Off the Top Rope: Cain Velasquez on His Health, Heritage and Battle with Brock

Jonathan Snowden@JESnowdenCombat Sports Senior WriterOctober 30, 2019

Off the Top Rope: Cain Velasquez on His Health, Heritage and Battle with Brock

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    Photo courtesy of WWE.com

    It's been a little over nine years since Cain Velasquez made Brock Lesnar a meme, leaving the fearsome wrestling star with a scar he'll carry for life and one of the few losses on his professional resume. 

    The two men meet again Thursday in Saudi Arabia in a match that will be very different than their first—this time they'll be in the WWE ring as part of the controversial Crown Jewel event that also stars boxing champion Tyson Fury. 

    Bleacher Report talked with Velasquez about his transition to the ring, picked a match of the week, and previewed the Crown Jewel card.

    Join us every Wednesday for exclusive interviews, hot takes on the news of the moment and a look at the week that was.

Heritage, History and the Road to WWE's Crown Jewel

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    Photo courtesy of WWE.com

    In October 2013, Cain Velasquez was riding high. The two-time UFC champion had just beaten Junior dos Santos in a rubber match, dominating the only man to ever defeat him in the cage. Many were proclaiming him to be the best heavyweight in mixed martial arts history.

    But a lot can happen en route to athletic immortality including, in Velasquez's case, a string of career-crippling injuries. He would fight just three more times in the next six years, his body betraying him just as greatness beckoned. His last fight, against slugger Francis Ngannou in February, lasted less than 30 seconds. 

    Right now, that all feels like ancient history.

    The 37-year-old Velasquez has found the fountain of youth in the strangest place—the professional wrestling ring. He shocked the world at SmackDown's debut show on Fox when he appeared to confront his former MMA foe, Brock Lesnar.

    Soon it was announced he'd be facing Lesnar once more, this time in the WWE ring Thursday at Crown Jewel. Bleacher Report's Jonathan Snowden caught up with the former heavyweight kingpin to talk about his heritage, his workout routine and his journey from MMA to the wild world of wrestling.

              

    Jonathan Snowden: We saw photos of you from the WWE Performance Center last June. I'm not sure anyone knew just how serious you were about it, though. How long have you been planning this next phase of your life?

    Cain Velasquez: It kind of all started with Daniel Cormier, one of my training partners and really good friends, coaching The Ultimate Fighter for UFC in Las Vegas. I was there helping him out.

    DC is a huge wrestling fan and has been since his childhood. The Elimination Chamber was there while we were out there, so we went. And, man, it kind of reignited that interest for me, just the love for the sport and wanting to get into it. Watching that show, that kind of paved the way for what I want to do for the next chapter of my career.

                 

    JS: At the end of your career in the UFC you battled injury after injury. And professional wrestling is a famously difficult industry on the body. What's your training like? How's it different from what you were doing at the AKA and how do you feel?

    Velasquez: I feel great. I don't think about the injuries. I never thought of them, even at AKA (American Kickboxing Academy), you know what I mean? You kind of just get lost in the moment. 

    For me, it's always about the task at hand and not worrying about the consequences of what can happen. Not to say that I'm reckless, but to say that I want the show or I want the fight to be great, very physical. I want to do a lot of different stuff, a lot of dynamic stuff.

    And I train that same way. I get lost in the moment of training and the task at hand is just to get better. It's not worrying about the injuries or anything else. That stuff's going to happen. But I feel great coming into this and I'm still training at AKA as well. Obviously learning the pro wrestling side, but also sticking with my base as well, and that's MMA.

              

    JS: People at AKA were in awe of you based on how hard you worked in the gym. Now that you're training not just for athletic performance, but also for your look, are you doing anything different? Like, are you adding a bunch of bench presses to try to get that bodybuilder look? Anything changing for you on that front?

    Velazsquez: I've always had criticism as far as my body is concerned, and people were always saying that I could obviously look better. But the sport that I've been in, it doesn't matter. What matters is if you can go in and beat somebody's ass. Like, that's what it comes down to.

    There's always improvements to do and I believe working on my body is definitely one of those things. But the ultimate goal at hand is just to beat somebody's ass.

           

    JS: Your first match was this huge fight at AAA and now your first big WWE match is going to be against Brock Lesnar. What's it like for you to be new to this world, but also be put in a position where you are in key matches and have a lot on your shoulders very early in your career?

