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UFC 104:

Cain Velasquez faces big risk, small reward at UFC 104

Facing tough UFC newcomer could hurt heavyweight more than help

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Courtesy of UFC

Cain Velasquez works his ground and pound on Cheick Kongo during their UFC heavyweight bout at UFC 99 in Cologne, Germany, on June 13.

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UFC heavyweight Cain Velasquez.

In the sport of mixed martial arts, it’s well known that a fight can change in a heartbeat.

As Cain Velasquez now well knows, so can the road to becoming a champion.

Less than two months ago, the undefeated Velasquez was one of the hottest fighters in the UFC heavyweight division coming off his latest win over Cheick Kongo. An October fight against the equally perfect Shane Carwin had "No. 1 contender’s match" written all over it.

Today, all of that is gone.

News broke in August that Carwin had been yanked from the UFC 104 card to face Brock Lesnar for the UFC heavyweight crown in November. Shortly after, it was confirmed that Ben Rothwell would take his place in the Oct. 24 event.

Through no fault of his own, Velasquez (6-0) had fallen from facing a fellow top contender to a fighter making his UFC debut.

“When they gave me the Carwin fight, my first thought was that it was a great opportunity,” said Velasquez over a teleconference Thursday. “It was discouraging at first when they gave me Ben instead.

“But I have to focus on my task at hand. I can’t dwell on it.”

The 27-year-old fighter has been gracious in accepting the change in plans, but one has to wonder how disappointed Velasquez is considering the new circumstances.

Not only has he lost the chance to put himself into title contention with a win over Carwin, rumor has it that Antonio Nogueira has jumped to the front of the line of heavyweight contenders with an impressive win over Randy Couture at UFC 102.

Even if Velasquez were to defeat Rothwell impressively, his opponent’s relatively unknown status among casual UFC fans probably wouldn’t catapult him back to the top.

It’s actually Rothwell who stands to benefit most, as his last scheduled fight with Chase Gormley was canceled when Affliction folded in August.

“I feel great about the fight,” Rothwell said. “I was going to fight a guy nobody had heard of, and that doesn’t mean the guy’s not tough, that just means you’ve got everything to lose and not much to gain. Fighting Cain, everybody knows who he is.”

Even worse news for Velasquez? Despite the fact he’s far from a household name, Rothwell will be anything but an easy win when he steps into the Octagon at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.

Rothwell is a well-rounded veteran of the sport with 30 wins over the course of his nine-year professional career. His greatest run came during his tenure in the IFL, where he was a perfect 9-0 with wins over notables like Krzysztof Soszynski and "The Ultimate Fighter" contestant Roy Nelson.

And at 265 pounds come weigh-in time, he’ll probably outweigh Velasquez on the night of the fight by as much as 20 to 30 pounds.

“He’s extremely well-rounded. He’s got great hands, great kicks — he has everything to offer when he fights,” Velasquez said. “I think his takedown defense is better than Kongo’s, and I think he’ll be able to stand up better.”

Velasquez, who trains out of Southern California and expects a lot of support at the event, says he’s been working hard to improve his striking since Kongo exposed a weakness there at UFC 99.

In that fight, Velasquez was visibly shook after eating a few right hands but avoided being knocked out by taking advantage of Kongo’s complete inability to defend takedowns.

When asked if he was worried about having to rely on a similar strategy against the larger Rothwell, Velasquez answered he wouldn’t allow himself to fall into similar situations again.

“I stood in front of (Kongo) and didn’t do anything. That was a mistake,” Velasquez said. “I’m not going to do that again. That’s how fighters get better. They watch film and they work on what they need to work on.”

Perhaps that’s the best way for Velasquez to look at his new place in the heavyweight division — an opportunity to perfect his game before taking on the likes of an opponent like Lesnar.

Even if for now that means risking his reputation with not a ton to gain.

“I think of all my fights as title fights. I don’t think about what can come up afterwards,” he said. “I have to take care of business with the fight that I have now.”

Brett Okamoto can be reached at 948-7817 or [email protected].

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