MMA

The saga of ‘Sea-Level Cain,’ a cautionary tale for Saturday’s UFC Fight Night in Mexico City

The saga of 'Sea-Level Cain,' a cautionary tale for Saturday's UFC Fight Night in Mexico City

(L-R) Fabricio Werdum of Brazil punches Cain Velasquez of the United States in their heavyweight championship bout during UFC 188 at Arena Ciudad de Mexico on June 13, 2015, in Mexico City. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

Cain Velasquez arrived in Mexico City as the UFC heavyweight champ in early June 2015. What he would come to realize only later was that he’d arrived too late, having underestimated what the air at 7,350 feet above sea level could do even to a well-conditioned professional athlete. It didn’t take him long to find out.

“The first workout,” Javier Mendez, Velasquez’s longtime coach, told Yahoo Sports this week, “it was horrible, horrible. I remember Cain got tired within 30 seconds of hitting pads. I got tired holding the pads. [UFC middleweight] Luke Rockhold couldn’t even make it a full round. I was looking around going, ‘Oh no, we’re in trouble.’”

This is what you might call a cautionary tale. There’s a lesson here the fighters on Saturday’s UFC Fight Night event at Arena CDMX in Mexico City might want to pay attention to.

Of course, if they haven’t already learned from the infamous example of “Sea-Level Cain,” it’s too late to do much about it now.

In many ways, Mexico City’s environment is a force unto itself. People talk about the thin air in Denver, but Mexico City is over 2,000 feet higher, with notoriously bad air pollution. Fighters on those first two Mexico City cards later recalled looking around to find all their colleagues coughing and scratching at sore throats. Some thought initially that a virus was going around, but then realized smog was likely to blame.

The combination of elevation and pollution is “a swift kick to the ego,” according to MMA writer Fernanda Prates, who moved to Mexico City in 2020 and had to resign herself to the fact that even her regular jogs would be “slower and sadder,” with a marked increase in bodily pain.

Velasquez’s hard lesson came at UFC 188, the second event the promotion hosted in Mexico City. In the first Mexico City event the year prior, Fabricio Werdum defeated Mark Hunt to win the interim heavyweight title while Velasquez recovered from a knee injury. Werdum did his homework prior to that fight. He showed up two months early and established a training camp in the mountains, conditioning his body to even higher elevation at around 12,000 feet.

“The hardest part about training in this altitude is adapting,” Werdum told UFC.com at the time. “The first two weeks I was here it felt as if I had never trained before at all. I was so tired.”

Velasquez took a different approach when it was time for the title unification bout against Werdum. His longtime coach Mendez tried to persuade the champ to come at least a month ahead of the fight, but Velasquez resisted. He’d been to Mexico City, he explained. He knew what the air was like. He could handle it.

“Finally, he agreed to go 10 days early,” Mendez said. “I thought, OK, 10 days? With his great cardio, we should be fine. Boy, was I wrong.”

The training sessions were a disaster, according to Mendez. Normally a cardio machine, Velasquez was reduced to a wheezing mess. Velasquez’s game plan for the heavyweight title fight had initially been to start fast and push the pace on the bigger, older Werdum. But less than a minute into the first round, Mendez could see that wasn’t going to work.

“When I saw, 30 seconds into it, how hard he was breathing? And then I saw him hitting Werdum and Werdum was just taking it?” Mendez said. “That’s when I was like, ‘Oh, sh*t.’ If you watch the fight, I kept trying to change the strategy, but nothing worked.”

The result was one of the worst performances of Velasquez’s career. He finally went down to a guillotine choke submission in the third round, giving Werdum sole possession of the UFC heavyweight title that Velasquez had held off and on for most of the previous five years. Velasquez would never get it back again.

He also didn’t get much sympathy from fans or media, many of whom rolled their eyes at claims that the elevation was to blame for the loss. Thus was born the “Sea-Level Cain” meme, a sarcastic insistence that Velasquez would be unbeatable if only he could fight every bout at sea level.

Ever since that experience, Mendez said he now advises his fighters to pass on any invitations to fight in Mexico City unless they have the time and the resources to set up a training camp there at least a month in advance.

Of course, mountain training camps take money. Werdum could afford it. He’d been a headlining staple for years at that point, and he was fighting in the main event of a UFC pay-per-view with the heavyweight title on the line. The cost of the camp was an investment in his future, and one that immediately paid off.

But for fighters lower down the card on a UFC Fight Night event, payouts can be relatively meager. It’s not uncommon to see those less experienced fighters competing on contracts that might pay them $20,000 to show and another $20,000 to win. When you factor in taxes, plus the cuts taken by managers and coaches, the cost of a special high-elevation training camp might be the difference between turning a profit on the fight and going into debt over it – even with a win.

It’s a lot to balance for fighters early in their careers, who are often grateful for any chance to fight in the UFC. It’s also an important calculation even for those more established fighters, like featherweight contender Brian Ortega, who faces Yair Rodriguez in Saturday’s co-main event. A fight like this could determine whether he’s moving up or down in the division at age 33. And the specifics of the matchup itself are tough enough without factoring in difficult environmental conditions.

According to Mendez, this is where it’s vital for fighters to receive good guidance from those around them. He still wishes he’d pushed harder to get Velasquez to Mexico City early and to learn from Werdum’s example.

“The promoter, their job is to worry about going there and putting on a great show in all different places,” Mendez said. “The fighter, your job is the performance. It needs to be all about winning.”

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