Velasquez expected to broaden fan appeal

If the thunderous roar inside the Honda Center as Cain Velasquez won the Ultimate Fighting Championship heavyweight title on Saturday night at UFC 121 in Anaheim, Calif., was any indication, the new champ is a whole lot more beloved than the old one.

Whether he can prove to be the same kind of pay-per-view draw remains to be seen.

Velasquez is quiet and soft-spoken. He is a tremendous athlete with a nice story, and he is incredibly likable.

That is in stark contrast to Lesnar, a loud, brash former professional wrestler who has turned himself into the biggest pay-per-view draw in the organization.

UFC president Dana White says the changing of the guard at the top of the heavyweight division isn’t necessarily bad for business.

“I don’t think about stuff like that. It’s not about that. This is the fight business. Whoever wins, wins. You become the best,” he said. “I think people are always going to be interested in Brock, and I think a lot of people are going to be interested in Cain now, too. It’s just the sport. It’s the way it goes.”

There is one segment of the population where Velasquez is expected to be a big draw almost immediately.

He is the bilingual and his father immigrated illegally from Mexico before Velasquez was born. The 28-year-old is extremely proud of his heritage and bears a “Brown Pride” tattoo across his upper chest. Velasquez has long been seen as the UFC’s best chance to further its appeal in Mexico and the rest of the Spanish-speaking world, and having him hold the belt can only help in that regard.

“I feel great being the first Mexican heavyweight champion,” he said. “I’m going to keep representing. This belt belongs to the Mexican people here in the United States and in Mexico.”

Velasquez has embraced his role as the UFC’s face of expansion into the Latino market.

“I want Latinos to get involved in this sport,” he said. “I think we bring a fighting style that’s always forward. We don’t stop. We have that blood in our heart that won’t stop. That’s the kind of fights people want to see, and that’s the kind of fights we bring.”

It wasn’t just Latino fans that produced what White and others said was one of the biggest, if not the biggest, cheers in UFC history as Velasquez stopped Lesnar in the first round.

“Anyone who was at the weigh-ins sees he has a huge following,” White said. “Here (Saturday night) you saw that he had a huge following. The guy has become a huge star overnight, and he looked incredible.”

Velasquez will now fight top contender Junior dos Santos, likely in March or April.

The Brazilian is much closer to Velasquez’s size, but presents a far different challenge as one of the best boxers in the heavyweight division.

As for Lesnar, who chose not to attend the news conference after the fight, White expects the former champion to take a fight sooner rather than later.

“I think the competitive side of him is going to come out,” White said. “Hunting may not be as much of a priority as if he won the fight. That’s what I think.”

One possibility is a third fight with Las Vegan Frank Mir.

Each owns a win over the other and there is still bad blood, particularly after Lesnar’s behavior in the cage following his victory over Mir in July 2009.

Contact reporter Adam Hill at ahill@reviewjournal.com or 702-224-5509.

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