    Velasquez: I'm just very proud to be in this position. There's always pressure to go out and perform, whether it's fighting, whether it's this. So this is no different for me, but I'm just happy and just proud to be in this position.

                     

    JS: I'm not sure what it will be like in Saudi Arabia for Crown Jewel, but the Mexican fans seemed thrilled to see you. How exciting was it to come out and be embraced like that?

    Velasquez: Me growing up, the people that I looked up to were the guys that were in boxing like Julio Cesar Chavez. Everyone who had that Mexican heritage always came out with the flag, with the colors of Mexico on the shorts. For me, being from the U.S. but also having those strong ties to Mexico, I always envisioned myself—if I did go out and compete—showing the Mexican colors and how really proud I was of them.

    That's how I pictured it and it's why I went out with the flag (in UFC). That's why I have the Mexican colors represented on my shorts. And also bringing that Mexican fighting style into it where as you go forward, it's a lot of punches, a lot of action, and you're never backing up. I just loved and embraced that, and I think that's what won the Mexican fans over.

            

    JS: That relationship didn't always come so easy did it? I remember early on there was some pushback when UFC promoted in Mexico.

    Velasquez: When I first was doing interviews down in Mexico, they would always call me "Mexican American." They would never say "Mexican", which is understandable. It all came down to winning and representing myself in the right way.

    And now going down there, they say "Mexican", which to me, oh my God, it's like the biggest proudest moment that I can have. That people are calling me that and they know that I'm from the U.S. and they know where I grew up in the U.S and my Spanish is not the best—it's amazing. It's amazing.

            

    JS: Will you wear the mask in your match with Lesnar to maintain that connection and tie to your heritage and to the Mexican fans?

    Velasquez: I won't. I won't wear the mask. I'm going to go out just as myself and make this more of an MMA fight because that's where I'm strongest and where I beat Brock first. And I plan to do it again in that same fashion.

           

    JS: There's a lot of trust that goes into a pro wrestling match and you're going to be in there with someone you've had a literal fist fight with. What's the status of your real-life relationship with Lesnar and do you have any concerns about him being your first opponent?

    Velasquez: There's no concerns about him being my first opponent. I've been in the Octagon with him before, and this is no different.

    I haven't had any contact with him really since then. The only contact that I've had with him is when I confronted him after he beat up Dominick and after he hurt Rey. I'm in here to do the same thing that he did to my Familia. You know what I mean? To Rey and to Dominic. I'm here to beat his ass.

             

    Cain Velasquez takes on Brock Lesnar at WWE's Crown Jewel event at the King Fahd International Stadium in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on Thursday, October 31 at 8 pm AST/1 pm ET.

Match of the Week: Kenny Omega vs. Joey Janela II (AEW Dynamite, 10/23/19)

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    Photo by Lee South for AEW

    For the first time since losing the IWGP Heavyweight championship to Hiroshi Tanahashi at Wrestle Kingdom in January, Kenny Omega feels like the best wrestler in the entire world. 

    This is the third week in a row he's taken home this award, a sure sign he is rounding into form just as All Elite Wrestling steamrolls into its first post-Dynamite pay-per-view on 9 November.

    That has to be welcome news to a fledgling promotion looking for every possible opportunity to differentiate itself from its competition at WWE. The world's leading promotion has a number of great talents—but there is only one Omega. 

    When he's on form, there's no one quite like him, a mixture of world-class athleticism, technical wrestling craftsmanship and a showman's timing and flair for the dramatic.

    Janela, it turns out, is the perfect opponent to bring out his best. Two weeks ago, it was a hardcore style match. This time, the two men went back-and-forth at a breakneck pace in a classic indie wrestling spotfest, move after impossible hard-hitting move coming with staggering precision and regularity until Omega finally brought matters to a close with the One Winged Angel. 

    If their first match was an ode to ECW, the sequel was a tribute to 2006 Ring of Honor. What will the two pull off next? If past is prologue, it's going to be worth finding out.

    Runner-up: Ryusuke Taguchi/Rocky Romero vs. Birds of Prey (New Japan Pro-Wrestling, 10/28/19)

Illegal Double Team Hot Take: Lana and Lashley Isn't Working

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    No one can blame WWE for attempting to recreate the famed Attitude Era. Home to "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, The Rock and D-Generation X, it was the sport's last fleeting glimpse of true, consistent mainstream relevance. 

