PHOENIX — The last serious sighting the Cain Velasquez come 30 months ago, as soon as the former two-time heavyweight champion quit by the UFC’s bicentennial present to remind the fight game of his terrifying brilliance by take it apart Travis Browne together if tasked through the easiest project in the world. It was short. It to be violent. It was vintage. That melted back into the heavyweight ether ~ that, as he is no to do, a ghost that reanimates self every so regularly just to prod the UFC’s big boys with the understanding that their residence is quiet haunted by an infrequent force past their control.

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Those 30 months feel choose an eternity today. Gaze around the heavyweight kingdom and UFC 200 may also be a life time ago. New records have actually been established, new legends have actually been anointed. In Velasquez’s absence, one of his dearest girlfriend — Daniel Cormier, the same male who once abandoned his very own weight course out of loyalty to his teammate — returned to retake the throne because that AKA. Yet finally the time has come: in ~ last, Velasquez is indeed back, set to kick turn off his recent comeback tour on Feb. 17 versus Francis Ngannou in ~ the UFC’s inaugural showcase ~ above ESPN. And make no mistake, as the rigid of Cormier’s unavoidable retirement hangs in the wait in 2019, over there is a plan in place for the erstwhile king.

“It was just around the ideal fight in ~ the ideal time,” Velasquez called MMA Fighting.

“I believe this is that.”

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
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That right fight ended up being a nostalgic affair because that an Arizona native.

The UFC’s debut on ESPN takes ar deep in the heart of downtown Phoenix, within driving street of many of the clues Velasquez once referred to as home. To remember the last time Velasquez competed in the desert, one demands to trek every the method back 13 years, back to the heavyweight’s senior season in ~ Arizona State University, earlier to as soon as he simply a standout wrestler acquisition the mat because that the last home meet of his collegiate career. ~ above a night wherein future MMA successes Ryan Bader and also C.B. Dollaway led the sun Devils come a one-sided rout that Stanford, it was Velasquez who opened up the night v a monstrous 25-8 technical loss over poor Shawn Ritzenthaler. That last homestand spurred Velasquez to at some point win his 2nd All-American honors in his second and last D-I season.

“I never lost at home,” Velasquez remembers. “At ASU, ns never lost at home. Never. Transparent my entirety life, ns never shed at home. Ns only shed once — in high college I obtained upset. Yet all throughout small high, high school, college: We don’t lose at home. That’s simply what happens.

“So man, come be below again, to fight right here in former of friends and family — this is as with old time again, right?”

Velasquez grins as the words leave his lips.

It’s a rare display of emotion from a dead-eyed assassin. There is a various feeling about Velasquez these days. That is straightforward to pick up. Although that is an ext familiar v the sidelines than most fighters in the sport — because Oct. 2013, Velasquez has contended in the UFC only three times, slowly poisoning a as soon as unassailable legacy with questions of what could’ve been — he knows this last layoff to be different. There were no untimely injuries, no unsettled physics tolls. Instead, the was just personal. Velasquez has been healthy since mid-2017. The factors for his delay were twofold, stalled contract negotiations and also a brand-new point of proud that deserve to be summed up in 6 letters: Cain Jr.

The former came to be resolved in a tidy manner. Velasquez re-signed through the UFC top top a brand-new four-fight deal late critical year, a transaction he claims he is an extremely happy with.

The latter ended up turning 2018 into one that the most rewarding years of Velasquez’s life. Because from the moment the former UFC champion first learned news that his incoming baby boy, Velasquez knew his 2018 project was over before it started.

This critical layoff was different. There were no untimely injuries, no unsettled physics tolls. Instead, it was just personal.

“When we had actually my daughter — she nine now — at the height of my career, i wasn’t there for every one of her infant stuff,” Velasquez says. “And that, come me, to be hard, because you’re trying to it is in two locations at once and also you yes, really can’t, right? This is wherein I do my living, so it was difficult to balance the two. So ns really wanted to be there because that my wife for she pregnancy. Ns was over there for her for the totality thing, and also then my son being born and also being manual the whole first year. And man, i love the moment I spent away. I acquired to do a lot of things that i didn’t have the chance to carry out before. I just really cherished those moment that ns had.”

That self-imposed rest from the game gave Cormier the possibility to move earlier up come heavyweight and attain one that the best years a 39-year-old blended martial artist ever has. It additionally gave Velasquez the chance to remainder his beleaguered body and also regain a level the strength and functionality it hasn’t enjoyed since his heyday as UFC champion. So as Cormier pieced together a storybook ending to his career, Velasquez sat ago and worked and waited, no longer ruined by a half-decade of injuries and surgeries and rehabilitations, biding his time because that the right possibility to come.

“I feel prefer I did ,” claims the 36-year-old Velasquez. “I do. Obviously points are transforming — and also as far as that, that like, I need to be smarter when I train because I could certainly overtrain at any kind of moment. That’s just what i do. However I still certainly do feeling the same. Ns feel choose the time off the I’ve had, I’ve been able to job-related on part stuff that i really can’t once you’re in fight training, due to the fact that you’re clear training because that a details guy, just for a specific style. Yet to not have anything on the books and also to be training just kinda the stuff the you want to train, various techniques and also stuff, the was great time off.”

