dad had to quit school when he was in third grade. My mom had to quit school,” Velásquez said. “They didn’t know what I needed and I didn’t know what I needed to keep wrestling and go to school, so that’s why I had to go to community college.”
After earning an associate’s degree in Iowa, Velásquez moved back to Arizona to attend Arizona State University, where he excelled as an All-American, a Pac-10 champion and earned his bachelor’s degree in education.
“Grades were a little hard for me but I had a goal,” he said. “I wasn’t going let anything stop me.”
After college, Velásquez was drawn to the world of Mixed Martial Arts. His college wrestling coach connected him to Zinkin Entertainment, an MMA-based sports management group, which later set him up to train at American Kickboxing Academy in San José, CA.
His trainer said Velásquez’s drive was apparent right away.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen work ethic like this in any heavyweight, ever,” said Cook. “That mindset that he carries with him, from his father to him, that hard labor, hard work mind set, that’s who he is.”
MMA fans and UFC management aren’t the only ones who’ve taken notice of Velásquez. Recently his sponsor, Lugz, a shoe company, featured him in a commercial.
“Everyday I’m a fighter,” Velásquez says in the commercial. “Sometimes against an opponent, sometimes against myself.”
Velásquez’s prominence couldn’t come at a better time for the UFC. The organization is currently expanding its brand and the sport of MMA into México. Last year, it televised its big pay-per-view event, UFC 100, live and free of charge in an effort to hook fans in that market.
According to MMAPayout.com, a Web site that covers the business side of MMA, Hispanics make up 25% of the UFC’s avid fans, up from 14% in 2007.
Recent ads for Velásquez’s next big fight highlights the fact that he is vying to become the first “Mexican heavyweight champion” in the sport’s history.
“I’m proud to be their Hispanic guy,” Velásquez said. “I’m definitely happy being that guy.”
His next fight may be his biggest challenge yet: he is scheduled to battle Brock Lesnar, a former NCAA wrestling champion and one-time professional wrestler, on October 23 in Anaheim, CA. The event, dubbed “UFC 121: Lesnar vs. Velásquez,” is the young fighter’s opportunity to further his reputation in MMA and continue his path toward becoming heavyweight champion.
It won’t be easy. Lesnar possesses what some commentators have said is “freakish strength” and is noticeably larger than Velásquez. Some MMA fans and some experts believe Lesnar has the advantage – a slight Velásquez and his trainers simply ignore.
“I can’t listen to what people say. You can’t buy into other opinions,” he said. “I can only do what I can.
“I don’t blame them,” Cook said of experts picking against his guy. “They haven’t seen him in the gym every day. They don’t know what he’s capable of. He’s going to get a lot of new fans come October 23rd.”
Velásquez doesn’t complain. He’s been training for this bout for more than 12 weeks. He knows he has a rare chance at stardom – and knows the opportunity is only attainable because of his parents.
“I can’t see myself being in their shoes,” Velásquez said. “Where I grew up, we had enough to get by and we had a lot of love. That took me a long way. They never complained, but I saw [what they went through].”
A father himself now – he and his girlfriend have an 18-month-old daughter named Coral – Velásquez hopes to pass on the traditions set forth by his parents.
“Hard work and sacrifice can get you a long way,” he said. “I want my daughter to learn from all of this.”