Former UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez surprised many with his decision to start down the path of professional wrestling. He quickly quieted critics after hitting a hurricanrana just moments into his first match and ultimately signed on for two additional appearances for Lucha Libre AAA this fall, including one on Sept. 15 at Madison Square Garden.
Velasquez recently stopped by ESPN to discuss his future in wrestling, his thoughts on the UFC’s heavyweight division and his respect for boxer Andy Ruiz.
ESPN: What was it like to walk out to the wrestling ring for the first time?
Cain Velasquez: There were a lot of mixed emotions. Definitely nervous, like a fight, but a little more excited, a little more anxious. I knew what I had to do when I was going out there, but I didn’t know what the reaction of the people would be. Would they dig it? Would people at home like it? I had a lot of faith in myself going out there, but I wasn’t sure how people would react to it. That was a little unsettling for me.
ESPN: How’d you feel after that first night?
Velasquez: I felt great. I felt amazing. I was just having fun out there, a ton of fun. In the midst of everything, all the chaos, I kinda just looked around, laughing, and thought to myself that this is awesome. It’s so lighthearted, although we’re doing tough guy moves and a match.
ESPN: How have you prepared for this weekend’s event?
Velasquez: Just non-stop training. Just keep trying to improve as much as I can. I still feel like I’m kind of green, but if someone shows me a move, I can add that to what I’m doing super easy.
I’m working on different moves, different transitions into moves, just trying to elevate the difficulty of my moves.
ESPN: What move do you want to do that you haven’t done yet?
Velasquez: A flip off the top rope. Something pretty damn cool that nobody would expect. I’m not there yet, but I’m watching [matches] as much as I can and if I see a move, I’m going to try it and see if I can do it, and hopefully make it part of my routine.
ESPN: What is a harder training session when you’re starting: MMA or wrestling?
Velasquez: They’re both very similar. I would say MMA is a lot more taxing, depending on what you’re doing. You have to be mentally attentive to do both. As far as the moves and what you’re doing — I would say even more so in wrestling. Your mental aspect of it needs to be sharp. You need to be moving. You need to be reacting to another move. Then you need to take a pause after you do a move and get the crowd into it. It’s a different form of fighting, whereas in MMA you have your offensive moves and your defensive moves. It’s a lot of action. You’re just doing what you’re doing and that’s it. You don’t focus on the crowd at all. You don’t give them anything until you’re done and finished and you’ve won. Then you give them something.
ESPN: What other MMA fighters would be great professional wrestlers?
Velasquez: Daniel Cormier. For sure. After that, there’s not too many other fighters out there. … It’s tricky, it’s almost like going into MMA. Even though they’re great athletes going into MMA from something else coming in, you never know who’s going to excel in it. It’s a little different.
ESPN: Which fighters already have the right character?
ESPN: Are you looking forward to being a heel?
Velasquez: Not yet.
ESPN: How would you like to see the UFC’s heavyweight division proceed?
Velasquez: I gotta talk to DC first and see what he wants to do. I want him to do what he wants to do. If he wants to be done, then of course I think he’s done. He’s done so much. His legacy is something that is going to stand strong forever — what he did in both [the heavyweight and light-heavyweight] divisions. But if he wants to fight again, then of course I want him to fight, and I want him to go back and beat Stipe [Miocic]. And then we’ll kinda see from there.
I think Stipe will always be up there as one of the top guys, just one of the greats. I think he has what it takes to take on all comers, all the guys coming in. I think he has a good grasp. He’s very well rounded, he’s a tough dude. I think him and DC are two of the guys that would definitely hold the division down, if DC wanted to.
ESPN: What about you?
Velasquez: I want to get back into it.
I’m doing one more event in October for AAA and after that I can focus on what I want to do as far as the fighting goes. I never really picked an opponent, I don’t really care. I think every guy has his own set of dangers, which I like. Each guy has his own puzzle and you try to figure it out. I’d be happy with fighting anyone.
After the obligation is done, and say I don’t have anything else come up wrestling-wise that would steer me away from fighting, then I’m still going to fight. Ultimately, it’s what I love to do as well.
ESPN: Is a move to WWE and AEW appealing to you?
Velasquez: I love them both. I think obviously WWE is the powerhouse. They’ve had the biggest stars come from there and it’s the most watched wrestling in the U.S. for sure. I love the backstories and the drama, but their wrestling to me — I like more of the lucha stuff. I like the athleticism, and we do see some in WWE, but as far as wrestling goes, it’s not my favorite organization just as far as the wrestling.
I think AEW is doing some great stuff. I like the talent that they’ve brought in. They have a mix of lucha, which I think is pretty cool, and something fans are really liking these days. They’re doing a great job in giving the fans what they want as far as the wrestling and I love that they’re doing that.
I like them both for what they are, but I love the way AEW is going, the path they are going. I see big things for them in the future. … If I can, I’d love to do something with them.
ESPN: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given in the pursuit of wrestling?
Velasquez: Psycho Clown and I were talking one day, and his dad is Brazo de Plata (aka Super Porky) and is super cool. I got to meet him and he is such a cool dude. Psycho Clown was telling me that “Every time I go out and wrestle, I think of what my dad told me — just go out and have fun. You’ve wanted to do this since you were a kid — now this is the time to just go out and have fun.”
On my way to the arena, I was getting those same nerves as I’d get before a fight and I needed to take a step back and just tell myself why I was doing that. [I reminded myself] it’s not the same thing, it’s different. So then I really started to think about what Psycho Clown’s dad said and that really changed my mind.
ESPN: How hard was it to change your mindset from preparing for a fight versus a wrestling match?
Velasquez: It’s the same things you get when you go to an arena — that’s the time when the match is just getting closer. … Your state of mind is to go out and kill and do all that stuff, but I was having the same sort of nerves going on, and I had to change it because it was from habit. From doing it all over and over and over again. I just had to change it in myself. Telling myself it’s not the same thing, and I had to change the nerves that I had to be a little more playful and a little more fun, but still a little bit of nerves because you really are performing and taking risks.
ESPN: Thoughts on Khabib Nurmagomedov’s win?
Velasquez: He’s amazing. He’s a beast. Just his overall star power and the people that love him — I think it’s awesome. He’s earned it all, he’s worked so hard for this. I remember when he first came into [American Kickboxing Academy] and he worked his way to where he is today. He’s an amazing fighter, he’s a very tough guy to deal with when people go out and plan to fight him. I think it’s awesome what he’s doing.
ESPN: What’s the AKA environment when you, DC and Khabib are there?
Velasquez: Hard-working environment, but a lot more playful. Anytime DC is there, it’s always like fun and games. He’s always finding the time to joke, which makes it a really good work environment, not so serious all the time. That’s how I am. Getting in my flow and getting in my routine and DC makes it light and it’s good. I’ve learned a lot from him doing that, making sure you’re having fun out there.
ESPN: What are your thoughts on another Mexican-American champion in Andy Ruiz?
Velasquez: It’s awesome. I’m supporting him 100 percent. Good luck in his next fight against Anthony Joshua. I think he has what it takes to be the guy, the champion for a while. … I like what he’s doing. Continued success for him, it’s awesome to see.