The rumblings were out there.
Sure, Andrei Arlovski and Tim Sylvia were embroiled in a bitter feud involving ex-girlfriends, wearing a championship belt in public for some reason and title fights that weren't all that interesting, but the rumblings were there.
There was a kid in the wrestling room at Arizona State, and he was coming for that title. He might never take it off of one of those guys, but he was coming for that title. He was wrestling as much for a mixed martial arts career as he was for his stellar collegiate record, and he was an absolute terminator.
That was 2005.
That kid was Cain Velasquez.
By 2010, the rumblings were confirmed. The Sylvias and Arlovskis of the world were long gone, but Velasquez was the heavyweight champion. He was undefeated, a path of destruction left in his wake.
He'd been forced to enter the UFC at a mere 2-0 and coming off a two-year layoff, one not forced by injuries but by the fact that people simply refused to fight him. Some would pass outright; others would sign up and then find themselves mysteriously hurt once the reality of fighting him drew closer.
The bravest would get all the way to weigh-ins or even fight day, get a look at the man they'd agreed to fight—barrel-chested, dead-eyed and emblazoned with a "BROWN PRIDE" script across his collarbone—and simply turn around and go home.
It got so that Velasquez couldn't find people to fight anywhere but the UFC, so he had to jump in with both feet. For all the talk of how remarkable it was that Lesnar made his UFC debut at 1-0, Velasquez did essentially the same thing and went on to utterly crush the former WWE star when they inevitably met.
|Velasquez Notable UFC Wins, 2008-2010|
|Event||Method of Victory||Time||Date|
|Kongo||UFC 99||UD3||5:00||June 13, 2009|
|Nogueira||UFC 110||KO1||2:20||February 21, 2010|
|Lesnar||UFC 121||TKO1||4:12||October 23, 2010|
2011 saw Velasquez on the shelf for most of the year while another young heavyweight romped his way to title contention.
Junior dos Santos, knocking people senseless, smiling a bunch and speaking humbly through a translator of his native Portuguese, was getting some attention.
Like the champion, he'd entered the promotion in 2008 and laid waste to the heavyweight division. Through a perfect run of seven UFC fights, only disgustingly tough Roy Nelson and former champion Shane Carwin survived three rounds, and both men endured beatings of biblical proportions to do it.
The fight was set.
As it would turn out, so was the trilogy.
|dos Santos Notable UFC wins, 2008-2011|
|Event||Method of Victory||Time||Date|
|Werdum||UFC 90||KO1||1:20||October 25, 2008|
|Nelson||UFC 117||UD3||5:00||August 7, 2010|
|Carwin||UFC 131||UD3||5:00||June 11, 2011|
The Shot Heard 'Round the World for a new generation happened only 1:04 into the UFC's official debut on network television, as the first-ever UFC on FOX event gave away a heavyweight title fight for free.
Junior dos Santos had dethroned Cain Velasquez with a single well-placed right hand, a bomb that went off behind the champion's ear and planted him facedown on the canvas.
Suddenly, the affable Brazilian, draped in his country's flag and now speaking English through his smiles and humility, had done something most thought impossible only months before: He'd stopped the scariest man in MMA.
No questions asked, no second-guessing.
Cain Velasquez had been vanquished for the first time in his career, and it happened in a way that some men simply don't recover from.
The largest audience in the history of the sport had seen him, a man whose legend had been building in the MMA community since he was in his early-20s, fail to survive his first title defense past 64 seconds.
It wasn't the end of his legacy, however.
In many ways, it was where it began.
The best come back better after a loss. They find the problems in their approach, their training and their execution, and they close up the holes.
While dos Santos held the title, securing big money sponsorships with Pretorian and Nike, Velasquez went back to the drawing board and figured out how to get his title back.
Both men appeared at UFC 146. Velasquez pounded geysers of blood from the head of Antonio Silva on his way to a decisive win, while dos Santos defended his title with a TKO of the badly overmatched Frank Mir.
With the two former champions looking not only so good, but so much better than the rest of the heavyweight field, a second meeting was booked for the end of the 2012 event calendar.
It would look very, very different than their first meeting.
December's UFC 155 showed the world two things: Junior dos Santos was the toughest heavyweight in the history of the promotion, and nobody can lay a prolonged beating on a professional killing machine better than Cain Velasquez.
For five rounds Velasquez, hungrier and more relentless than he'd ever been, beat the Brazilian from pillar to post.
In terms of a title fight, a fight between two men at the top of the game and as theoretically close to one another in skill as these two men were on paper, there may never have been a worse beating in the history of combat sports.
Velasquez recaptured his title, covered in an opponent's blood once again and knowing that he'd have to do it one more time if he was to secure his legacy.
Fast forward 10 months.
Both men have fought and beaten opponents in the interim since UFC 155, and they stand across the cage for the third time in under two years.
They're a combined 20-2 in the UFC, and their only losses are to each other.
The horn sounds, and they're doing it one last time.
It takes a little over 23 minutes, and it probably feels a lot longer to dos Santos as he attempts to fight Velasquez off and land his vaunted combinations, but it finally happens.
Cain Velasquez stops Junior dos Santos.
After hitting him with shots that would stop a charging rhinoceros, exhausting him with cage pressure, hitting him with more shots and almost finishing him a number of times with near-knockouts, swelling and cuts, Velasquez breaks his man.
Dos Santos is done, balled into the turtle position and eating shots until the referee saves him from further damage.
Some immediately say they'll meet again; others can't imagine seeing it after 10 straight rounds of domination from Velasquez, who has truly put the "undisputed" back in "undisputed UFC heavyweight champion" over the past calendar year.
But his legacy is secure: Cain Velasquez is the best heavyweight in the history of mixed martial arts.
That kid who came from the mats of ASU to the Octagon is your heavyweight champion. For nearly 10 years, he did nothing but think about becoming a dominant mixed martial artist.
And he's done that.
His legacy is secure, even at 31 years of age and with a relatively lean 14-fight career, as a man deserving of a place alongside the likes of Fedor Emelianenko, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Randy Couture.
No one has beaten the caliber of opposition Velasquez has in the way that he has, finishing 85 percent of them inside the distance. Only he, Sylvia, Couture and Lesnar have defended the title multiple times.
He has cardio the likes of which no heavyweight has ever displayed, a wrestling pedigree that has been adopted to MMA as perfectly as anyone has ever managed, and a stand-up game that is much slicker than it's ever given credit for. And that's to say nothing of his tireless, frighteningly relentless ground-and-pound, undoubtedly the best the sport has ever seen.
But it took more than just his drive and skill to make Velasquez the man he is. It took more than the stories of blood and sweat spilled on wrestling mats, of opponents running to their cars to avoid him in regional promotions or of him simply becoming a champion.
It took a great rival, a man who wasn't afraid of Velasquez the man or Velasquez the myth. It took someone to push him, to beat him clean, to make him want that title even more than he did when he was working his way up on the undercard.
It took Junior dos Santos to make him truly great. It took beating dos Santos twice, without any doubts as to who was the better man, to secure his legacy.
Not every fighter gets that chance in that way. Generational gaps and promotional crossroads often leave fans and fighters alike wondering "what if?"
It just so happened that this was a time where no one had to ask that question - it was played out over 11 rounds for all the world to see.
Cain Velasquez seized the opportunity he was given through that reality, and he secured his legacy in the process.
Looking back on the road he traveled to get this far though, anyone who was paying attention knew that was bound to happen.