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Monday, October 18, 2010
Updated: October 21, 5:00 PM ET
Konrad key to Lesnar's success

By Franklin McNeil
Special to ESPN.com

Heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar and top contender Cain Velasquez will have several things in common Saturday when they meet in Anaheim, Calif., at UFC 121: elite wrestling skills, improved stand-up ability, solid cardio and an extraordinarily high level of confidence.

But there is something else they share that could tip the scales in Lesnar's favor: their experience with undefeated heavyweight Cole Konrad.

The newly crowned Bellator Fighting Championships heavyweight titleholder trains with Lesnar on a daily basis at Death Clutch Gym in Alexandria, Minn., and has faced Velasquez five as a collegian (Konrad won four of the times). When it comes to wrestling, no fighter knows the strengths and weaknesses of the two men set to square off in Saturday's main event better than Konrad.

He knows each man's wrestling tendencies, what situations they are most comfortable in and what flusters them. More important, he knows how to offset Velasquez's wrestling -- he lost to Velasquez only once in college.

The beneficiary of Konrad's invaluable knowledge is Lesnar.

"Not only is he a two-time NCAA heavyweight champion, but, I believe, he's wrestled Cain Velasquez seven times," Lesnar told ESPN.com. "He brings a lot to the table as far as a guy with history against my future opponent."

It's a rich history that Konrad (7-0-0) regularly shares with his training partner. Konrad attended the University of Minnesota (2002-2006), he redshirted his freshman year. Konrad, 26, compiled an impressive 120-13 during three years of competition.

For his part, Velasquez wrestled two years (2003-04, 2004-05) at Arizona State University, compiling a record of 50-10. The 28-year-old Velasquez wrestled as a freshman at Iowa Central Community College.

When Lesnar steps into the Octagon on Saturday, he will have a mental list of wrestling dos and don'ts when facing Velasquez.

If Lesnar (5-1-0) follows the list, he might score big during stand-up action. According to Konrad, there are weaknesses in Velasquez's stand-up defense that could present opportunities to Lesnar.

"There are a few areas in Cain's game where you can exploit some openings, and he's pretty vulnerable for some heavy shots," Konrad told ESPN.com. "Some of [the vulnerabilities] stem off his wrestling style in some different positions. I know Brock has worked on those positions extensively.

"Cain is an athletic, tough dude; there's no other way around it, but he's got some holes Brock is looking to exploit.

"Brock has a great reach, and he is exceptionally fast. If he can find his range, where he can keep some distance and throw a few of those jabs and keep Cain on the defensive, it will open up his whole game."

Konrad is convinced Velasquez will remain true to his fighting style that he developed as a collegian and won't offer anything new on fight night. Not so, says Velasquez's lead trainer, Javier Mendez.

"That was college wrestling," Mendez told ESPN.com. "This is MMA."

If Lesnar, his handlers and his training partners are basing their fight plan on how Velasquez fought during his days as a collegiate wrestler, they are in for a rude awakening.

With each fight, Mendez has developed a fight plan he believes will lead Velasquez (8-0-0) to victory. Mendez's fight plans are designed to neutralize a specific opponent's strengths and exploit his weaknesses. He has yet to make a mistake.

Mendez is confident the latest fight plan he has been putting together for Velasquez at American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose, Calif., will offset anything Lesnar's team has devised.

"They have a game plan," Mendez said. "I know what their game plan is; at least I feel I know what their game plan is.

"The way I look at it is, it doesn't matter what they do. If we execute our game plan and they execute their game plan, we're going to win."

A key element in Mendez's fight plan involves offsetting Lesnar's size. The champion will be the biggest, strongest fighter Velasquez has faced. If Velasquez tries matching him strength for strength, he almost surely will lose.

There aren't many men who combine athletic ability, speed, size and power the way Lesnar does. This has left Velasquez and Mendez unable to find sparring partners to closely replicate Lesnar's characteristics.

The inability to have a Lesnar look-alike in camp has done nothing to diminish Velasquez's confidence. His sparring partners have pushed him hard in camp, increasing Velasquez's confidence that he will dethrone Lesnar.

"We have good wrestlers in the gym, but nobody his size," Velasquez told ESPN.com. "We have guys who are big, but definitely not his size.

"It [Lesnar's size] is a big factor, but I am confident in the guys we have and the guys we brought in."

Mendez takes it further: He knows neutralizing Lesnar's size advantage will be a major factor in winning this fight.

But unlike Lesnar's previous opponents, Mendez has a plan he expects will do the trick and a fighter who has the necessary tools to accomplish the feat.

"Cain has very good technique and speed to go with that technique," Mendez said. "If we are going to offset his size, that's the only way we are going to be able to do it: with our technique.

"Otherwise, going head-on with a bull like [Lesnar] will be a problem. Cain is extremely confident because we've been working on those exact things. If we fall off the plan, we are going to have issues."

Konrad is certain that no matter how perfect Mendez's fight plan or Velasquez's ability to follow it, the challenger will find Lesnar too daunting a task to overcome. He also believes that being at a size disadvantage will further lead to Velasquez's downfall.

Toss in Lesnar's maturity as a fighter, and Konrad can't envision anyone, much less Velasquez, taking the champion's belt anytime soon.

"It [Lesnar's size] will play a huge role," Konrad said. "He's 265 pounds, he's solid and it's a big load to carry around. It gets an opponent tired; even if he has good wind, he's going to get tired having that weight that's constantly moving and pulling and jerking at him the whole time. It's a big advantage for Brock.

"Besides, he's so focused now; his improved diet was just another piece to the puzzle. He comes in every day, and he's on his A-game. He has better endurance every day and he brings it every day in practice. He's in great shape."

Then there is the Konrad factor. The sparring he offers and knowledge of Velasquez that he dispenses to Lesnar likely will play a key role on fight night.

"It definitely helps," Konrad said. "Whenever you have another high-level wrestler around to work out with, it just makes your game sharp."

Franklin McNeil is a contributing mixed martial arts/boxing writer for ESPN.com. He also appears regularly on "MMA Live," which airs on ESPN2. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Franklin_McNeil.