PHOENIX — Two-time UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez has waited over two years to return to the octagon.
It's only fitting that he'll make that return in his home state, just miles from where he went to school -- and on ESPN's first UFC broadcast.
On Sunday, Velasquez will fight Francis Ngannou, UFC's No. 3 ranked heavyweight, on UFC on ESPN at Talking Stick Resort Arena in Phoenix. Tickets can be purchased here.
Velasquez, who attended Kofa High School in Yuma and went on to wrestle at Arizona State University, is looking to re-climb the UFC ladder after being out of action for over two years due to injury. On Friday, Velasquez talked to ABC15 about his return to UFC, getting the chance to fight in his home state, how his time at ASU prepared him for combat sports, and whether he might pursue a WWE career when his time in the octagon is done.
Q: You’ve waited a long time to get back into the octagon. Now that the moment is almost here, how does it feel?
A: It feels great. With my return, training camp and everything, I feel great, man. I feel great to finally come here to Phoenix and fight. As soon as I was presented with the possibility of fighting here, I was on it. To fight in front of my family and friends — I’m from Arizona, I grew up here, I competed here my whole life. So, it’s great to return here in Phoenix.
Q: You went to school a few miles down the road. Does that make your return any extra special?
A: Yeah. Again, with the time that I had off, I wasn’t sure when I was going to come back. I didn’t have a set date or anything. It was just when I felt ready and everything, then I would come back. UFC called me and asked if I’d want to fight in the Phoenix card, the first card on ESPN. It was a no-brainer for me. It was a yes right away. This was a place that I always wanted to fight in, so I’m just super happy that I get the chance to do that this weekend.
Q: How did wrestling at ASU prepare you for an MMA career, and how much do you enjoy representing ASU when you go into the octagon?
A: ASU, I would say, gave me the blueprint of the type of fighter that I am today. From high school to college, what you learn in that wrestling room will take you on to (help you) take on life lessons, as well as what I’ve done here in this sport. My wrestling background is something that I use heavily when I fight. But yeah, it all has to do with the things that I’ve learned at Arizona State. Wrestling there (was) a great experience. Again, to come back and fight here in front of the fans, this is a fight I want to give my people, my home state.
Q: Are you hoping for a bit of a home-court advantage on Sunday?
A: Of course, yeah. With me growing up here and the family and friends that I have here, I expect a huge applause, a huge amount of people behind me when I come out supporting me. I’m expecting that, and just to feed off of that energy, definitely.
Q: I know you’re a big Suns fan. Are you a fan of all the Phoenix teams?
A: Yeah, I’m a fan of all the Phoenix teams — the Diamondbacks, Coyotes. I grew up here. I’m a big fan of all of the Arizona teams.
Q: Who’s your favorite Phoenix athlete of all-time?
A: Charles Barkley, probably, as far as basketball. When they had the NBA Finals against the Bulls, I was rooting for them. And then I just like the kind of person that he is. He’s extremely funny on camera. He’s just a funny dude. And out there on the court, for being basketball, he was always aggressive. He got aggressive, he’d talk trash. So, I’ve always been a big fan of his, as well.
Q: What kind of challenge does a guy like Francis Ngannou present for you, especially with you being out of action for so long?
A: Francis is just a striker, you know? I would say one of the deadliest strikers we’ve ever seen in the UFC. He hits extremely hard, he’s a big guy, athletic, he’s extremely strong. He possesses all those threats.
Q: Do you feel like your return to UFC won’t be complete until you become heavyweight champion again?
A: Yeah. The reason why I do things is to be the best. I’m not coming back just to do one or two fights; I’m coming back to be the best again. I believe I can be. That’s why I’m doing it. So yeah, this is why I’m back.
Q: I know you mentioned the possibility of going to WWE one day. Do you think that’s something you can pick up pretty quickly?
A: Very (good) possibility, yes. I got a chance to train with WWE for about a week just to see if I can even do it. It’s similar to wrestling but it’s obviously its own different sport and there’s a certain way of doing it. I took a key liking to it, and also I think I was a very quick learner in doing it. Whether it’s WWE or lucha libre, I think either one of those things I could definitely do in the future.
Q: Former UFC stars like Brock Lesnar and Ronda Rousey made that transition. Does that make you believe that’s something you can do, as well?
A: Yeah, exactly. With the guys that have fought in the UFC, to go ahead and do WWE and vice versa -- yeah, it’s very possible to do. Again, it’s its own sport. It’s something that would need a lot of practicing and refining, but it’s something that's very doable, as well.
Q: I know you beat Brock in the octagon. Would you ever want to get in a WWE ring with him?
A: Yes, I would love to (do that), as well. I would love to get in the ring with him. Maybe a rematch in the ring, yes.
Q: For casual fans who maybe haven’t attended a UFC fight in person, what would you tell them about why they should buy tickets and come see you guys on Sunday?
A: You’re going to see the best athletes in the world. The best athletes in the world of combat sports where guys are high-level boxers, black-belts, Jiu-Jitsu, Olympic-caliber wrestlers -- again, guys that have learned every part of combat sports and made it into their own thing. Every guy has their own style. You can see a different style of matchup between two guys. And it’s a sport that, even though one guy may be better than the other guy on paper, anything can happen. That’s the beauty about sports in general, but especially here in the UFC.