On Saturday night we found out a little more about heavyweight prospect Cain Velasquez in Cologne, Germany. We know, for instance, that he was rocked on a few occasions in the fight when Cheick Kongo connected with him. We also know that he possesses an impressive ability to recover rather quickly. Cain displayed both some mental toughness and an ability to implement some nice ground and pound. There have been some insightful articles written on MMA blogs in the past 48 hours discussing the unrealistic expectations that are often placed on prospects. Appropriately challenging and developing prospects is indeed important. In the case of Velasquez I personally think that Joe Silva has done a good job in brining him along. The fights that he has been given make sense. One can see a steady progression in the skill level of fighters that he has faced. Silva has also done a nice job of matching Cain up with fighters of varying skillsets. Using the fighter records posted on Sherdog.com, let's take a look at three of the most heralded young heavyweights on the UFC roster and see what their progression has looked like since signing with Zuffa:
Shane Carwin (11-0): Defeated Christian Wellisch (8-3 at the time); defeated Neil Wain (4-0 at the time); defeated Gabriel Gonzaga (10-3 at the time). When you consider that Shane is 34 years old, Zuffa has definitely brought him along at a reasonable pace. They'll need to give Carwin his opportunites before his window closes.
Cain Velasquez (6-0): Defeated Brad Morris (9-2 at the time); defeated Jake O'Brien (10-1 at the time); defeated Denis Stojnic (5-1 at the time); defeated Checik Kongo (14-4-1 at the time). At only 26 years old, Velasquez still has plenty of time to develop as a fighter. Overall I thought he did a good job on Saturday. I'd like to see him have more time to continue training for situations that he'll face in upcoming fights. A few more tuneup fights against solid competition should ensure that Cain is ready if/when a title shot finally arrives. With a lack of good heavyweight contenders available, however, Velasquez could find himself thrust into the championship limelight a little earlier than anyone thought.
Junior Dos Santos (8-1); Defeated Fabricio Werdum (11-3-1 at the time); defeated Stefan Struve (16-2 at the time). Junior is the youngest of the three prospects at 24 years old. One would assume that they could take their time with his development and that is precisely what Zuffa appears to be doing. There are still questions about his ground game so his next fight is booked for the UFC on August 29th in Portland against Justin McCully. McCully is a fighter that many feel Dos Santos should defeat, but he also has the ability to possibly test Dos Santos on the mat. Of all three prospects, Dos Santos is the only one that could be argued to have been "thrown to the wolves," considering his first UFC fight was against then-ranked contender Werdum.
Overall, it appears that Joe Silva has taken a measured approach to bringing these heavyweight prospects along. Given his age, it might make sense to put Shane Carwin in line ahead of either Dos Santos or Velasquez in terms of a title opportunity. The challenges that Zuffa has put before these fighters appear to be realistic. What has not been realistic is the hype that has surrounded the three. I must confess that I am guilty of contributing to the hype around fighters such as the three mentioned here. It's only natural for hard-core fans of any sport to try and spot which fighters might become future title contenders. We would all do well, however, to remember that these guys are still a work in progress.