He walked down the aisle at the Honda Center in Anaheim, California, to a thunderous reception, perhaps the biggest received by an individual mixed martial arts fighter since Chuck Liddell at UFC 79 or Randy Couture at UFC 68.
Clearly, the UFC’s efforts to market him to the Hispanic audience had paid off in droves. He was greeted by the heavily Hispanic crowd as a conquering hero, the biggest star of the biggest show in the world.
Velasquez, though, is a realist. He wasn’t shocked by the reception he received, but he knew that sooner or later, he’d lose. Sooner or later, it happens to everyone in MMA.
This was that night for Velasquez. He was hit on the side of the head by Junior dos Santos and lost his title in just 64 seconds.
Clearly, Velasquez was disappointed to lose his belt. Not being the champion hurt, he conceded. Contrary to the ovation he received on the way to the cage, on the long, slow walk back to the locker room, some folks hung around to boo him.
That, though, isn’t what pained him so much in the aftermath of that stunningly quick defeat.
His regret is not so much that he lost, but that he didn’t do much to put on a show for the adoring crowd he had attracted or for the national television audience watching on Fox.
In his mind’s eye, he foresaw a long fight that pulled fans from their seats, roaring in appreciation of an epic battle. Instead they saw a lot of feinting, circling, one punch and a quick finish.
“I especially wanted to go out there and give the fans a great fight,” Velasquez said following a news conference at the MGM Grand to formally announce UFC 146 on May 26. “For it to go the way it did, that definitely sucked.
“I’m a realist. I knew I wasn’t going to go through my career undefeated. That’s how this sport is. People lose. Even the best guys lose. I knew as soon as it was over, I had to pick myself back up and keep going forward. I do have some extra motivation now, for sure, but I wish that for that night things had gone differently and that the fans had gotten the fight they came to see.”
Velasquez will face Frank Mir, another former UFC heavyweight champion, in the co-main event of UFC 146, with the winner slated to meet the winner of the title fight between dos Santos and No. 1 contender Alistair Overeem.
It’s a fascinating match in a division that suddenly is full of potential matches.
When Mir first won the title in 2004, the UFC heavyweight division was laughably inept. There were few men capable of competing with Mir, a big, smart and intelligent fighter who had extraordinary jiu-jitsu skills.
Now, the division is far deeper, perhaps even better than the vaunted PRIDE heavyweight division of 2004-05, which featured Fedor Emelianenko in his prime, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic, among many others.
Overeem, who fought in PRIDE during those years, said he has little doubt that the current crop of heavyweights in the UFC is the best ever assembled in one promotion.
“This division is more hard,” Overeem said of the UFC’s roster of heavyweights. “There are more top guys. Basically in PRIDE, you had three guys: Nogueira, Cro Cop and Fedor. The rest were all dangling around. Here you have, I would say, maybe a true top 10, maybe 10 top guys who all … can pose problems.”
Few have caused more problems than Velasquez, a low-key guy whose extraordinary talent has been a bit overlooked given his lack of self-promotion.
A win over Mir, coming off a frightening submission victory over Nogueira at UFC 140, would vault Velasquez right back to the top.
The second time around, though, Velasquez isn’t going to be worried so much about putting on the show.
When he reflected upon what happened with dos Santos, he came to the realization that it wasn’t his Hispanic fans or the television audience who lost the most that night.
The loser was a lot closer to home.
“Ultimately, I let myself down [with the way the fight went],” Velasquez said. “I don’t ever want that to happen, and not for Fox or anything else. I want to go out there and win. Stuff happens. I get that, but I definitely wasn’t happy with my performance. What it comes down to it, I don’t want to be in that position again.”