GILROY, Calif. — Monday evenings are a big deal in the Velasquez household.
On Monday evenings, there is no mercy and no teaming up. Everyone is out for themselves, and there are no prizes for second place.
The world revolves around one thing and one thing only: “The Bachelor.” Before the start of every season, Cain Velasquez, his wife, Michelle, and a group of their friends try to predict which contestant will make it to the end. An immaculate poster in the family’s living room keeps track of weekly results.
Velasquez, 36, can’t help but beam with pride as he discusses his picks for the current season — none of whom, mind you, have been eliminated five weeks into the show.
“I really am the best at this,” he says.
Many have wondered where the former UFC heavyweight champion has been the past two years. The answer is right here. Home. The father of two (three, if you count his French Bulldog, Chanel) has been coaching his daughter’s youth soccer team and changing his infant son’s diapers. His only job since 2017, in his own words, has been “building a home” for his family.
And if you ask him point blank when he was happiest — these past two years, or the ones he spent dominating the heavyweight division — he will immediately tell you the years “at home.” He’ll also tell you he entertained the idea of never fighting again. After putting his body through years of abuse in the cage and the training room, retirement did cross his mind.
But in the end, Velasquez had to come back. Because he wanted to, yes, but the reasons go beyond that. Velasquez had to come back because he still hasn’t reached his full potential. Not only can he be the best heavyweight in the world again, he can be the greatest heavyweight the world has ever seen.
“What I’ve done in the past isn’t good enough,” Velasquez said. “I’m capable of more. I’ve always been capable of more, but given my circumstances, I wasn’t able to prove it. I can do it now. I can still do it. I have a lot to prove.”
Velasquez (14-2) will face former title challenger Francis Ngannou (12-3) at UFC Fight Night on Sunday in Phoenix. It will mark his first appearance in the Octagon in 31 months.
He was supposed to fight Fabricio Werdum at UFC 207 in late 2016, but the Nevada State Athletic Commission denied Velasquez a license after he admitted he was dealing with back pain during a prefight interview with ESPN.
To this day, Velasquez is adamant he was healthy enough to fight at UFC 207 — but either way, the commission’s decision to deny him a license marked the beginning of an extended, self-imposed break. He underwent back surgery in early 2017, and when Michelle revealed she was pregnant with their second child later that year, he committed to the role of stay-at-home dad.
“The plan was to have surgery and get back as soon as possible,” Velasquez said. “But once I got that done, my wife was pregnant — it was just a perfect time to step away. There was that controversy over what happened [at UFC 207] and it was time to step back and take some time.”
That decision — to slow things down — went against everything that has defined Velasquez to this point. His entire career, not to mention style, has been based on his relentless work ethic.
That approach might have been the root cause of the myriad injuries that affected Velasquez’s career and prevented him from establishing himself as the greatest heavyweight of all time. In the more than eight years since he won his first UFC title in 2010, Velasquez has fought seven times — while undergoing nearly as many surgical procedures.
“That’s just the type of fighter and athlete I am,” Velasquez said. “I’m gonna push through injuries. I have a high pain tolerance. You kind of get in the habit of, ‘OK, I have this injury, what is the soonest I can get back?’ That’s always the key. ‘OK, I have so many weeks of rehab or whatever, but when can I get back to fighting?’
“It just kind of caught up to me. It was too much. I couldn’t deal with it anymore.”
Ahead of his bout vs. Francis Ngannou, Cain Velasquez joins Now or Never to discuss what he’s been up to since his last UFC fight in July of 2016.
Daniel Cormier, Velasquez’s longtime teammate and the current UFC heavyweight champion, doesn’t believe Velasquez’s training speed will ever change. It is always “100 miles per hour,” according to “DC.”
This time around was different. Velasquez’s coach, Javier Mendez, says it was not uncommon for Velasquez to skip a session here and there during this camp, in favor of recovery.
“He’s understanding how to train right, and how to tell us ‘no’ and himself ‘no,'” Mendez said. “He’s finally listening to his body. He’s learned that now.”
Mendez didn’t know for sure whether Velasquez would ever fight again until late last year. Physically, Velasquez says he was ready to go a long time ago, but his return was never a guarantee.
It was only in the second half of 2018 when Mendez saw the switch come back on. He could see it in Velasquez’s approach in the gym, and the fact that he and his representation put a renewed effort in renegotiating his contract.
“He wasn’t himself for a while, he didn’t have that eye of the tiger thing going on,” Mendez said. “But once his son turned about 1 year old, that’s when things started changing. That’s actually when his UFC contract got done, because I think he was pushing for it. He wasn’t in a particular hurry for a long time, and then one day, things changed.”
Had Velasquez never come back, it would have brought the end to a career most athletes can only dream of. Velasquez is considered one of the best heavyweights in MMA history, and he has reached the pinnacle of the sport — a UFC championship — twice. No one can deny him that.
But anyone who knows MMA will tell you, Velasquez could have been more. Had injuries never robbed him of his prime, he might have set records that would never be broken. Even Cormier, who is arguably the No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in the world right now, freely admits, “Cain’s a better fighter than me.”
It’s why Mendez says he won’t be content with Velasquez’s career unless he regains the UFC belt in 2019. The past two years might have proved that Velasquez doesn’t need it for himself, but he has an opportunity to establish the type of legacy he has always been destined for.
“If Cain doesn’t regain that title and for some reason decides to quit, I can’t honestly say I’d be content,” Mendez said. “History tells me he should be the greatest, and he should be acknowledged as the greatest of all time. I can’t honestly say I would be content. Baloney. He needs to be greatest of all time, and he needs to be acknowledged as the greatest of all time.”