Cain Velasquez returns to answer the question that follows him everywhere: What if?

Cain Velasquez

“I guarantee you, we’ll see you again soon.”

Those were the words Joe Rogan used to conclude his last post-fight interview with Cain Velasquez.

Staring up at the scarred mug of the triumphant heavyweight, mic clutched in his meaty fist, Rogan could not have been more wrong.

That was all the way back at UFC 200, in July of 2016, moments after Velasquez smeared Travis Browne across the retina-assaulting, school bus yellow canvas of the Octagon to a first-round TKO victory.

He has not fought since.

Absences of this kind have become an unfortunate theme in the career of Cain Velasquez. The former heavyweight champion’s merciless performances in the cage have regularly been interspersed by lengthy disappearances. Given this disappointing reality, it was foolish of Rogan to speak the way he did at UFC 200; to imply that there was any certainty whatsoever that we’d see Velasquez back in action soon. Then again, it’s really hard to blame the UFC commentator for getting excited.

Most of us were.

In his fight with Browne, Velasquez looked like the best heavyweight in the world. Maybe even the best heavyweight of all time.

It’s not that Velasquez beat Browne — by that point, a number of fighters had — it was the way he beat him. The former champion dispatched the towering, 6’7 Hawaiian with the brutal efficiency of an executioner. The fight was waved on, Velasquez pressed forward, and before the first round ended, he was pounding his foe into pomace against the chainlink.

It was exactly the performance Velasquez needed to rebound from his next most recent fight: an embarrassing loss to Fabricio Werdum, in which he looked entirely unprepared to compete in the lung-busting altitude of Mexico City, despite his legendary cardio. Better still, Browne was a new and fresh opponent. Sure, he was hardly a world-beater, but he was the first man not named Junior dos Santos, Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva or Fabricio Werdum that Velasquez had fought in almost six years.

This victory over Browne had all the hallmarks of a return to prominence for Velasquez. Unfortunately, due to another procession of injuries and a contract dispute with the UFC that hasn’t gotten nearly enough press, he hasn’t fought since.

The heavyweight title changed hands, and changed hands again. The division moved on. And the former champion remained on the sidelines.

Cain Velasquez
Image: Esther Lin/ MMA Fighting

Despite his lengthy hiatus, however, there is something about the way Cain Velasquez has dispatched his foes that compels many of us, to this day, to call him the greatest heavyweight in MMA history. We still suspect he could beat many of the division’s premier heavyweights, but unfortunately, his inactivity has left us little in the way of supporting evidence.

Many of the world’s foremost astronomers believe that there is a hulking, ninth planet lurking somewhere out in the extreme reaches of our solar system. There are clues to suggest it’s there — the strange, elliptical orbits of the dwarf planets beyond Neptune, for example — but there is not quite enough evidence to state with complete certainty that it exists.

We face similar barriers when we attempt to justify Cain Velasquez as the greatest heavyweight in MMA history. We’ve seen clues to suggest he is — his muggings of Antonio Rogerio Nogeuira, Brock Lesnar, Junior dos Santos, Bigfoot Silva and Browne — but there isn’t enough hard evidence to support the argument completely. As such, any discussions about Velasquez’s position among the best heavyweights in MMA history tend to lead to one recurring question.

What if?

What if he could stay healthy? What if he could fight regularly, against top-flight opposition? If he could, would he finally provide firm, irrefutable proof of what so many of us have thought for so long? That he is, despite his inactivity, the best heavyweight ever?

When the 36-year-old Cain Velasquez returns to the cage against Francis Ngannou this Sunday on ESPN, the hope is that, for better or for worse, the answer to that question will become a little clearer.

If Velasquez is defeated by Ngannou, it will be a little easier to accept the doubt that has crept in as a result the result of his absences. We can accept that he was one of the best, but reserve the Greatest of All Time monicker for somebody like Fedor Emelianenko, Fabricio Werdum or Stipe Miocic.

If he wins, however, it becomes that much easier to argue what so many have been saying for so long: that Cain Velasquez is the best heavyweight in MMA history. And if, by some miracle, he’s able to start fighting regularly, we might just get the kind of irrefutable proof that astronomers are searching for in the case of the elusive ninth planet.

It might become completely undeniable.

Note: The views expressed in this text are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of BJPENN.COM or its affiliates. 

This article first appeared on BJPENN.COM on 2/15/2019.