    Starting in Paul Heyman's ECW, the Attitude Era worked because it was something fresh, a course correction after a decade-plus of all ages, family friendly fun. Distilled as it was by the time it reached Stamford, Connecticut, there was still an energy that was undeniable. It broke free of the constraints wrestling had placed on itself for so long, felt alive in a way the sport simply hadn't for years.

    Heyman, once again, has taken the reigns of the business, his boundless passion the driving force behind WWE Raw. And, once again, he's attempting to create stories that are of the moment, reflections of the complicated time we're living in. 

    But this, as the kids say, ain't it.

    You can see glimpses of something interesting in the love triangle between Bobby Lashley, Rusev and Lana. It flirts with very dangerous ground, stomping WWE style into the realms of race, pornography and relationships.

    It's almost too big an attempt, a lift too heavy for the audience and the performers. I don't think the main issue here is the actual content—it's that there are no believable characters or motivations present, nothing that feels remotely true.

    When Stone Cold turned his redneck rage on his rich New York boss, it felt like the reflection of something real. After all, Steve Austin, the man behind the myth, had felt that boiling anger, had been wronged by corporate America and by a heartless system.

    It meant something, as over-the-top as it was, both to him and to an audience that understood. 

    In this love triangle, there are no heroes or villains. There aren't even any interesting people navigating a world of gray. You can dress it up in the trappings of a think piece, but this is really just a Jerry Springer reboot. In the end, Lashley, Lana and Rusev are little more than tawdry titillation. 

Last Week in Wrestling

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    Noam Galai/Getty Images

    In case you missed it, some highlights from the week that was.

           

    WWE

    • The promotion produced but didn't sell a T-shirt for African-American wrestler Jordan Myles that many (including Myles) considered racist. Myles took to Twitter to vent his anger and frustrations with WWE, which attempted to defend itself while never actually addressing the most disturbing part of the saga—that the shirt, which resembled a Sambo doll caricature, was ever designed in the first place.
    • On Raw, The Kabuki Warriors (Asuka and Kairi Sane) turned on their one-time manager, Paige.
    • Smackdown struggled after moving to Fox Sports 1 for a week, drawing low ratings for a critically panned show. 
    • Shayna Baszler has now been the NXT women's champ for one year and counting.

                 

    Other Promotions
    • If the AEW title match at Full Gear between Chris Jericho and Cody Rhodes reaches the 60-minute time limit, the winner will be decided by a panel of three esteemed judges.
    • Bullet Club juniors, Ishimori and El Phantasmo, lead in the New Japan Super Junior Tag Team Tournament.
    • Ring of Honor postponed next week's Texas tour until June 2020, citing operational conflicts.
    • Former ROH champion Jay Lethal suffered a broken arm in his match at Honor United-Bolton.
    • Major League Wrestling holds its first pay-per-view Saturday on Fite TV.

Three-Count: Looking Ahead to WWE Crown Jewel

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    Crown Jewel (Thursday, WWE Network)

    Braun Strowman vs. Tyson Fury

    Fury seems very motivated for this match, and it should be an interesting spectacle. While he's said to be making enormous progress at the WWE Performance Center, I suspect he'll keep his offense relatively simple. After finding himself on the receiving end of some Strowman villainy, expect Fury to deliver some comeuppance in the manner he's most familiar with—Strowman is going to get those hands. Winner: Tyson Fury.

           

    Brock Lesnar (c) vs. Cain Velasquez (WWE Championship)

    A rematch of their famous UFC pay-per-view main event and another high-profile bout with a wrestling neophyte. Velasquez has done more training than Fury, but he has never worked a singles match, let alone one as big as this. 

    I'm torn here—while I'm sure Lesnar would love to get his win back, it's tough to introduce a new babyface character with a loss. WWE has already booked Cain into another high-profile match in Mexico City. I think he'll go into it an undefeated pro wrestler.

    Winner: Cain Velasquez, after Rey Mysterio interferes to get his revenge.

                

    Seth Rollins (c) vs. "The Fiend" Bray Wyatt (Universal Championship)

    Whatever happens, it can't be worse than last time they met.

    Winner: Seth Rollins, who turns heel in the process.

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