The change has been noticeable to Velasquez’s longtime head coach haver Mendez. He claims he observed the switch important flip for Velasquez six months ago, once suddenly the old Cain came to be an omnipresent pressure in the gym. Both he and also Velasquez have been hyper-aware of not falling back into your old ways, and Mendez claims the fighter the sees today is “actually a better, an ext matured, high-paced Cain choose always, but smarter and also definitely a far better version 보다 200.”

“He’s gotten smarter in training,” mendez says. “He knows when to earlier off now. His time off has actually helped him, his human body heal, and also he’s rapid like always. He access time a small harder and he’s motivated an ext than ever. He’s watched everybody else come onboard, and also realistically i think he’s come ago to gain back what he constantly knew was his. And also once DC’s done, which will certainly be hope this year, then Cain will take over. That’s what ns looking at.”

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
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Velasquez won’t say it, yet the time of the Ngannou hit is likely not a coincidence.

The composing is top top the wall: when Cormier makes his way to the exit, a huge hole will need to be filled atop the UFC’s heavyweight division. That is no leap to say the winner that UFC top top ESPN’s main event will floor in pole place alongside Stipe Miocic to challenge for that vacant title. Velasquez acknowledges together much, although ever before cautious, he won’t elaborate other 보다 to speak he still demands to carry out his task on Feb. 17 to ensure it actually happens.

And it is fair considering the colossus Velasquez is up against.

With his superhuman physique and ungodly punching power, Ngannou is efficiently a comic publication hero brought to life. He may have taken his lumps in 2018 and also suffered v the very first losing streak of his career — a demoralizing location loss to Miocic the exposed major cardiovascular and also wrestling deficiencies, followed by a baffling no-show versus Derrick Lewis — but he finished the year riding the highest possible of high notes, a 45-second romp over one more feared wrestler in Curtis Blaydes.

Now both Velasquez and Mendez room wary of the man standing across from castle in downtown Phoenix, a male who they understand will be out to prove a point.

“Honestly, come me, it’s actually the many dangerous fight the end of everybody that’s available,” mendez says. “And the reason why ns tell friend is due to the fact that that man can end up anybody. Francis can complete anybody. When he’s on his A-game, that can finish you.

“He walk from overconfident come under-confident to now confident. Ns don’t think he’s overconfident now — I just think he’s confident. Ns feel the we have actually the many dangerous anybody’s ever faced.”

“Can Cain win him? Absolutely. Deserve to Cain maul him? Absolutely. Yet can Cain gain knocked the end by a man that hits favor a freakin’ train? Yes. For this reason my project is come be really careful with a guy like that. We can’t deviate through him. He’s also strong, he hits method too hard, he’s really fast, and also now it looks prefer he’s obtained his mojo back. Because that a while there, that looked choose he was fighting himself. Perhaps overconfident, under-confident. I think that went indigenous overconfident come under-confident to currently confident. I don’t think he is overconfident now, I simply think he’s confident. So i feel the we have the most dangerous the anybody’s ever faced now, due to the fact that I think he’s ultimately got that down. One shot changes everything.”

The stakes space real. A win over Ngannou, especially an emphatic win atop the first-ever ESPN-UFC transfer in prior of a delirious hometown crowd, would open up a people of possibilities for Velasquez and his future. Mendez claims the biggest gift he might ever obtain as a coach would certainly be passing the UFC heavyweight title directly from Cormier come Velasquez — a real-life passing of the torch, and a remarkable payoff for AKA ~ the sacrifice Cormier made all those year ago. But a victory would additionally open options together well, keeping Velasquez atop the ladder in instance Cormier’s rival, Jon Jones, ever decides come make good on his promise of moving up to the heavyweight division.

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The debacle the UFC 232 and the dirt Jones continues to traction Cormier v on a weekly basis stays a point of contention for some in mountain Jose. By currently it’s apparent that Jones has no attention in conference Cormier up in ~ heavyweight — he stated so self — however if Velasquez is able to take up the reigns from AKA’s team captain, he will personally host the secrets to Jones’ pursuit for legacy-changing heavyweight glory.

Even the generally demure Velasquez admits the the rivalry has long get an impression personal, and the chance to welcome Jones come the divsion is one he would certainly relish.

“I expect so,” Velasquez claims flatly the the possibility. “I’ll shot to make the happen.”

But those are concerns for the future.

For now, all the matters is the Velasquez is back. Back in the truest sense. Back in a means the two-time UFC champion hasn’t skilled in years. A marquee showdown v Francis Ngannou awaits in the desert, one that carries far-reaching stakes in myriad ways. Both Velasquez and also Mendez recognize it i will not ~ be easy, that if the very same Ngannou who confirmed up versus Blaydes reflects up on Feb. 17, the contingent from mountain Jose may need to wade with the fires that hell to finest the many dangerous puncher in the game.

“But the poor thing because that him is that he’s facing Cain Velasquez,” mender says, smiling. “That’s the bad news because that him. He’s facing the many complete, finest conditioned — to me, the greatest ever. And also he’ll prove the this time around.”