I pulled up to the Toyota Center at 12:10 p.m. CT on Thursday afternoon, a full 50 minutes before Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos were scheduled to hit the floor for an open workout session designed to promote their Oct. 19 headlining bout at UFC 166.
I did not have high expectations for the workout. It was scheduled to take place in the middle of the day, in the middle of the work week. How many people could feasibly take off work to travel downtown and watch two fighters go through the motions of a workout?
A lot, as it turns out.
A line of fans snaked from the still-closed building entrance all the way around the side of the building, standing in the ridiculous Houston heat and awaiting their opportunity to get inside. To my eyes, there appeared to be at least 300 people waiting in line, though I will be the first to tell you that I've never been the best at math.
I checked in and made my way to the media area inside the arena. On the floor was a temporary stage; high above the floor, on the Toyota Center's giant new Jumbotron, were the faces of Velasquez and Dos Santos.
Oh, and there was a flashing message to alert the fans in attendance that tickets for the event would officially be on sale on Friday, though unofficially the event had almost sold out through pre-sales held on Wednesday and Thursday.
Shortly before 1 p.m., the fans filed in. Like gremlins, they appeared to have multiplied; what was once 300 fans now seemed to be double that, at the very least.
Dos Santos was the first to take the stage. Unlike Velasquez, Dos Santos was not accompanied on the UFC World Tour by a coach or training partner, and so he could not do the kind of open workout we're accustomed to seeing at such events. UFC public relations staff urged Dos Santos to do a little shadowboxing, but the former heavyweight champion felt a little ridiculous standing on a stage in front of hundreds of fans and punching at thin air.
And so Dos Santos stepped on the stage, threw a punch and the same type of wheel kick that ended Mark Hunt's night in May, and then he was finished. Dos Santos answered questions from the fans that were par for the course at these events: "How is your training camp going?" "What areas of the sport are you better in than Velasquez?" "How is this fight going to be different from the last one?"
Dos Santos noted that he believes he gave Velasquez too much space in the last fight and said that won't be happening again. He said that being the heavyweight champion is an amazing feeling, and you could tell he really meant it.
Dos Santos is likely the nicest man in the entire sport of mixed martial arts, and yet there's a competitive spirit that burns just as brightly in him as it does in everyone else who elects to fight for a living.
Dos Santos also stressed that he's a big fan of Velasquez.
"I'd like to see him as champion," Dos Santos said. "Just not in my division."
After Dos Santos finished, it was the champion's turn on stage. The audience was heavily Hispanic, and while they were respectful to Dos Santos, it was clear that the majority of them were in attendance to see Velasquez.
The champ, accompanied by longtime trainer "Crazy" Bob Cook, went through the paces of a 15-minute striking session, working up a sweat in the process.
Velasquez also answered questions from the fans before telling everyone to make sure and attend UFC 166. He began signing autographs; after 10 minutes, the UFC PR staff attempted to shepherd Velasquez on to his next media obligation. The process took awhile, since Velasquez was intent on signing as many autographs and taking as many photos as he could.
I followed Velasquez to his locker room, where I discussed the challenges of having three American Kickboxing Academy fighters on the UFC 166 card with Cook.
"It's actually easier on me, because you can just let them train together and that's it," Cook said.
The trainer also said he was excited because he'd be able to take a vacation after the card concludes; he's usually forced to go from one training camp to another, with nary a break to be found. With three of his main fighters competing on the same event, it gives him a bit of much-needed breathing room.
Velasquez changed clothes and sat down. We talked about the incredible turnout of Mexican-American fans and about what it means for him to be a role model to so many of them. I asked him if he envisions a fourth or fifth or sixth bout with Dos Santos down the road, and he said no. He said he intends on beating Dos Santos convincingly this time around and leaving no doubt as to who is the better fighter.
Our conversation concluded. Velasquez would be going home to San Jose; Dos Santos would head to Brazil for UFC 163.
The UFC World Tour is a grand idea and a brilliant promotional tactic, but it wears on the fighters and the employees who take part in it. But it was over now, at least for the heavyweight champion of the world, and he couldn't wait to get back into the gym and prepare for the biggest fight of his career.
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