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MIXED MARTIAL ARTS

Cain Velasquez is a determined fighter

The heavyweight, who faces former UFC champion Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira this weekend, learned the value of hard work from his Mexican immigrant father and American mother.

February 20, 2010|By Lance Pugmire

Mixed martial arts heavyweight Cain Velasquez was asked whether he truly understood the caliber of the opponent he faces Saturday. His opponent: former Ultimate Fighting Championship heavyweight king Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira.

The undefeated Velasquez (7-0), one victory shy of a title shot, is headlining the main event in the UFC's first Australian card.

"I just deal with what's at hand," Velasquez said. "You can't lose track of what you need to do right now."

Velasquez, 27, is six years younger and has fought 31 fewer pro bouts than his foe, but when it comes to the depth of resolve the two-time NCAA All-American wrestler from Arizona State has, his peers usually take a back seat.

Velasquez is the child of a Mexican immigrant father and an American mother who has worked in the lettuce fields of California and Arizona. His father, Efren, dreamed of achieving something more than a life of poverty in Mexico while scraping for survival by selling chewing gum at a border crossing until he was 18. Efren Velasquez made seven attempts to enter the U.S. and was deported each time. His most frequently used path went from San Luis, Mexico, to Yuma, Ariz.

"One time, it got so bad [and hot], he nearly died," Cain Velasquez said.

Efren met his future wife, Isabel, at a dance in Arizona. Cain was born in Salinas, Calif.

"They've both told me, 'You have to work hard for something to get it,' " Velasquez said.

When Efren learned that Cain had followed his older brother's lead and taken a job in the fields tossing watermelons, the father told Cain to find another pursuit. Cain started wrestling.

"He has done so well in his wrestling and fighting to get the things we couldn't provide him," Isabel Velasquez said. "I just prayed for him last night, that this is the path he has chosen to reach his goals. And I know he's determined."

Before mixed martial arts, Velasquez was a wrestling grunt at Arizona State who craved having his physical endurance tested.

"The mentality is nonstop, to work for what you want, your mind keeping your body in the best shape possible," Velasquez said. "That works in MMA too."

Velasquez landed the shot at Nogueira by dominating the larger, more experienced Ben Rothwell in October at Staples Center. Nogueira is an MMA legend who has been stopped only once and routinely displays impressive resiliency.

"Cain has advantages in youth, speed, wrestling, and we think he's a better kicker," Velasquez's trainer, Javier Mendez, said. "If he keeps working hard like he does and improving . . . he could be the best heavyweight ever."

lance.pugmire@latimes.com

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