May 25, 2012

Barely six months ago, he was on top of the world. As heavyweight champion of the UFC, he was widely acknowledged as the baddest man on the planet. And as the headliner of the fight organization's first appearance on network telecast, he was the spotlit star on the biggest stage in mixed martial arts history.

A lot has changed for Cain Velasquez.

On Thursday, he stepped onto a less glittery stage. There would indeed be a spotlight shining down on the Las Vegas press conference hyping UFC 146, but the glitz would come later, when the fighters in Saturday's main event appeared. The limelight was reserved for Junior dos Santos, who snatched away the championship belt during that landmark UFC on Fox event back in November by knocking out Velasquez in just 64 seconds, and Frank Mir, who was slated to fight Cain this weekend but was bumped up to the title bout after the original challenger, Alistair Overeem, was yanked when a drug test revealed an unacceptably high level of testosterone.

As for Velasquez, he was relegated to being an opening act for the headliners, both on Saturday night's all-heavyweight main card (10 p.m. ET, PPV) and during Thursday's press conference. Before Dos Santos and Mir took center stage, Cain was squeezed onstage for a brief appearance with his replacement opponent, UFC debutante Antonio Silva, along with a guy named "Pee-Wee" Herman and another who resembled "Hacksaw" Jim Duggan but claimed to be Roy Nelson. This part of the show was as undercard as undercard gets. Velasquez answered queries from the UFC's moderator, Jon Anik, for two minutes, took no questions from the assembled media, and it was time to move on.

Excuse me, Mr. Velasquez, could you please step off the stage so we can make room for the main event stars? Ouch.

Except it didn't seem to be an "ouch" moment for Velasquez. He seems to be taking this demotion to second fiddle in stride, just as he seems to take everything in stride. Whereas another recently dethroned titleholder, lightweight Frankie Edgar, acknowledged in an appearance on Fuel TV a couple of weeks ago that when "people call you former champ, it definitely stings a little bit," Velasquez has not betrayed an iota of the hurt that comes with being replaced as the fight game's alpha dog.

"It's a thing of, you know, you can't really dwell on the past," he said when Anik asked him whether the loss -- the first of his career, in his very first defense of the belt he took from Brock Lesnar -- has stuck with him. "You've got to just learn from it, then kind of move forward. Take that into your training. Take that into your next fight. Just kind of learn from it, whatever you can, just try to get better as a person and as a fighter."

Although Velasquez wasn't revealing much there, a couple of weeks ago he did give a glimpse at how his athletic background formed his competitive mindset. "In wrestling, I've lost matches before," said the two-time NCAA Division I All-America from Arizona State, reflecting back on how the Dos Santos fight affected him. "It's one of those things: You learn from it, but you don't dwell on it. I wasn't thinking that I was going to go undefeated forever in my career. He was the better fighter on that night. Right now, it's on to the next fight."

The next fight was to be against Mir, a two-time champion on a three-fight win streak -- in other words, a guy whose name looks awful good on your resume if you can put a "W" next to it. A win over Mir surely would have propelled Velasquez toward a shot at regaining the belt. But then Dos Santos' first title defense fell apart, and while a rematch between the new champ and the man he dethroned seemed like a logical and potentially thrilling alternative, the UFC instead went with Mir.

Cain's outraged reaction? "Not surprised or disappointed," Velasquez told the other day. "When we heard that Overeem was not going to be fighting Dos Santos, we went through a couple of scenarios, and the one that made the most sense was for Mir to go up because he's on a three-fight winning streak."

Wow. Now that's an easygoing guy.

Indeed, Velasquez publicly clings to no expectations of what might lie ahead if he wins this weekend. Facing Silva, he'll be in with an imposing physical specimen who battered Fedor Emelianenko and also owns victories over a couple of former UFC champions, Andrei Arlovski and Ricco Rodriguez. But all three of those wins came against over-the-hill versions of once-notable fighters.

When Silva (16-3) stepped in with a fighter on the rise last September, in a semifinal of the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix, he was knocked out in the first round by Daniel Cormier, a Velasquez training partner at American Kickboxing Academy. Defeating the 32-year-old "Bigfoot" might not be good enough to earn Cain a second date with dos Santos or another set-up with Mir.

Unless, of course, Velasquez (9-1) wins in spectacular style. But that's not something he feels pressured to push for.

"No, never any pressure," he said.

Velasquez will be fighting to win, not to impress. "Just going out there and doing my thing," he said. "That's it."

That figures to be enough to make Silva's first visit to the octagon no pleasure trip. Velasquez is a buzzsaw when fighting standup, landing a UFC-record 7.4 significant strikes per minute and connecting on 60.6 percent of what he throws. And he's no less dangerous on the mat, with his career average of 5.58 takedowns per 15 minutes being second all-time among UFC heavyweights. Cain's grappling has kept him in control of opponents 65.3 percent of the time, third best in the fight promotion's history.

So the numbers are there for Velasquez, even if the spotlight isn't. And if working in the shadows doesn't bother the former champion, the least the rest of us can do is watch Saturday's co-main event with not the past in mind but the future.

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