Cain Velasquez sees UFC heavyweight title shot within reach

Cain Velasquez believes he's only one or two fights away from competing for the UFC's heavyweight belt. Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

Three fights ago, Cain Velasquez was on top of the world. He was UFC champion and getting serious consideration as the greatest heavyweight in MMA history.

Of course, three fights ago was over five years ago.

Velasquez knocked out Junior Dos Santos on that 2013 night in the second defense of his second reign with the belt. He looked unstoppable. But then a right knee injury suffered in training put his legacy building on hold for 20 months. And when he returned, Velasquez and his shining reputation fell flat, as he lost his big-boy strap to Fabricio Werdum.

Another injury-plagued year later, in July 2016, Velasquez returned with a vengeance, knocking out Travis Browne in under a round. A career rejuvenation? Not exactly. Velasquez has not fought since.

Velasquez, 36, returns from 2½ years out of the Octagon on Feb. 17 to face Francis Ngannou. Injuries once again have played a role in keeping him on the sideline, but this time it hasn't been just about him.

"It took me close to six months to get over injuries and get everything nice and tight and get healthy," Velasquez (14-2) said during an appearance on Ariel Helwani's MMA Show on Monday. "And then, in the process, we ended up extending our family. I really wanted to be there for my wife's pregnancy and also the whole first year of my child's life."

Velasquez had long lamented the family time he'd missed nine years ago when his daughter was born. So with his wife and him expecting a son a year ago, he set aside his life as a fighter to embrace the role of family man.

"Being able to do that was amazing," he said.

Despite whispers among fans that the sport might never again see him, Velasquez knew all along he would return.

"I love this too much," he said. "I love to train. I love to work out. If I don't get to do it, that's hard for me."

And finally the time has come for his return -- not just the right time, really, but also the right place. UFC on ESPN: Ngannou vs. Velasquez takes place at Talking Stick Resort Arena in Phoenix -- just a few miles from Arizona State University, where Velasquez wrestled for three years. He grew up in Yuma, Arizona.

"You get the opportunity to fight in Phoenix, it was kind of a no-brainer," Velasquez said.

In Velasquez's time away from the sport, new stars have emerged, and Ngannou is one of the biggest and most frightening. The 32-year-old has 12 career victories, all finishes -- eight knockouts and four submissions.

"I know his style of fighting," Velasquez said. "I know how dangerous he is."

Velasquez brings danger with him into the cage as well, not the least of which is the daunting prospect of being locked inside the cage with the relentless force known as "Cardio Cain."

He insists that his time off has not dulled any of that sharpness, that he is ready to show he's better than ever.

"The time off, I was in the gym working on stuff I hadn't had a chance to work on -- things to improve and new tools," Velasquez said. "As far as going in and being the same with the cardio, I feel the same. I feel I can put out the same work ethic in every practice, that same pace."

If Ngannou cannot keep up, things will be looking up for Velasquez. His aim is to rise to the greatest of heights in the sport -- that is, right back where he used to be.

"We'll see how the fight goes; I never make predictions," he said. "I want to go out there and show people that I've improved. With that, I believe [I'll be in] title contention right away."

That most certainly would not involve challenging current champion Daniel Cormier. The two American Kickboxing Academy teammates have always maintained that they would not fight each other. When Cormier joined the UFC in 2013, in fact, he moved from heavyweight, where he was unbeaten, to light heavy. Now Cormier is on the verge of retirement -- he has said he will stop fighting when he turns 40, which happens March 20. That will clear an upward path for Velasquez.

Before setting off toward his own goal, though, Velasquez has been basking in the accomplishment of his friend. "Just inspirational, man," he said of Cormier becoming a two-divisional champion last summer by going up to heavyweight and taking the belt from Stipe Miocic. "He just dives in, 100 percent. He says he's fighting at heavyweight, fighting Stipe, and he busts his ass to get ready. Just to watch him go out there and do it, that was awesome. Inspirational."