Redemption can be a powerful motivator. When the chance to correct a misstep is within reach, the mind sharpens and the focus intensifies to ensure the previous mistake will not be repeated. Former UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez will have this exact opportunity when he faces Junior dos Santos at UFC 155, and the only thing on his mind is recapturing the title.
The 30-year-old AKA-trained fighter suffered the first loss of his professional career to the Brazilian slugger when the two men squared-off at UFC on Fox 1 in November of 2011. After more than a year away from the Octagon, Velasquez stepped in against a surging contender, looking to make his first title defense. Ultimately the effort was ill-fated, as a powerful right hand put him on the canvas and ended the fight early in the first round.
With a champion mindset, Velasquez bounced back strong as he took apart Antonio "Bigfoot" Silva in his next outing at UFC 146. The fight was a brutal display of ground and pound as Velasquez earned victory by way of stoppage in the first round.
The impressive performance not only reminded the MMA world just how much of a wrecking machine a healthy Velasquez can be, but earned the California-native another shot at the title in the process.
"I felt good mentally and physically," Velasquez explained about the Silva fight. "I think it showed that night. When you know you are 100% and you know are ready to go, you just have that feeling. You know you are going to perform well.
"I knew I could get back to form. I know what I have and I know what was wrong in the first fight with dos Santos. I know where I messed up in that fight with Junior and that was it. I don't feel I lost anything as far as my fighting skills go. I'm the same fighter I just didn't do what I was supposed to do that night."
On the same night Velasquez battered Silva, dos Santos successfully defended his title against former two-time champion Frank Mir, setting up the rematch between the sport's two top heavyweights.
Much like their first meeting, many in the MMA world believe Velasquez's chances for success weigh heavily on his ability to put dos Santos on the canvas. While the former ASU wrestling standout will certainly have the advantage in the wrestling department, getting JDS to the ground has proven to be no easy task.
That being said, Velasquez knows he will have to take the fight into close-range. Once he is able to close the distance and eliminate the space where the champion is most effective, Velasquez believes he can find victory.
"The best place for me to be is inside," Velasquez said. "I have a lot of tools there with boxing, knees and kicks. The wrestling is always there too when you are in that position. On the inside is where I'm best and he works better at a distance. I think he can be beaten that way.
"[dos Santos] has worked a lot on defensive wrestling and the fundamentals of defending the takedown. When he gets down he doesn't let people sit there on top of him. Junior doesn't wait. As soon as he hits the ground he's popping right back up. That shows how hard he works on defending."
In less than two weeks Velasquez will have the opportunity to prove to the MMA world he is still the number one heavyweight fighter on the planet. In order to do so, the former All-American will have to succeed where he previously failed and find an answer to a puzzle no one under the UFC banner has been able to figure out.
While the path ahead is difficult—when the prize at the end of the road matters more than anything else—the greatest challenges make the journey worthwhile.
"Everything that I'm doing now is about being the champion," Velasquez said. "I'm in this sport to be the number one guy and to be the best. It means everything to me. I'm not in this sport to be a contender. I'm in this sport to be a champion. I'm going in there with one purpose and that is to get that belt. That's why I'm here—to be the champion."
Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. Unless noted otherwise, all quotes obtained first hand.