ROSEMEAD, Calif. – The first UFC champion to fight on live network television has the looks of a bouncer and the voice of an elementary-school teacher.
That’s because Cain Velasquez probably would be using his education degree from Arizona State if his mixed martial arts career hadn’t taken off.
In a sport that’s widely – and incorrectly – thought to be practiced entirely by ruffians and miscreants, Velasquez is a model citizen with his immigrant father’s old-fashioned work ethic and a quiet family life in the Bay Area.
“I represent hardworking people,” Velasquez said. “That’s who raised me. That’s who I grew up around. I fight with a lot of heart … and that comes out of your character.”
UFC President Dana White thinks he selected an ideal ambassador for MMA in its Fox debut on Saturday night. Velasquez sits atop a wave of hardworking, educated fighters who have invaded MMA after successful careers as collegiate wrestlers, swelling the UFC’s ranks with poised, professional athletes who are highly unlikely to end up in the back of a police car or on the front page of a tabloid.
But that’s not the reason Velasquez (9-0) is returning from a yearlong injury absence to defend his belt against Brazil’s similarly well-mannered Junior Dos Santos (13-1) at Anaheim’s Honda Center.
“I didn’t have to remind these guys not to strangle each other at the press conference, but people aren’t tuning in to see Cain talk,” White said. “They’re tuning in to see these guys fight, and these are two guys who are guaranteed to put on an amazing show. I had the choice of pretty much anybody in the company to put on this show, which is the biggest show we’ve ever done, and I chose these guys without hesitation.”
Velasquez and Dos Santos initially were expected to headline a pay-per-view card in San Jose next weekend, but they jumped at the chance to make broadcast history when White chose the bout for the UFC’s first prime-time network show.
“I was overjoyed when (White) said that this was going to be the fight,” Fox Sports President Eric Shanks said. “I already knew about Cain … and it’s a great opportunity to tell his story to our audience.”
The UFC often touts Velasquez as the only Mexican-American heavyweight champion in the history of the so-called combat sports, hoping to lure the Latino fight fans who have long kept boxing in business. Velasquez doesn’t shrink from the label and its expectations – after all, “Brown Pride” is tattooed across his chest in Gothic capital letters.
His father, Efrain, stacked lettuce crates and worked in the fields of California and Arizona after crossing the border from Mexico in the 1970s.
Velasquez was born in Salinas, Calif., better known as John Steinbeck’s hometown, and grew up in Yuma, Ariz., where he was a feared two-time state wrestling champion.
After a stint at an Iowa community college, Velasquez became a two-time All-American wrestler at Arizona State. He jumped into MMA right after finishing school in 2006, moving to San Jose to train at the famed American Kickboxing Academy, where he still takes his turn mopping the mats after workouts with a team that includes Josh Koscheck, Mike Swick, Kyle Kingsbury and Herschel Walker.