Cain Velasquez has not set foot in the octagon in two-and-a-half years, but he's not exactly getting a warmup fight in his return.
Velasquez (14-2 MMA, 12-2 UFC) meets the ever-dangerous Francis Ngannou (12-3 MMA, 7-2 UFC) in the headlining bout of the next month's UFC on ESPN 1 event, which takes place Feb. 17 at Talking Stick Resort Arena in Phoenix. The UFC heavyweight champion insists it did not matter who the UFC matched up with the event.
"It's the fight in Phoenix," Velasquez told MMAjunkie during a media tour in Arizona. "It's the fight here in Arizona. I'm from Yuma, Ariz. I went to school out here. I went to Arizona State. I competed in Arizona my whole life. I love competing out here, being from Arizona. I've always wanted to fight here, as well. Just to have the opportunity to be in front of my family and friends. I can not wait for that night. "
Velasquez has not competed since at UFC 200. He has been working on his career, and Velasquez said that he has been working on his career. But the longtime American Kickboxing Academy product said he was in no rush to return, instead of taking time away from his mother.
"I've had some injuries throughout my career; "I have seen all the squared away and all healed up," and I extended my family, as well, "Velasquez said. "We have a 1-year-old boy. I wanted to be there for the whole pregnancy, for the whole first year. It was kind of hard when we had our daughter. … I missed that I did not like missing. So with the time off, I just got to be with my family.
"I was that luxury, and I had that luxury, and I wanted to be so important. I'm glad I did it. I love just having the time to be there for them. "
Now Velasquez says he is physically healed and mentally focused, and while the time away from the sport could be seen as a detriment to his timing in the cage all areas.
"We're always trying to evolve," Velasquez said. "This sport is still so new. We are trying to get new tools every day – things that fans and also fighters have not seen before, but I'm always working on that. I'm always working to improve. "
With his extended time away, Velasquez does not currently feature in the USA TODAY Sports / MMAjunkie MMA heavyweight rankings. However, he can make a big splash in his return, with Ngannou sitting at No. 6.
Velasquez's teammate, Daniel Cormier, is the current UFC heavyweight champion, so there's no rush to get back into the title contention. However, Velasquez knows that with his pedigree and star power, especially with Cormier admittedly in what is likely to be the final year of his career.
To be worried about at another time. For now, it's simply about getting back in the cage, and doing so in a place that means the world to Velasquez.
"The game is to improve," Velasquez said. "I'm always looking to improve. I've been in the game for a while, but there's always room for improvement. You're just never satisfied – well, at least I'm not.
I have got a fight against Ngannou, I've got to go out there, and I have a lot of dangers on my game when I go out there and fight. I'm ready for that. "
To hear more from Velasquez, check out the video above.
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