MEXICO CITY -- Cain Velasquez walked toward the Basilica de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, a swarm of children surrounding him. The kids held posters and reached out with markers in hopes of obtaining Velasquez's autograph. The crowd of hundreds began chanting his name.
Just before he got to the door of one of Mexico's most sacred sites, Velasquez turned around and raised both arms up to acknowledge the support. The Mexican fans grew to love him as the first fighter of Mexican descent to win the UFC heavyweight title. And it was clear they were embracing him in this new venture: lucha libre, one of Mexico's cherished cultural treasures.
Velasquez, one of the best heavyweights in mixed martial arts history, made an unprecedented leap into Mexican professional wrestling on Saturday at Triplemania, lucha libre's Super Bowl.
In the lead-up to the event, "El Toro," as he is known in Mexico, traveled through Mexico City as part of Lucha Libre AAA's annual parade. Velasquez wore a traditional lucha mask, adorned in the colors of Mexico's flag (red, white and green), throughout the procession.
"To me, it's tradition," Velasquez said. "Wrestlers before me -- the greats -- have done this. To me, it was like, of course I want to do this. My agent was kind of like, 'We don't have an exit strategy.' I said, 'F it, man -- then we don't have an exit strategy.'"
It was part of a remarkable week in Mexico for Velasquez, and ESPN was along for the ride as Velasquez prepared for his pro wrestling debut at Triplemania XXVII.
Velasquez arrived at Aeropuerto Internacional Benito Juárez with his family on Monday, July 29, five days before his lucha libre debut. The former UFC champion pushed his 1-year-old son, Cain Jr., in a stroller, while his daughter Coral (left) and wife Michelle pushed their bags behind him. Moments later, throngs of fans and media greeted Velasquez after he passed through customs.
Oscar Garcia, a lucha mask designer, measured Velasquez's head on July 30, beginning the process of making the mask Velasquez wore at Triplemania. Garcia has designed masks for famous luchadores such as Rey Mysterio and the Lucha Brothers, Pentagon Jr. and Fenix.
Velasquez got in some last-minute training in Mexico, including this jump off the top rope for a cross-body block on AAA star Psycho Clown later that day. Velasquez and Psycho Clown, with whom he teamed up at TripleMania, became fast friends after Velasquez was announced for the show in March. The pair also worked out in a showcase for media and fans.
Velasquez took a moment during his training session to spend time with his daughter, Coral, who stepped into the ring and leaned against the ropes. During the workout, Psycho Clown gifted Coral one of his masks, after Velasquez told him that she thought his mask was cool.
After spending most of the previous day training, Velasquez and Michelle saw some of Mexico City's sights on Wednesday night, including El Ángel, or the Angel of Independence. El Ángel was built in 1910 to commemorate the centennial of the beginning of Mexico's War of Independence.
Velasquez and Michelle added some levity to a long week by attending "drag queen bingo" at Pinche Gringo BBQ later on that night. Velasquez got up on stage with his agent, Mike Fonseca (right), and showed drag queen Jorge Arriaga "La Lore" several amateur wrestling holds.
The Lucha Libre AAA parade took place on Aug. 1, two days before Velasquez entered the ring. He was immediately mobbed by fans at Mexico City's Auditorio Nacional. A father pushed through the crowd with his two sons to take a selfie with Velasquez.
Velasquez and Psycho Clown spent the morning of Aug. 2, one day before the match, doing a "car wash" on the TV Azteca lot in Mexico City. The two tag team partners were brought onto several shows on multiple channels owned by the Mexican media conglomerate. Triplemania's top matches aired live Saturday on Azteca 7, one of the largest television networks in Mexico, in prime time.
Velasquez pulled on his new mask minutes before making his way to the staging area for his match at Triplemania on Saturday at Mexico City Arena. Velasquez was nicknamed El Toro by the Mexican media and fans due to his fighting style in the UFC -- always straight ahead. He wanted to honor that by incorporating horns on his mask. On the right side of the mask, it reads "El Toro" in red, white and green. On the left side is #GilroyStrong. Velasquez dedicated his debut match to the victims of the Gilroy Garlic Festival shooting July 28. Velasquez and his family have lived in Gilroy, California, for seven years and Coral plays soccer at the park where the festival is held every year. Velasquez said he will auction off the mask and donate all proceeds to the victims of the shooting.
Velasquez walked down the ramp at Triplemania with a large Mexican flag slung over his shoulders. Velasquez entered through the curtain wearing a Mexico soccer jersey, took it off during his walk and gave it to a fan in the stands.
Inside AAA's six-sided ring for the first time, Velasquez moved around like a natural. Here, he downs Texano Jr. (in red) and Black Taurus with a double lariat. Velasquez teamed with Psycho Clown and Cody Rhodes, the son of legendary American pro wrestler Dusty Rhodes, against Texano, Taurus and Killer Kross. Velasquez later landed a huracanrana (a flying head scissors move), an arm drag after springing off the second rope, and a series of throws and suplexes. El Toro got the win via kimura, a legitimate grappling submission, on Texano.
Following his impressive lucha libre debut, Velasquez found his family backstage and Coral jumped into his arms. The two embraced for nearly a minute. Coral commented that Velasquez had glitter all over him from an interaction with Kross' ringside manager, Scarlett Bordeaux. "I like it," Coral said. Velasquez, who was all smiles afterward, plans to wrestle on AAA's shows coming up in the fall in New York and Los Angeles, though he's still on the active UFC roster and also plans to continue his fighting career.