For a long time, Cain Velasquez, who will fight Junior Dos Santos for the UFC heavyweight title on Saturday, was a rumor. He trained in one of the world's best camps, in San Jose, Calif., and stories would filter out about his freak inexhaustibility, about how he would spar with good stand-up fighters and tear them apart even before he'd really learned how to box, about how he was maybe the best heavyweight alive. But for years you only saw him in the preliminaries of shitty cards where he would maul nobodies, usually unheard of before or since. No one else would take a fight with him.
Even given the limits of what you can tell about a fighter from what he does against a random Bosnian or someone named Hacksaw, Velasquez was clearly no mere gym legend. Generously listed at 6-foot-1 and 40 pounds lighter than the largest heavyweights, he hit twisting, intricate takedowns at will and couldn't be touched standing, where he threw dense combinations that would wear out in a minute most fighters anywhere near his size. He was incredibly fast and frighteningly aggressive—a rarer trait among guys who fight in cages for money than you'd think—and in a division where anything past the exhibition of raw protohominid strength gets lauded as "technical," his game, as violent as it was, largely centered on leverage, angles, and being inches off where his opponent expected him to be, fractions of a second before he should have been able to get there. You don't often see anything like that from a heavyweight, because top athletes with the size for the class tend to work in the National Football League, leaving fighting to a complement of fairly monodimensional specialists in exotic disciplines and slow, fumble-fisted wrestlers who fight like poorly programmed video game bosses. Velasquez looked like the future.
As it turned, he was. When he started getting real competition a couple of years ago, he proved to be, if anything, better than he should have been, quicker and more relentless at worst, operating on a different level at best. His promoters at UFC deal as well with "finesse" fighters as you do with your dog eating your cat's sick, and so heading into his first title fight, they keyed in less on the reflexive angles from which he threw his jabs or his dull personality than on a bit of ink reading "BROWN PRIDE," which hung from the edge of one collarbone over to the edge of the other. He won the title, tossing Brock Lesnar around like a dead lamb in late 2010, and then, heading into his first defense, on UFC's network television debut just more than a year ago, he injured his knee and was consequently knocked the fuck out by his challenger, Dos Santos, in just over a minute. His promoters, who pay him at a rate relative to the money he generates that any major-sport athlete would spit at, will want him straight and sound this weekend and ready to break Dos Santos in their rematch, less because they care about who holds their house title than because he represents an opportunity. As good as he is, it almost makes you want to root against him.
Go to the tattoo. As Velasquez has it, and as UFC promotes it on its website, it's a tribute to his father, who illegally emigrated from Mexico to the United States and ended up picking lettuce in the fields of the Southwest, where he met his wife, Velasquez's mother. It's also, you're told, a more general tribute to his heritage, and to all the people who have risked death to come to this country in search of opportunities for their children, the chance to watch the Kansas City Royals and pay a percentage of their income to fund flying death robots and all the rest of it.
Whatever else it is, that tattoo and what it represents are a marketing tool as well, UFC's best chance to hook some profitable percentage of the tens of millions of brown Americans—who count among them a disproportionate number of fight fans—and convince them that boxing is over and that mixed martial arts is it. The company has worked this as best it can, running ads that linger on Velasquez's green, white, and red mouthpiece, and the Mexican flag wrapped around his hand when posing for the cameras after his victories. Ahead of his title fight two years ago, the hype machine produced the following exchange on a show promoting the bout:
CAIN VELASQUEZ: "The Latin people here in the U.S., the Mexicans in Mexico, need a champion."
DERPY ANNOUNCER MIKE GOLDBERG: "Cain Velasquez truly has the warrior spirit. A Mexican fighter."
NORDIC WARRIOR BROCK LESNAR: "Listen, when I get done whooping your ass, I'm gonna go drink a Corona and eat a burrito just for your Hispanic heritage, alright? How 'bout that?"
This is how Cain Velasquez, born in California and educated in Iowa and Arizona, ended up as the avatar of a foreign country his father badly wanted him not to grow up in. ("This fall, Cain Velasquez will try to make history and become the first Mexican heavyweight champion!" UFC had its voiceover man declaim in the ads, neatly eliding the difference between a Mexican and a Mexican-American.) There is a vacuum to be filled, and you fill it.
Take none of this as implying that Velasquez is the Marco Rubio of the heavyweight fighting set, a marketing proposition given improbable life: If there's any Latino authenticity medal to be had it's more likely held by a man whose father crossed the border to pick produce and who went on to earn a college education and win a prizefighting title than by, say, someone whose great-grandparents left Puerto Rico for New York during the Depression, or a wealthy Argentine in San Francisco working on a postgraduate degree, or whatever you will. As you watch all difference dissolve, though, and see Mexican-Americans assailed with a variant of a commercial psychology that uses Latin, Hispanic, and Mexican as more or less interchangeable concepts in a way that reduces a man to a proxy, the whole thing comes to seem like an atavism, a relic of the days when Jack London would call Jack Johnson "the dusky opponent" in the newspaper. But is it really such a relic? As I type this, we have at least one large political party working under the apparent conviction that a group numbering nearly a sixth of the country's population is a functionally monolithic bloc; operatives who are paid to know better are working hard to convince themselves that, say, rich people whose wealthy families came to America from Brazil and Cuba decades ago mainly care about making poor migrant workers from a third country semi-legal citizens. In light of our present-day politics, UFC's marketing doesn't seem much of an atavism at all. Demographics, we all know, are The Future, and so in his way is Cain Velasquez.
For all that, the fact, hard to ignore, is this: A year ago, on network television, in front of the broadest audience UFC has ever had, Velasquez was knocked out in a minute. It was a fluke; it came as he was planting for a takedown on a knee so badly damaged that he probably wouldn't have fought at all if the stakes hadn't been so high; it came against an opponent, Dos Santos, who was equally injured and also shouldn't have been fighting, so that a lot of people cross out the fight and pretend it never happened; it came before his most recent fight, where he tore the face off of Antonio Silva, a fairly serious contender, as if to make some kind of statement about how good he really is; it was the only time he's ever lost. It still happened, though, and still counts as the lasting image of Velasquez in the minds of most people who've ever seen him, and still represents the problem for UFC's hype men, which is this: They can set their man up as they will, wrap him in any colors they like, and present him not just as the champion of the country in which his father was born but of millions of people who have no relation to that country at all, and there is still every possibility that he will get knocked dead out by someone who carries no signifying tattoo, doesn't even in theory represent an American population tens of millions strong, and looks, on his sexiest day, like your cousin the dentist whom you wouldn't quite trust to give you a crown.
That's fighting, and if you had as much money riding on Velasquez as his promoters do, you'd like your chances: Dos Santos is an excellent but very linear fighter, a purportedly technical boxer whose main strength is natural knockout power and who allegedly has a wonderful jiu-jitsu game, though no one's ever seen it. He can't match Velasquez's pace or his mastery of angles and certainly not his wrestling, and it's hard to figure how he wins if he doesn't land just the right shot, which no matter what happened before isn't all that likely. So the Latins here in the U.S. will likely have their champion, and in their millions they will love him, and so forget everything they and their parents and grandparents loved about boxing while uniting around the politicians who best master the least offensive blandishments, and they will dutifully fulfill the obligations assigned to them by commercial demographers and march on the MGM Grand, to hoist their hero on their shoulders and carry him off toward tomorrow.
Tim Marchman has written about fights for the Wall Street Journal, Sports Illustrated, Slate, and The Classical; despite this, you're right, he has no idea what he's on about. Feel free to tell him @timmarchman.