Hard work paying off for Velasquez

Kevin Iole
Yahoo! Sports

You can follow Kevin Iole on Twitter at @KevinI

SYDNEY – Ask anyone in the mixed martial arts business about Cain Velasquez and you'll hear the same answer, ad nauseum, repeated as if it were being read from a script.

Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, who will meet Velasquez on Saturday (Sunday in Australia) in the main event of UFC 110 at Acer Arena, gushed about the highly touted 7-0 prospect.

"He has great conditioning, obviously; he never seems to get tired," Nogueira said. "He looks like he could fight 10 rounds if he had to."

Ultimate Fighting Championship president Dana White didn't even hesitate.

"His cardio is phenomenal," White said. "The guy's a machine. He just goes and goes and goes." It's no surprise, however, given his background. Money was always tight in the Velasquez home in Yuma, Ariz.

His father, Efrain, was deported numerous times for illegally crossing the border from Mexico into the United States because he believed his young family would have the best chance at a future on the American side of the border.

After years of unsuccessfully trying to make it, Efrain Velasquez married an American woman, was granted legal entry into the United States and set out to make a better life for his three children.

Efrain and Isabel Velasquez each spent much of their adult lives – as many Mexican immigrants do – working long hours in the fields, toiling in the scorching heat in the extreme southwestern Arizona city.

They picked lettuce and other crops, with the hours racking up faster than the paychecks. It is not easy or pleasant work. It is not a path to prosperity. A young man with ambitions which go beyond the borders of one of the country's hottest and poorest cities doesn't want to be condemned to a life spent working the fields.

The average high temperature in Yuma from April through October is 88 or greater. It's 100 or more from June through September. It rarely rains and there is hardly ever a cloud in the sky.

In part because of his family's financial situation, Cain Velasquez worked the fields when he was a teenager. He picked watermelons at a local patch for five, sometimes six days a week, starting at 7 in the morning and going on until 5 in the afternoon.

He'd trudge home each day, physically exhausted. It was in the searing sun in those watermelon patches that Velasquez honed the work ethic that has made him one of the UFC's most well-conditioned fighters.

Workers were paid by the weight of the watermelons they picked, so Velasquez threw himself into his work. He didn't relish getting up and heading to the fields each morning, but he knew working hard was the only option. And he didn't cheat his employer when he was working.

"I absolutely hated it, man," Velasquez said. "It's Arizona. You know what it's like in the summer there. It was always brutally hot and the work was so hard and the days were so long. I didn't do it too long before I knew I didn't want to do that the rest of my life."

Efrain and Isabel knew their son well enough to know that he wouldn't want to do that type of work for very long, that he was bright enough and gifted enough to do far more with his life. So they worked a deal with him: Despite the family's financial situation, they wouldn't require him to work the fields as long as he was in school.

So Cain immersed himself in his schoolwork and became one of the finest athletes in the history of Kofa High School. He won two state championships in wrestling at Kofa and was the captain of both the wrestling and the football team as a senior. He was good enough as a football lineman that several Division I colleges recruited him.

"Top 10 football schools," he said, beaming.

He did enough to stay out of the watermelon fields forever. And after graduating with a degree in education at Arizona State, where he was a two-time All-American wrestler, his work ethic again made a difference in his life as he decided to become a professional mixed martial arts fighter. He was impossible to keep out of the gym. He learned unbelievably quickly, and drilled what he didn't know over and over and over.

Velasquez didn't have three fights under his belt before his coaches were comparing him to the greats of his game. He joined the UFC after just two fights and quickly steamrolled his way to the top of the division.

The winner on Saturday will be in the mix for the heavyweight championship and could get the next shot at it, pending the result of the UFC 111 bout for the interim title between Frank Mir and Shane Carwin.

The Mir-Carwin winner has been promised the next shot, but a lot of it will be based on circumstances. Champion Brock Lesnar is going to return from his illness in the summer, likely at UFC 116 in Las Vegas in July. If the Mir-Carwin winner is healthy enough, that fighter would get the shot at Lesnar. If not, however, the winner of Nogeuira vs. Velasquez would get the chance.

Velasquez has steamrolled everyone he's fought and only once has gone to a decision. He won a unanimous decision over Cheick Kongo at UFC 99 in Germany last year, though his performance wasn't enough to impress all of the critics.

Many complained that he failed to finish Kongo and that he got knocked down hard several times. "I wasn't what I should have been that night," Velasquez said.

White, though, was amazed that anyone would have questioned the ability of Velasquez after that fight. It was his first major test, against a far more experienced fighter, and he not only dominated – he did it in a foreign country where the bulk of the fans were supporting Kongo.

"People just don't realize that Kongo is a striker and that's his strength," White said. "Yeah, he knocked Cain down, but what happened? Cain got up, slammed him down and just beat the [expletive] out of him the whole time."

Velasquez called the Kongo fight "a learning experience." Nogueira concurred with that, saying that as Velasquez continues to learn the sport, he'll be even more ferocious.

"I don't think there are a lot of guys who are asking to fight him now, but in two years, nobody will want to [fight] him," Nogueira said. "You can see that he really wants to be good and he works at it as hard as anyone. When you have the ability he has and you work as hard as he does, you are going to turn out to be a very good fighter."

Fighting guys such as Nogueira, Lesnar, Mir and Carwin wouldn't seem like anyone's idea of a great night out, but Velasquez only need harken back to his days in the watermelon patch to realize he's in the right place at the right time.

"I love this sport and I got into it because I wanted to be the best," he said. "These are the kinds of guys you have to fight if you want to be the best. There's not much that [Nogueira] hasn't done in this sport. But if you want something as badly as I want [to be great in MMA], you have to work for it and lay it all out there. And that's what I'm doing."

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