Commentary

Cain's next challenge: defending his belt

Updated: October 28, 2010, 6:10 AM ET
By Franklin McNeil | ESPN.com

Defeating Brock Lesnar to become the first heavyweight champion of Mexican descent was a great accomplishment for Cain Velasquez.

It sat high on his list of priorities long before he debuted as a mixed martial artist in October 2006.

"I feel great being the first Mexican heavyweight UFC champion," Velasquez said after finishing Lesnar in 4 minutes, 12 seconds in the first round Saturday in Anaheim, Calif. "This belt I dedicate to the Mexican people here in the United States and Mexico."

But fastening the UFC heavyweight title belt around his waist was never Velasquez's primary goal.

What motivates him to train as hard as, if not harder than, any fighter on the planet can't be achieved in one night. It will take more victories over fighters who possess skills equal to or greater than his own.

The heavyweight championship is just an appetizer. Velasquez's belly is far from being full. To be satisified, he must achieve greatness.

"The main goal he has at the end of the rainbow is to be one of the greats," Velasquez's lead trainer, Javier Mendez, told ESPN.com. "To be one of the greats, you can't [win the title] one time, you have to continue to do it.

"He wants to be one of the greats. He wants to be remembered as one of the greatest heavyweight champions ever, as well as one of the greatest MMA champions of all times.

"That's what's in his head. He wants to keep this belt for a long time. He's not looking to keep it for one fight."

[+] EnlargeJunoir Dos Santos
Dave Mandel/Sherdog.comJunoir dos Santos' experience -- and particularly his stand-up skills -- is worlds beyond that of Brock Lesnar.

Winning the belt was always one stage of Velasquez's well-conceived MMA plan. Now, he and his handlers must devise a strategy to overcome the more difficult task that lies ahead: retaining the title longer than any heavyweight in UFC history.

Achieving the feat will prove tougher than anything Velasquez (9-0-0) has done thus far in the Octagon. It will surely be more daunting than his surprisingly easy victory over Lesnar at UFC 121.

No UFC heavyweight champion has successfully defended the title more than two consecutive fights. If Velasquez becomes the first to do so, he will earn a place alongside some of the greatest mixed martial artists ever -- Royce Gracie, Fedor Emelianenko, Randy Couture, Kazushi Sakuraba and Chuck Liddell.

Still, it's too soon to look that far into the future. For now, Velasquez and his team are concerned with surviving their initial challenge. Junior dos Santos (12-1-0) will get the first crack at the new champion, and he presents a completely different set of issues from those Lesnar represented.

The advantages Velasquez held over Lesnar won't apply against dos Santos. The two fighters share more similarities than differences.

"These are the new kids on the block," dos Santos' manager, Ed Soares, told ESPN.com. "These guys hit hard, they're young, quick, agile and athletic.

"They represent the next evolution of heavyweight mixed martial artists. These aren't just fighters, they are athletes who have been taught to fight."

No date has been set for Velasquez-dos Santos, but Mendez has already begun mapping out a plan to deal with the hard-hitting Brazilian. The first order of business is improving every area of Velasquez's game.

"We have to change the fight plan for dos Santos," Mendez said. "We have to improve in the area of jiu-jitsu, wrestling, boxing, kickboxing, everything.

"We all know Junior is the best boxer in the heavyweight division," Mendez said. "Cain isn't, Junior is. But Cain has the belt, and Junior wants it. We have to figure out how to defeat that boxing and great takedown defense that Junior has."

Although Mendez concedes the stand-up realm to dos Santos, he gives his fighter the ground advantage. Wrestling remains the core of Velasquez's success, and it's no secret Mendez will seek ways to impose that discipline on dos Santos.

But getting dos Santos off his feet won't guarantee victory for Velasquez. If there is one area of the challenger's game that is highly underrated, it's his abilities on the ground.

"The bottom line is that he's fought some pretty decent ground guys," Soares said. "Roy Nelson is good on the ground. Gabriel Gonzaga is good on the ground. Fabricio Werdum submitted Fedor [Emelianenko]. Junior dos Santos is a complete fighter.

"People say Junior's ground game isn't his strongest asset. That doesn't mean it's not strong.

"It's like Anderson Silva: People say the ground game is his weakest area. Well, yes, when you consider how [effective] he is in every other area. That doesn't mean it's weak."

Although confident in his skills on the ground, dos Santos isn't leaving anything to chance against Velasquez. He is training diligently to improve his wrestling skills, especially on defense.

"I'm training wrestling a lot," dos Santos told ESPN. "He's a very good wrestler, so I'm training wrestling and jiu-jitsu and my boxing, because my best defense is my hands."

Soares said, "This will be like the legendary boxing matches -- Roberto Duran against Sugar Ray Leonard, Mike Tyson-Evander Holyfield. Those types of bouts."

And with two young, highly skilled, highly determined fighters vying for the same goal, their paths are bound to cross more than once.

"The fight between Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos is going to be one of those fights that will be their first, but it won't be their last," Soares said. "I guarantee that.

Franklin McNeil is a contributing mixed martial arts/boxing writer for ESPN.com. He also appears regularly on "MMA Live," which airs on ESPN2. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Franklin_McNeil.