Thus far, Cain Velasquez is on the precipice of greatness; with one more defense of his title, he will make UFC history.
It's hard to believe that the heavyweight title has never seen three consecutive title defenses by one man, but it’s true. When Velasquez comes back to action, he will be poised to go into the record books.
Amid it all, Velasquez remains the king of a quiet court.
He should be attracting a great deal of attention, given his top spot in what has traditionally been the marquee division in combative sports. He’s destructive in the ring, personable and, most of all, young enough to keep on fighting at the top level for at least the next five years.
But for some reason, he isn’t nearly as popular as he could be.
Of course, he isn’t the first champion to seem like he wasn’t catching on with the masses. For a good while, Julio Cesar Chavez was having the same problems.
Chavez was terribly dominant and ranked by many to be the pound-for-pound best fighter on the planet. To try and push him to the next level, Don King hired English tutors in order to make Chavez more fan-friendly to Americans.
Of course, Velasquez doesn’t have that problem as he speaks English just fine. Thus, the question comes full circle: What can Velasquez do to become a much bigger star?
Part of the answer seems to rest on accepting that the UFC is much bigger than it was during the times of Ken Shamrock, Tito Ortiz, Chuck Liddell and others. What this means for the current generation of fighters is that they have to take advantage of every chance they can get to put their name out there.
The UFC is so big now that it puts on more than 30 shows a year (minimum), and 2014 looks to be much bigger. It’s easy for a fighter to get lost among so many names and so many events. It used to be that each UFC show was a big event because if you missed it, you’d have to wait a month (or more) until the next show.
Now, if you miss a show, another one is right around the corner, sometimes just a few days away. Call it oversaturation or whatever you like, but if you’re a quiet, humble fighter, it’s easy to be mistaken as just another cog in the machine—championship belt or not.
One of the biggest stars of the UFC heavyweight ranks was Brock Lesnar. He wasn't just a "big name"; he was a huge attraction for the company.
Some thought that Velasquez would be able to steal some of that thunder when he pounded the hell out of Lesnar in 2010. Instead, any momentum he might have had was knocked out of him when Junior Dos Santos took him out (and snatched his belt) in the first round of their first fight.
Sure, Velasquez avenged his only loss twice over, but he hasn’t enjoyed the growth of stature one would expect of a fighter so dominant.
Velasquez is not a trash talker like Ortiz was, so he’s never going to wear the black hat with any success, and he shouldn't try to fake it. In many ways, Velasquez is more akin to Georges St-Pierre than many other fighters, and perhaps that is a good place to begin.
When GSP was making his name, he was a fighter with just a passable grasp of the English language, but he had passion. He wanted that belt more than anything, and he made it known.
He also was a key figurehead for the company’s expansion into Canada; it seemed like he was bound and determined to drag the UFC up north—kicking and screaming if need be.
He carved out his own place of significance by working hard in his own backyard, and it paid off in a huge way.
How ironic that the UFC has yet to really make any headway into Mexico, yet it has Velasquez as its champion. What worked for GSP could work for Velasquez, especially when you consider that the combative sports are traditionally more popular down south of the border than they are in the great white north.
Additionally, the departure of GSP and the sidelining of Anderson Silva are going to afford a lot more elbow room with the spotlight. If ever there was a perfect time to step up with honest passion to begin making a name as a trailblazer, it is now.
Until the UFC actually begins to stage events in Mexico, Velasquez should be making it known he wants more of his fights to be as close to there as possible. Just imagining him walking to the Octagon in El Paso, Texas, carrying that legendary red, white and green flag toward the cage, with thousands of Hispanic fans in attendance—well, it could be the start of something very big.
But in order for anything like this to work, he needs to attack (and promote) with energy and seize every moment he can get.
Sometimes after a victory, Velasquez has looked like a spectator to his own life—as if each victory is a movie he’s seen 100 times. It would be good if each walk to the cage and victory celebration was more parade and less perfunctory.
Of course, we need not debate how big he could become if he stepped into a coaching role (with passion) on The Ultimate Fighter. I’ve said it many times that a Mexico vs. Brazil version would be an epic season of the show and could be parlayed into something special for the champ.
TUF: Mexico is something that honestly needs to happen sooner rather than later, and Velasquez shouldn’t wait to get a call offering him a spot as the coach—he should be demanding it now.
If Velasquez were to seize his moment as the fighter intent on bringing the UFC to Mexico, he could very well step into the role that GSP has vacated.
But it’s not going to happen overnight. It’s going to take time, dominance in the cage and passion.