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Did we see Cain Velasquez’s body fail him, or did we see Francis Ngannou fell him at UFC on ESPN 1? And, for Velasquez’s future prospects, which would be worse? Retired UFC and WEC fighter Danny Downes joins MMAjunkie columnist Ben Fowlkes to discuss in this week’s Trading Shots.
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Downes: Ben, I know you spent most of the President’s Day weekend searching for mattress deals, but there was a lot of MMA action to digest. Not only that, there was a lot of strange MMA to watch. You had Matt Mitrione delivering a testicular TKO to Sergei Kharitonov, Vanessa Porto winning a title by getting poked in the eye, and even Paul Daley deciding to employ a wrestle-first offense against Michael Page.
It all culminated with the main event of UFC on ESPN 1 last night. Cain Velasquez returned to the octagon for the first time since July 2016 to face Francis Ngannou. A mere 26 seconds later, Ngannou picked up the TKO win, but we’re left with a lot more questions than answers.
Did Ngannou’s punches cause Velasquez to tumble and ultimately hurt his knee? Did the knee give out first and give Ngannou a “cheap” win? Is it time to write off Velasquez and leave him at the front door of the MMA retirement home?
Fowlkes: When I go back and watch that replay, what I see is Ngannou’s right fist making contact with Velasquez’s jaw as his knee gives out. It wasn’t a big punch. But then, as we’ve seen, Ngannou can do a lot of damage even with glancing blows, so it’s not so unbelievable that he buckled Velasquez’s knee enough to injure it with just a short uppercut.
The alternative is claiming that one thing (the punch) had nothing to do with the other (the knee). But then, if you’re Velasquez, wouldn’t that be worse? Injuries have haunted his entire career. No matter what he does from here, we’ll always wonder what he could have accomplished if he could have stayed healthy.
And, not to get all doom and gloom on you, but do we really expect that he’ll somehow become less injury prone as he gets older? He’s 36. He’s fought just three times in the past five years. If his knee gave out all on its own in less than 30 seconds against Ngannou, wouldn’t that be a pretty good sign that he’ll probably never be healthy enough for a sustained run in this sport?
Downes: I always want to give fighters the benefit of the doubt. Sure, they have their own biases, but they know their own biases better than we think. Also, I think that Velasquez has a lot of good people around him. Daniel Cormier isn’t going to come out publicly and say, “Cain’s washed. He needs to retire now.” Privately, however, I bet he’s a straight shooter.
The best corollary we have to the Velasquez situation is one of the men on commentary last night – Dominick Cruz. Everyone wanted him to quit in 2012 and then again in 2014. Then he came back and fought three times in 2016. Yes, another injury has sidelined him, yet he’s remained competitive in a tough division despite that.
Is an injury-prone heavyweight a bigger concern than an injury-prone bantamweight? Probably, but we know how thin the heavyweight division is. If Velasquez can manage a 2020 like Cruz’s 2016, he could be champ again.
Seeing that you’re already willing to give Velasquez the Old Yeller treatment, where do you place him in the pantheon of MMA heavyweights? “Sea-level Cain” has been a running joke in the community, but don’t let that cloud how revolutionary his presence was.
Before he came along, we had never seen a heavyweight with his type of athleticism. There were bigger, more powerful, more ripped heavyweights, but no one really had his mix of speed, cardio, and power. There was a time when we thought the Velasquez era would never end. Now what? Is he just another tragic figure who never had the opportunity to realize his full potential. Is he the MMA Bo Jackson?
Fowlkes: So if you were Velasquez’s teammate right now, what you’d be telling him is, “Keep your head up, you might get lucky and end up like Dominick Cruz”? As in, the same Cruz who hasn’t fought in over two years due to injuries?
If you ever see me looking sad, Danny, please don’t try to cheer me up. I’m not sure I could take it.
Obviously it’s going to be up to Velasquez to decide whether his body can handle the rigors of this sport. It almost feels like a relief to see someone struggling with injuries that aren’t of the debilitating brain trauma variety.
You mean it’s just a knee, maybe a bad back, the kind of stuff that will have you grumbling through the pain but at least you’ll still remember what you had for breakfast? Hey, that ain’t so bad. We don’t need to force you into retirement over that. Your joints will do it for us!
All I’m saying is, at this point it’s starting to feel like the book on Velasquez is mostly written. The story it tells is of a man who could have been great, a man who actually was great for a short time, but whose body just wouldn’t cooperate over the long term. We’ll never know what he could have been. He couldn’t get healthy and stay that way long enough. Maybe it was his physical destiny. Maybe it was the training. Maybe the woodchipper that is this sport simply wouldn’t allow it.
It’s sad, is what it is. I wish we’d gotten more of a chance to see what he could really do. But at this point, I’m not overly optimistic. And now that I admit that, I realize maybe I shouldn’t be the one to give the cheering up speech either.
Ben Fowlkes is MMAjunkie and USA TODAY’s MMA columnist. Danny Downes, a retired UFC and WEC fighter, is an MMAjunkie contributor who has also written for UFC.com and UFC 360. Follow them on twitter at @benfowlkesMMA and @dannyboydownes.