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Fighter on Fighter: Breaking down UFC on ESPN 1’s Cain Velasquez

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Long-time dominant Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) heavyweight kingpin, Cain Velasquez, will throw down with Cameroonian knockout artist, Francis Ngannou, this Sunday (Feb. 17, 2019) at UFC on ESPN 1 from inside Talking Stick Resort Arena in Phoenix, Arizona.

It is incredibly odd to describe a four-time UFC champion in this manner, but Velasquez really is one of the great “what if” situations in mixed martial arts (MMA) history. What if Velasquez remained healthy over the years? Would he be the clear-cut greatest Heavyweight in UFC history? Of all time? It’s also an impossible question. Velasquez achieved remarkable things by working inhumanly hard, and his body suffered the consequences. A Cain Velasquez who never gets injured cannot possibly work as hard as the real one, and perhaps that changes some of those brutal wins to losses.

Either way, it’s damn good to have Velasquez back in the Octagon after well over two years on the sidelines. Let’s hope he returns in peak form and take a closer look at his skill set until then.

Striking

There is nothing terribly complex about Velasquez’s striking or his approach. However, there doesn’t need to be for him to be remarkably effective. Velasquez has been taught to throw punches well — fast, powerful, and in combination — which he does frequently. Putting a pace on opponents that they cannot match, Velasquez brutalizes foes with simple combinations.

It also really helps that Velasquez understands range well. Case in point, Velasquez picked apart Travis Browne with simple technique. Opposite the taller and longer man, Velasquez immediately chopped at the lead leg with inside and outside kicks. Moving forward, Velasquez kept his head moving and worked with his lead hand, either shooting out the jab or committing more of his weight to a hard left hook. All the while, Velasquez was walking down Browne and closing the distance.

Once Browne’s back hit the fence, Velasquez released real combinations and sent his cross spiraling into the jawline.

The overhand is very obviously Velasquez’s best weapon on the feet (GIF). Again, there’s nothing overly complicated here, but Velasquez puts himself in the correct situation to land his overhand. Often, his foe is leaning back and circling away, hoping to get out of the pocket. Instead, they are quite vulnerable. Similarly, if his opponent is worried about the takedown, the hands may drop and leave an opening (GIF).

One of the things Velasquez did well in his final fight with dos Santos was slightly pulling back to avoid his foe’s counters. Velasquez would land a couple punches, pull back to avoid the single counter punch dos Santos’ would routinely throw, then return with more straight punches. This not only caused him to land hard punches and shut down dos Santos, but it continued to help him close distance.

Velasquez is definitely a fighter who appreciates cage position as well as distance. Velasquez is always looking to cut off the cage and move his foe to the fence, where his opponent can no longer retreat. Once his opponent is trapped, Velasquez lets loose with a mix of combinations, wrestling shots, or clinch work. Though it’s impossible to fight as aggressively as Velasquez does without getting hit, Velasquez does do a nice job of keeping his guard tight or dipping his head off the center line even at his most offensive along the fence (GIF).

Whether his opponent defends the initial shot or he simply pressures in, Velasquez is nasty with his dirty boxing. He excels at grinding into his opponent and constantly working. While pinning his opponent to the fence and driving his forehead into the jaw, Velasquez will rough his opponent up with short punches and hard knees. Then, he’ll take a short step back, fire off a hard combination, and close the distance once more with a shot.

Velasquez is no counter striker, but he’s also not a man to back off. When faced with an opponent willing to stand his ground and throw, Velasquez will either look to blast him off his feet with a shot or cover up and return fire (GIF). Velasquez’s mentality is clear, as he’ll stand his ground and fire back repeatedly, confident that his foe will eventually back off for a breather.

Meanwhile, “Cardio Cain” will advance.

Wrestling

A two-time Arizona State University (ASU) All-American wrestler, Velasquez’s only argument to best Heavyweight wrestler in MMA is his teammate and coach, Daniel Cormier. Given their close relationship, it should be little surprise that the two share many similarities in their wrestling style.

Much of the time, Velasquez is looking for the single-leg takedown. Unlike many fighters, Velasquez’s best takedowns come into the center of the Octagon. When he’s not fighting Junior dos Santos, Velasquez prefers to drag his opponent down in the open area. While his shots are more effective in the open, it’s also easier for him to maintain the clinch when shooting against the cage.

When Velasquez shoots, he often keeps his head on the inside, meaning it’s a single-leg takedown rather than a high-crotch (Cormier’s preferred shot). There are differences in posture and transitions open, but many of the finishes are often nearly the same (GIF). For example, Velasquez routinely dumps opponents to the mat, capitalizing on the lack of balance/flexibility in many big men. If his head pops out to the outside while attempting the dump, Velasquez will circle to the back and look to drag his foe down. Occasionally, Velasquez will elevate the leg and trip his man down.

The ASU wrestler also sets up his double-leg quite well. Immediately after shooting out his right hand toward his opponent’s face, Velazquez will drop down and drive into his opponent’s hips (GIF). Velasquez tends to shoot at the waist rather than below the butt, which can occasionally see his shot stuffed, but the end result is still positive: a clinch along the fence.

Once on top, Velasquez is one of the most active ground strikers in mixed martial arts (MMA). Despite his aggression, his control is impressive as well. Once on top, Velasquez pressures into his opponents and drops heavy strikes while transitioning around their movement. In this week’s technique highlight, we analyze how Velasquez traps opponents on the bottom and brutalizes them throughout different positions.

The best example of Velasquez’s savage ground striking was his first mauling of “Bigfoot” Silva. It was a picture perfect display of ground-and-pound. Velasquez immediately began working as soon as the fight hit the mat (GIF), moved into a better position (half guard), and controlled his opponent while slicing him to pieces. While Velasquez has plenty of career highlights, none are as dramatic as the future kingpin walking around the Octagon covered in the massive Brazilian’s blood after a couple short minutes.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

Despite owning a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt, Velasquez does very little submission grappling in his fights. For the most part, Velasquez controls top position with his wrestling prowess and simply pounds away at his opponent until the fight is over.

Thus far, Velasquez has only been taken down once inside the Octagon. Brock Lesnar managed to drag him to the mat with a double, but Velasquez used the butterfly guard to create some space. Once Velasquez elevated Lesnar and create a bit of space, he immediately pushed away on Lesnar’s head and began to stand back up (GIF). Lesnar hung onto a single leg, but Velasquez was able to escape to his feet.

Offensively, Velasquez has some solid guard passing skills, as he’s managed to move into a dominant position against each of his opponents. Of course, his nasty ground strikes and heavy top pressure greatly aid him there.

In his long fights with dos Santos, Velasquez did attempt a couple submissions. At one point, he tried to armbar the Brazilian during a scramble. In the trilogy bout, Velasquez repeatedly tried to guillotine “JDS” as dos Santos went to stand up, forcing him to fight hands and stay grounded.

Conclusion

It’s been 31 months since Velasquez last stepped into the cage. How much of the above analysis still applies? I’d expect most of it, but there’s a chance Velasquez’s body has deteriorated to the point that wrestling is difficult — he could be forced to stand up more often. Until we see him compete on Sunday night, it’s impossible to know just how good the former champion currently is.


Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt, is a professional fighter who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport’s most elite fighters.