They say absence makes the heart grow fonder. In mixed martial arts, however, absence makes the heart (and brain) forget.
UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez has been out of action for a long time. The greatest heavyweight fighter in the sport was felled not by a foe, but by injuries suffered in training. We have seen so little of Velasquez during his prime, and he has been gone for so long, that maybe we forget what a ferocious animal he actually can be. We forget about his cardio and about how he is relentlessly in his opponent’s face until something deep inside their spirit breaks and then collapses and then withdraws.
We forget that he’s probably the greatest heavyweight of this generation or any other. And we forget about the beatings he has administered, the moments where he has laid bare the souls of his opponents and then crushed them underneath his feet.
We forget about all of those things. But Velasquez forgot about altitude.
Training at sea level in San Jose, California, Velasquez was woefully unprepared for the 7,382-foot elevation of Mexico City. Though he has been casually nicknamed “Cardio Cain” for the relentless pace he is able to keep, Velasquez looked like a fish out of water on this night. After one round, he was breathing heavy. Halfway through the second round, his hands began dropping and his breath became ragged. Fabricio Werdum, sensing a momentum change, began connecting with full-force punches to Velasquez’s head, rocking him several times.
By the end of the second round, Velasquez was cut, battered and bloody.
By the end of the third, Werdum was the new unified champion.
The end came when Velasquez lazily—and perhaps exhaustingly—shot for a takedown, leaving his head and neck casually exposed. In short, that’s not a good idea when facing a Brazilian jiu-jitsu master. Werdum capitalized, grasping Velasquez’s neck and cranking into a guillotine. Two seconds later, Velasquez tapped.
And so the heavyweight championship carousel continues unabated. No heavyweight champion has ever defended the belt more than twice. Velasquez could have been the first. Instead, he’ll go back to the drawing board and try to figure out a way back into a third title reign. And really, he has only himself to blame. Whereas Werdum did everything the right way—moving his training camp to Mexico City and training at the same altitude he’d be fighting at—Velasquez was perfectly content to stay at home in San Jose at sea level.
And it cost him his championship.
The loss takes nothing away from the legacy of Velasquez, of course. He is still one of the UFC’s two best heavyweights, and a third title run is almost certainly in his future. The Velasquez who showed up in Mexico City was not the Velasquez we are used to seeing. Not by any stretch of the imagination.
But on this night, he learned some important lessons about training, about not taking things for granted and about how even the greatest among us can stumble if we don’t properly prepare.