Mixed martial arts fighter Cain Velasquez has spent only 64 seconds in the steel cage during the past 17 months. And he probably would like to forget that minute.
Velasquez lost his Ultimate Fighting Championship heavyweight title Nov. 12 when he was floored in a shocking first-round knockout by challenger Junior dos Santos. It was a disappointing moment for the UFC, which was making its much-hyped prime-time network debut, and a devastating defeat for the first heavyweight champion of Mexican-American ancestry in combat sports.
With one punch, Velasquez no longer was the big man in MMA.
But Velasquez, who trains at San Jose’s American Kickboxing Academy, hopes to take his first step toward regaining the title when he fights Brazilian Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva as part of the UFC 146 pay-per-view card Saturday in Las Vegas.
“You just have to learn from it and move on,” Velasquez said. “I wasn’t thinking that I was going to go through my career undefeated. You expect to lose sometimes. These things happen. He was just better than me on that day. Now I’m focused on the next fight.”
And a strong performance could put Velasquez in position for another crack at the title against the winner of the fight between dos Santos and Frank Mir — the night’s headline bout in the UFC’s first all-heavyweight card.
“Cain always has fought for himself,” said trainer Javier Mendez, who runs the AKA fight team. “The only thing that matters to him is being the best. He definitely wants to prove that he deserves another chance to fight for the title, and this is a perfect opportunity.”
Velasquez, a 29-year-old former two-time All-America wrestler at Arizona State who spent part of his childhood in Salinas, had a breathtaking rise in MMA. He won his first nine UFC fights. At 6-foot-1, 240 pounds, he is known for his relentless attacking style in the cage, where he wears down opponents.
His last win came in October 2010 when he shocked Brock Lesnar in a first-round knockout to take the heavyweight crown.
“I watched Cain Velasquez throw Brock around like a rag doll and I was like ’Well, I’m pretty sure in the weight room Brock could probably put up some impressive numbers,’ but his technique didn’t seem to count against Velasquez,” Mir said last week.
But in that fight, Velasquez tore the rotator cuff in his right shoulder, and the resulting surgery sidelined him until his title defense against dos Santos. That bout at Anaheim’s Honda Center was UFC’s big coming-out party for the mainstream public and marked the first setback in Velasquez’s fight career.
Dos Santos stunned him with an overhand right to the side of the head. Velasquez hit the canvas, and dos Santos finished him off with a flurry of punches to end the fight almost as soon as it started.
“Even I was surprised that shot was as hard as it was and that he went down,” dos Santos said last week through an interpreter. “It was really perfect.”
Humiliated, Velasquez apologized after the fight and promised that he would be back. Later it was learned that he had suffered a knee injury late in training and had needed a cortisone shot before the fight. But Mendez makes no excuses.
Velasquez said the long break has allowed him to heal and get re-focused.
“I needed the time off rather than going right back into a fight,” he said. “I took my time getting back into the gym. And as the weeks went on, I started picking up the pace of training. I didn’t want to rush it and get injured. The long training camp has allowed me to get my game back together.”
Originally, he was slated to fight Mir on Saturday. But dos Santos’ scheduled opponent in the title fight, Alistair Overeem, was denied a license by the Nevada State Athletic Commission when he showed elevated levels of testosterone in a random drug test.
So the UFC moved Mir up to the title bout and inserted Silva, a 32-year-old former Strikeforce fighter with a 16-3 record, as Velasquez’s opponent. Silva, fitting of his “Bigfoot” nickname, stands 6-4 and weighs 270 pounds — and he said that’s lighter than usual as he readies himself for the quicker Velasquez in his first UFC fight.
For his part, Velasquez has been training with Daniel Cormier, an AKA fighter who last Saturday won the Strikeforce World Grand Prix Heavyweight Tournament at HP Pavilion. Cormier scored a first-round knockout victory over Silva in September.
“I’m always trying to get better,” Velasquez said. “There’s always room for improvement. I’m really not doing anything different. I definitely want to come back strong.”