Can Mexican Fans Help Cain Velasquez Become the Top Star in all of Combat Sports?

The champion. For 100 years, you could say those two words and the world would know who you were referring to. From Joe Louis,…

By: Jonathan Snowden | 13 years ago
Can Mexican Fans Help Cain Velasquez Become the Top Star in all of Combat Sports?
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

The champion. For 100 years, you could say those two words and the world would know who you were referring to. From Joe Louis, to Muhammad Ali, to Mike Tyson, the heavyweight champion of the world was sacrosanct. In the post-Tyson world, that stature has been diminished. Today, most sports fans couldn’t even tell you who the heavyweight boxing champion is.

Does that leave room in our cultural consciousness for the UFC champion? Can a cage fighter fill that gap? ESPN’s Jake Rossen thinks many sports fans aren’t ready yet. Part of the problem? Cain Velasquez’s win over Brock Lesnar:

That it’s Velasquez who holds the title is another wrinkle: Fans, especially casual ones, enjoy consistency. Ali held belts for years, as did Tyson and Lennox Lewis. Brock Lesnar, who was quickly reaching mythical status, could defend his UFC belt only twice before running into the limits of his skill set. Velasquez might fare better, or he might get the business end of Junior dos Santos; Santos, in turn, could be smothered by Lesnar. It’s enough to give you whiplash.

I do not get the sense Velasquez has “baddest man on the planet” status in the eyes of sports fans, primarily because the UFC is still largely misunderstood and because he was a virtual unknown prior to the Lesnar fight. But conquering Lesnar — a guy no action figure could do justice — will go a long way toward making his story easily digested.

I agree with Rossen. Lesnar had unique charisma and a physical presence that could have made his ascendance to the throne possible. He was already inserting himself into the public discourse. Another big, high profile win and he might have become a name known beyond the MMA bubble.

Cain’s not there yet. Most sports fans have never seen him beyond scattered highlights of his win over Lesnar. As our own Luke Thomas pointed out, his biggest career win prior to Saturday, a knockout of the legendary Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, was on an overseas show that didn’t attract much media or fan attention. Even among the UFC’s core base of fanatics, Cain has flown under the radar.

No longer. As the heavyweight champ he’s made an appearance on Lopez Tonight and faced the TMZ cameras. There are anecdotal reports of Mexican fans coming out in droves to cheer him on throughout the southwest. This is Velasquez’s  one major advantage – his ethnicity. MMA fans are tired of hearing about how Velasquez became the first Mexican heavyweight champion in any combat sport. But it is important, extremely so. There’s an untapped, gargantuan market of fans, fans used to spending money on fighting events. Todd Martin from Sherdog warns that the potential for great reward is attached to monumental risk: the chance the UFC could turn off Mexican boxing fans:

If there is a danger in bringing in Hispanic fight fans, it’s that they will find MMA threatening to their traditional love of boxing. To that end, the UFC ought to bring in a Mexican boxing icon or two to do publicity tours with Velasquez. The endorsement of a Julio Cesar Chavez or Oscar De La Hoya would go a long way towards helping Mexican-American fans get behind Velasquez. If he is viewed as a successor to Mexico’s greatest boxing icons, it will pay huge dividends.

What Martin suggests is an interesting ploy. It would be the complete opposite of what the UFC did with James Toney. They would use these former boxing champions to stand with MMA, to join hands and embrace Cain Velasquez as a worthy heir to their legendary fighting spirit and machismo. It would be a very big deal. If at the same time Velasquez uses his new found stature to become the heavyweight division’s leading light – regardless of combat sport, the UFC will have completed its mission in supplanting boxing as the sport of choice for fight fans.

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Jonathan Snowden
Jonathan Snowden

Combat Sports Historian. The Ringer. "Shamrock: The World's Most Dangerous Man" is available worldwide.

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