Just a few years ago, Cain Velasquez was considered to be well on his way to becoming one of the greatest heavyweights of all time, if not the single greatest heavyweight to ever compete in mixed martial arts.
His career, however, has unfortunately been plagued by injuries, as he hasn’t competed since scoring a TKO victory over Travis Browne at July 2016’s UFC 200. Prior to that, he fought once in 2015, losing his title via submission to Fabricio Werdum and didn’t enter the cage once in 2014.
At 36 years old, it’s fair to consider that Velasquez may have lost the prime years of his career due to injuries, but he isn’t done yet, as it was recently announced that he would finally be making his long-awaited return to action against Francis Ngannou in the main event of UFC on ESPN 1 on Feb. 17.
And while MMA is a rapidly changing sport, the heavyweight division hasn’t actually changed all that much since Velasquez’s last fight, those new players that have emerged aren’t currently in a position to slow down his title aspirations, which is why the Mexican-American may be returning at the perfect time.
The State of the Heavyweight Division
At the time of Velasquez’s last fight, Stipe Miocic was just a few months into his reign as champion. Though he lost his title last July at UFC 226 against Daniel Cormier, he remains atop the division. A few months following UFC 200, Miocic made the first defense of his title against Alistair Overeem, who still sits in the top 10 as well, but is likely a few fights from title contention given the fact that he’s lost two of his last three.
Following his successful defense against Overeem, Miocic then finished ex-champion Junior Dos Santos. “Cigano” has gotten back to his winning ways recently, picking up back-to-back victories, but he’s fought Velasquez three times, losing the second and third fights in brutal fashion.
It’d be hard to see Velasquez and Dos Santos meeting for a fourth time and Dos Santos likely wouldn’t leapfrog Velasquez if Velasquez returns to form.
As far as new contenders that have emerged in Velasquez’s absence, Ngannou certainly fits the bill. A feared knockout artist, he’s already challenged for the title, though he was soundly defeated by Miocic. A win over Velasquez would put him right back into contention.
Derrick Lewis, Curtis Blaydes, and Alexander Volkov also currently sit in the top five, though all three of them are coming off losses with Lewis’ being in a title fight just a few months ago.
Velasquez’s Path to the Title
Ultimately, it seems as if Velasquez is returning to the game at an incredibly opportune time given that the heavyweight division is still made up of a lot of the same names. That, and that it isn’t currently flooded with a plethora of contenders ready to challenge for the title at this very moment.
The only problem for the former champion is that Cormier, his friend, and training partner, currently holds the title. The two have always made it clear that they wouldn’t fight each other. Cormier, however, has consistently expressed interest in retiring by March and even if he doesn’t, he could drop back down to light heavyweight to once again take on Jon Jones.
Regardless, Velasquez is likely only a win or two away from earning the chance to reclaim his title. After such a long absence from an ever-changing sport, it’s interesting to see that Velasquez seems to be sliding right back into his spot near the top of the division.
Now, it’s time to see if the former champion is still the all-time great fighter he once was.