New Champ Cain Velasquez Brings UFC Swagger to San Jose

New Champ Cain Velasquez Brings UFC Swagger to San Jose

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SAN JOSE, Calif.—The same time the rest of Bay Area was going wild over the San Francisco Giants, San Jose residents were celebrating their own world title winner: hometown fighter Cain Velasquez, the first Mexican Heavyweight champion in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).

Velasquez, a San Jose-based mixed martial artist who has the words “Brown Pride” written boldly across his chest, took the title from Brock Lesnar in a first-round technical knockout before a packed stadium in Anaheim, Calif. Velasquez’s win is being heralded as a historic victory for Latino fight fans. In the arena, fans held banners draped in the green, red and white of the Mexican flag that read “Yes We Cain.”

But Velasquez’s new title is also historic for San Jose. Despite being the 10th- largest city in the nation, San Jose has been somewhat dry when it comes to sports titles. Before Velasquez, its most recognizable world champion was Joey Chestnut— the Michael Jordan of competitive eating. Without a a major-league football, baseball, or basketball team, San Jose residents have become Bay Area-wide sports fans by default. When the Oakland Warriors made the playoffs a couple years ago, San Jose was awash in “We Believe” T-shirts, and this year’s World Series win drew throngs of San Jose fans into the streets.

Now, for the first time, San Jose has a legitimate world champion. And his victory couldn’t come at a better time.

Mixed martial arts—a combination of various combat disciplines such as boxing, jiu jitsu, wrestling, and muay thai—is the fastest-growing sport in the world, surpassing boxing as the most-viewed combat sport. With support from broadcast networks such as CBS and unprecedented pay-per-view numbers, mixed martial arts has come a long way from the days when it was equated with dog-fighting and  protested by political figures such as John McCain. Having a new heavyweight champion with international appeal will add to the growth and legitimacy of the sport.

Lesnar, the former UFC champion, came from the world of professional wrestling. He had only trained in mixed martial arts for two years, and his wins were attributed to his sheer size and aggressiveness rather than technical know-how.

Velasquez, on the other hand, with a modest persona and honed set of skills, resembles more a professionally-trained athlete than a bar-room brawler. That he also speaks Spanish has made him the UFC’s marketing dream, scheduled to appear on Univision, TMZ, and the George Lopez show all on the same day.

None of those outlets covered mixed martial arts before Velasquez's arrival.

Velasquez’s personal biography—he is the child of farm workers from Mexico and his father still works in the fields of Salinas—is an inspiring tale of immigration, hard work, and achievement. Although Velasquez is 245 pounds, the mountainous Lesnar is more than 20 pounds heavier and until the fight seemed indestructible. The fight was pitched as a David and Goliath struggle, focusing on Velasquez's humble roots.

On UFC Primetime, a series of nationally-aired television shows depicting the athletes preparing for their fights, the profile of Velasquez also highlighted San Jose, showing clips of downtown and Eastside culture as a way to explain the hometown fighter. In one episode, Velasquez gives a speech at a youth organization called Mexican American Community Services about how he stayed focused on sports as a way to transcend his challenges—the same challenges many of the youngsters listening to him still face.

Although Velasquez is helping put San Jose on the sports map, the city has been one of the leading hubs in the country for mixed martial arts for some time now. Velasquez trains at the highly acclaimed South San Jose-based American Kickboxing Academy, which hosts a stable of star fighters including UFC welterweight title contenders Josh Koscheck, John Fitch, and Mike Swick. San Jose is also home to former Strikeforce (a mixed martial arts league like the UFC) Champions Josh Thompson and San Jose High School graduate Cung Le, a Vietnamese American who also has appeared in action films.

But it is not only the professionals who are turning San Jose into a mixed martial arts mecca. The Norcal Fight Factory, led by former professional fighter David Velasquez (no relation to Cain), has created an innovative youth development program that trains at-risk youth in mixed martial arts. Housed in the Washington Youth Center, Norcal Fight Factory is one of the first Police Athletic League-supported mixed martial arts programs in California. With Cain Velasquez’s visibility, San Jose has secured its reputation as a sports city.

On fight night, Lesnar bull-rushed the smaller Velasquez at the start of the fight. Velasquez adeptly stymied the attack, and systematically picked Lesnar apart with his superior striking abilities. After an exchange of takedowns, Lesnar looked stunned—bloody and outclassed. Velasquez ended the fight by controlling Lesnar on the ground, finishing him with punches as the referee was forced to stop the action.

In his post-fight interview, Velasquez told the roaring crowd that his title was “por todos Latinos.” Back home in San Jose, whether he said it or not, his title is also por todos en San Jose.