This Saturday, UFC Heavyweight Champion Cain Velasquez steps into the octagon for the first time in almost two years when he takes on interim champ Fabricio Werdum. Two years is a long time, especially when it comes to an MMA community that suffers from short term memory. Yet, here we are, only a few days away from the best fighter from the biggest weight class making his long awaited return.
We’re talking about the fighter who has finished opponents in 11 of his 13 wins. We’re talking about the fighter whose UFC debut was his third professional fight, making him a real homegrown talent. We’re talking about the fighter who made Brock Lesnar do an actual cart wheel in the octagon due to the sheer force in which Velasquez threw his fist into Lesnar’s face. We’re talking about the fighter who avenged his only career loss by thumping Junior Dos Santos for ten combined rounds into a pile of sad Brazilian mulch.
Cain Velasquez: Timing is Everything
Velasquez walks into the octagon on Saturday as one of two champions in the UFC’s heavyweight division — a result of his time on the sidelines — in an attempt to merge both titles. So it all begs the question: why aren’t we talking about Cain Velasquez’s return this weekend?
The Pay-Per-View Sandwich
UFC 188: Velasquez vs. Werdum is, by today’s standards, a solid card. It isn’t loaded from top to bottom with title fights and big drawing contenders, but it is above average. Other than the main event, you have a fight of the year candidate with big lightweight title implications in Gilbert Melendez vs Eddie Alvarez. You also have Kelvin Gastelum vs. Nate Marquardt in a battle of two athletes that every MMA fan knows, and most casual fans are familiar with. After that, the card gets a little shallow, but it’s still an upgrade over shows like UFC 186.
The issue with this card lies in its placement. Ignore the fact that UFC fans have only had one fightless weekend since April fourth, making it hard for any individual fight to stand out. It doesn’t help this heavyweight title bout that it is sandwiched between two colossal PPV cards. First, we had UFC 187 two weeks ago. That card was hailed as one of the most anticipated cards in years due to its depth of meaningful fights containing exciting fighters, not to mention the defense of two titles in the main events.
With UFC 189, which is only slightly more intriguing then this weekend’s fights from afar, the trouble (at least for Cain Velasquez) lies in the main and co-main events for that card. First, you have to consider the fact that it has two title fights, which is a lot more intriguing for those casual fans we keep hearing about. Second, Jose Aldo vs Connor McGregor is one of those rare fights that seems to be transcending the MMA community. I’m not saying it’s Mayweather-Pacquiao, but the UFC put on a world tour at the end of March to promote this fight that is going down in July. MMA fights don’t see that kind of exposure on the regular. Needless to say, the timing of Cain Velasquez’s return is not ideal for his personal promotion.
Lack of Activity
This seems like an obvious reason. As much as you would think the return of a great fighter would garner interest, it doesn’t always work that way. When Brock Lesnar returned to the octagon in December of 2012, the buy rate for his fight was down around 400,000 buys from his formerly least bought PPV. One of Velasquez’s seeming advantages as a draw in the UFC has been the fact that he grew up in the company. However, that can only be so much of an advantage when viewers have years at a time to forget about how impressive you were in your last performance. In the end, Cain Velasquez’s unfortunate shelf time has only helped viewers forget about him.
Or lack thereof. One of the most enticing things about Cain Velasquez’s match on Saturday is that he is taking on what seems to be one of the very few legitimate title challengers left in his division. There’s Junior Dos Santos, but how many times can you have that match? Travis Browne’s ascension into title contention was thwarted when he got obliterated by Andrei ‘wait how is he only 36’ Arlovski, causing him to fall to 1-2 in his last three fights. Arlovski is definitely one of the few viable challengers for the title at this point, but the fact that he’s 36 and almost lost to Brendan Schaub less than a year ago makes me question how realistic of a contender he is for the belt. Mark Hunt seems to have reached his peak of overachieving. Stipe Miocic is, in my opinion, the only real elite challenger awaiting the winner of Saturday’s main event that Cain Velasquez has not already beaten. The UFC has never really had a heavyweight division that was thriving, but I can’t help but wonder if it has ever been this stale.
So What is the Issue?
In the end, it almost seems like a crime that Cain Velasquez struggles so mightily to gain a following. He’s the UFC’s champion in what used to be the most popular division in combat sports. He has an out of this world finishing rate and he fights like a bantamweight. However, it makes sense that he averages just 406,000 buys per PPV. When it comes to fighting, there are many things that go into being a big time draw. If you lack the charisma and promoting abilities of a Conor McGregor as Cain Velasquez does, you need everything else to work out for you. Like Anderson Silva and Georges St. Pierre, Cain Velasquez is dominant and exciting. It’s just that he doesn’t have Silva’s Chael Sonnen or St. Pierre’s Canadian following. In the end, the timing has never been on his side. It just seems like the chips never fall into place for Cain Velasquez.