If the pressure of defending his title against the consensus number-one contender weren't challenging enough, UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez has the additional responsibility of doing so on the UFC's first show on network television.
And If the task weren't already herculean, Velasquez must also rise to the occasion having missed a year of competition due to a shoulder injury which ultimately required surgical repair.
Somewhere during the course of his UFC 121 bout with former UFC heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar, Velasquez tore both his labrum and rotator cuff in his dominant right shoulder. In other words, Velasquez not only damaged the very parts of his shoulder that allow for motion and exertion, he tore the tendons and ligaments responsible for keeping the shoulder and his biceps together in place..
Velasquez, understanding surgery may be necessary but could be a hindrance to his progression of his career, first sought other options. "Right after the Brock fight, six weeks after, in between the six weeks, the doctors said that maybe with just rehabbing it without surgery, it would probably get better so that's what we did," Velasquez told the media today on a UFC on Fox conference call. "We rehabbed it for six weeks, hoping that it would heal itself from there and once we got back after six weeks, we checked it out again and it was still torn and the doctor said, 'We needed surgery now. This would be the fastest thing.'"
'Fastest', of course, is a relative term.
It would be nearly seven months between Velasquez's operation and the moment doctors would clear him to train at fight-camp levels. "We ended up getting surgery in January," said Velasquez, "and it was up until July when we got the green light to go ahead and start training 100 percent."
Sports science and surgical best practices are better than ever at enabling athletes who've suffered relatively severe injuries to complicated joints to return to competitive action quickly. But the shoulder, which houses a wide array of sensitive connective tissue and is a joint responsible for a remarkable range of motion, requires time to heal.
"The doctor said that this injury, it takes a while for it to heal and with the whole rehab stuff in the beginning," said the heavyweight champion. "it's just letting it heal by itself and not really doing anything to aggravate the shoulder."
In the early stages of training, that often means little physical activity including no running since even that simple exercise can force the shoulder to bounce. "The first couple months, it was tough because that's when I really couldn't do anything," Velasquez admitted. "Then once I got the green light to start doing more extensive rehab, then we did increase range of motion, we started weight training light to get the strength back slowly and then I just kind of built up on it from there."
The champion, generally demure, conceded the disappointment that came with both career and physical inertia. "It was definitely frustrating there at times," a candid Velasquez acknowledged. "I'm a guy that likes to stay active. I like to be at the gym. I like to train and getting that taken away from you is definitely tough, but I just tried to keep my head in other things at that moment. I would try to do stuff for the UFC, signings, just something to keep me busy."
Ultimately, though, the time off paid off. The healing process is a one-time opportunity and despite intermittent difficulties, Velasquez is satisfied he healed his shoulder correctly. He's also pleased he healed at the most accelerated pace possible even if that acceleration wasn't particularly fast.. "It just took time for it to get better, but I'm happy that I listened to my doctor. I'm happy that I went through it and didn't rush it because now it feels 100 percent."