The Film Room: Cain Velasquez

By Kevin Wilson Feb 16, 2019
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Former heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez returns to the Octagon this weekend for the first time in nearly three years to take on Francis Ngannou in the main event of UFC on ESPN 1. The American Kickboxing Academy product was considered by many as the greatest heavyweight of all time before a series of injuries kept him out of action and now he has the chance to return to his former glory with a win over “The Predator.”

A former NCAA Division I wrestler out of Arizona State, Velasquez is one of the best wrestlers to ever compete in mixed martial arts and has the striking wits to hold his own on the feet against most heavyweights. Early in his career before he developed his relentless clinch game against the cage, Velasquez would rush forward with strikes until the opponent was flustered and then shoot for a single leg. Rinse and repeat. Although we have seen a wide variety of takedowns from him, his favorite is still the single leg that he fell in love with in his college days. Something interesting about his takedowns is that he rarely looks for power doubles and singles and would rather grab a leg and finesse the opponent to the ground. Whether that be a trip or simply using his weight to drag them to the mat. This saves his cardio for the later rounds since he’s not exerting a ton of energy.

“Cardio Cain” is longtime training partners with lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov and the similarities between the two are evident from the start. Who taught who is still in question, but the grinding chain wrestling and Sambo/Folkstyle riding are nearly identical, although Khabib uses it much more. Velasquez’s ability to switch from takedown to takedown and give the opponent a false sense of security before dragging them back to the mat is unparalleled in the heavyweight division.

Once on the mat Velasquez doesn't bother much with passing guard and improving position and would rather posture up and throw down relentless ground-and-pound. When he does look to improve position he is almost always looking to get the crucifix, again reminiscent of Khabib. Once the opponent is trapped in the crucifix, Velasquez will rain down short punches and elbows to the exposed forehead but stays calm enough to keep the pressure on the chest and not let the opponent escape.

On the feet, Velasquez is much better than he should be for someone who puts a major focus on his grappling and clinch game. It had been a while since I looked back at his old fights and I was shocked at how polished his striking was for a wrestling-based fighter. His leading attacks are just as aggressive and relentless as his ground and pound and he’s adept mixing up his attack from head to toe to keep them guessing. His use of leg kicks and shots to the body are damaging, but he's really just using it to limit their movement and dwindle their cardio for grappling exchanges later in the bout.

Velasquez is usually the leading attacker whether it is with strikes or takedown attempts, but his extremely fast hands for a heavyweight allows him to be a decent counter striker. Most of his counters are simple intercepting jabs, but again his whole game is to get the fight to the ground and he will use these jabs to grab a single collar tie to initiate the clinch or set up his single leg.

Since his Ultimate Fighting Championship debut in 2008, “Cardio Cain” has gone from a dominant wrestler who needs the fight to hit the ground to one of the best clinch workers in MMA. Something to watch for in any Velasquez bout is how he gets opponents to the cage. He will pressure forward with jabs and noncommitted right hands to fluster the opponent. Once they are behind the line he will throw a jab-overhand right and bury his head under the opponent's chin while grabbing an underhook. This was most prevalent against Junior dos Santos, but he uses this against every single opponent that wasn’t finished quickly.

Once Velasquez gets the opponent to the cage is when things get interesting. He will flow between wild flurries of punches in the pocket to burying his head under the chin and controlling them against the cage while slowing picking them apart with short punches. This constant change of pace makes it incredibly hard to circle off the cage. To counteract this, you need exceptional footwork to cut angles and take the center of the Octagon when he pressures forward or earns his respect with strikes early on to dissuade him from coming in as Fabricio Werdum did.

Velasquez’s striking is masterful in the clinch, but he has some major holes in his defense when the fight is not up close. When forced to strike at a distance, he struggles with creatively covering distance and ends up running face first or shooting for takedowns from a mile away. Despite this, the threat of his grappling and clinch was enough to scare opponents from planting their feet and countering. Cheick Kongo did this and nearly finished him in the opening seconds of their fight. Werdum didn’t care if the fight hit the ground, which allowed him to burst forward with combos while leaving his hips wide open and exploiting his opponent’s inability to fight comfortably while backing up. Ngannou is most likely not the man to exploit these defensive woes, but if Cain is not sharp on Sunday he could get caught with some of the same tricks that worked in the past. Advertisement


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