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Tuesday, September 23, 2008
Updated: September 26, 6:24 PM ET
Inside the cage or out, Velasquez stands proud

By Franklin McNeil
Special to

Independence: It is the heart and soul of all Americans. Every year on July 4, Americans unite to celebrate our freedom.

But for Hispanic-Americans, the celebration doesn't end in July. During Hispanic Heritage Month (Sept. 15 through Oct. 15), Americans from Central and South America celebrate the independence of their native lands and the pride of their heritage.

"I was raised Hispanic, as a Mexican, and my parents always celebrate [Mexican Independence Day]," rising mixed martial arts lightweight Efrain Escudero told "It's like we celebrate the Fourth of July. It's the same for us on Sept. 16 [when the fight for Mexican independence began in 1810].

"It's when we got our independence. It's also an opportunity for us to get together and celebrate, not only with our family but with other Hispanics too."

Cain Velasquez
Expectations are already high for UFC newcomer Cain Velasquez.
Hispanic-Americans from all walks of life take this time to reflect on personal and collective achievements. It is also an opportunity to set goals for the future.

The contributions Hispanic-Americans have made in the United States are too numerous to list here. But many more contributions are forthcoming, especially in the world of mixed martial arts.

Escudero and heavyweight Cain Velasquez are Mexican-Americans. Each is relatively new to the sport and the UFC in particular, but expectations for both are extremely high.

Although many fighters downplay the expectations others place on them, Velasquez and Escudero embrace them. They understand the responsibility put on their shoulders.

Velasquez and Escudero carry the responsibility millions of Mexican fans place on them each time they enter the cage. And these two fighters relish the opportunity to make their countrymen proud, especially during Hispanic Heritage Month.

"Every time I step into the cage, not only am I fighting for myself but I'm also fighting for everybody in Mexico," said the 22-year-old Escudero. "I have to give them a good name."

The heart of Mexican fighters is legendary in boxing. Velasquez and Escudero bring that same intangible into MMA; there is no quit in either man.

"All Hispanics have that" never-quit mentality, said Escudero, whose record is 10-0-0. "Every time I step in the cage, I'm going for blood.

"There is no way I'm going to lose to the other guy. I'm going to keep coming at you.

"I've talked to a couple of friends at my gym and we sit down and talk about their fears. They say they hate fighting Mexicans because Mexicans never stop coming."

Velasquez agrees.

It's something [never-quit attitude] I bring to the Octagon. It's something I learned early in life."

-- Cain Velasquez, on his approach to life and fighting in the Octagon

"It's something [never-quit attitude] I bring to the Octagon," Velasquez told "It's something I learned early in life."

The lesson of hard work and persistence was taught to Velasquez by his father, Efrain, at an early age. The elder Velasquez was forced to apply those principles regularly during his struggles to earn a living for his family.

Efrain Velasquez was deported to Mexico several times. But he refused to relinquish his dream of a better life for his family. His will to succeed would eventually pay off.

Whether he's training or in a fight, Cain Velasquez is inspired by his father's never-quit attitude. It keeps him focused.

"It's just how we live," Velasquez said. "We are hardworking people and that translates into whatever we do. In athletics, we will put on a show."

Velasquez put on a show in each of his UFC appearances, registering two first-round technical knockouts. He stopped Brad Morris at the 2:10 mark on April 19.

Three months later, he sent Jake O'Brien home at 2:02 of the opening round.

Velasquez, a former All-American wrestler at Arizona State, is 4-0-0 in his MMA career. His goal is to become UFC heavyweight champion, but his dreams don't stop there.

Throughout his mixed martial arts career, Velasquez plans to be a positive role model. And the image he presents to fellow Hispanic-Americans won't start or end with Hispanic Heritage Month.

Velasquez knows not many positive images of Mexicans are presented in the media. Often it is fighters who are most visible.

The 26-year-old San Jose, Calif., resident believes it is his responsibility to conduct himself in a positive manner year-round. Hispanic Heritage Month serves as a reminder of that responsibility.

"It [Hispanic Heritage Month] is very important to all people because we are the second-largest population in the United States," Velasquez said. "More and more our population is growing and becoming diverse."

Velasquez understands the importance of keeping a role-model image.

"Seeing Mexicans in the media is rare," Velasquez said. "Seeing role models on TV is rare. So who do we look up to? We're not seen on football fields or basketball courts. So we look up to fighters; they're Mexican. They are out there fighting, representing their people and winning champions. We look up to them."

Although Hispanic Heritage Month offers Velasquez an opportunity to highlight the positive message he dispenses throughout the year, he hopes this period will be used to showcase Hispanic successes outside combat sports.

Accomplishments put forth by Hispanic-Americans like former Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez, former California Gov. Romualdo Pacheco and labor leader/civil rights activist Cesar Estrada Chavez come to mind for Velasquez.

"This is a good time to show our diversity," Velasquez said. "We're always showing boxing and MMA, so this is a good time to show our diversity."

Franklin McNeil covers boxing and mixed martial arts for The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J.