“It felt like a dream, almost,” Velasquez said of the October night three years ago, when he battered Brock Lesnar bloody inside a round, laying claim to the UFC heavyweight championship — a claim that was ousted by a single Junior Dos Santos punch, one that separated Velasquez from his title, as well as his senses.
“When I lost it, that’s what made it real,” Velasquez said. “I had something that I worked so hard for, and I lost it. I know what that feels like, and I don’t want to go back to those feelings anymore.”
On Saturday in Houston, the Salinas-born, San Jose-based cage fighter will attempt to keep that once familiar feeling at bay as he sets to defend his crown once more against the vaunted 6-foot-4, 239-pound Dos Santos (16-2) — the lone man ever to best him in the octagon.
“It’s not surreal anymore. I do know that I have it. And I know what I need to do to keep it,” Velasquez (12-1) said. “I think he’s going to come out hard, try to get me out right away. That’s the only way he’s going to win it.”
Velasquez, 31, regained his heavyweight title in December’s rematch, one that saw the Northern Californian pummel Dos Santos, 29, over five wild — yet imperfect — rounds.
“The pace of that fight, it was crazy,” he said. “It didn’t matter how tired I was, I knew he was way more tired than I was. If I put a pace like that on somebody, it’s going to happen the same way. Always.”
And per Saturday’s rubber match — one that will likely define the careers of both men — Velasquez against self admittedly the best fighter he’s ever faced, will hope to apply that vaunted pace once more. That pace is the product of a hellacious work ethic, one instilled early by the fighter’s parents, Efrain and Isabel.
“Just watching them work,” he said. “I think I’ve translated that into what I’ve been doing.”
Velasquez was merely 4 years old when his immigrant father opted to uproot his Salinas-based family for a trucking gig in Arizona. And at Arizona State is where his fighting future was forged.
It was as a junior when the accomplished wrestler began to focus his post-collegiate attention on a pro MMA career — one that sputtered after making the 12-hour lonesome drive from Arizona to American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose.
He was 2-0 under coaches Javier Mendez and Bob Cook, and couldn’t land a fight for the better part of two years. That’s when they phoned UFC president Dana White. After a single training session, Velasquez was signed.
“I knew I would get my time,” he said. “I just had to be patient, I knew I would get my chance sooner or later.”