On March 1, former UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez was arrested in San Jose, in Northern California, for attempted murder and related gun charges. The day before, in what was initially reported as a road rage incident, he’d raced his pickup truck down busy roadways in pursuit of another vehicle, t-boned his target, and opened fire with a 40-caliber handgun. In his mugshot, Velasquez’s trademark lantern jaw points squarely at the camera and his dark-brown eyes seem wholly absent of remorse. He looks like a man who would do it again.
The initial reaction of the MMA community on social media was shock. Despite a merciless and swarming fighting style inside the cage, Cardio Cain, as he was known (UFC president Dana White called him The Terminator), UFC’s first Mexican American heavyweight champion, 6’1″ and 240 pounds, had been known as one of the league’s good guys. Notable for his work ethic and decency, he was held up by the UFC and others as a beacon of what MMA could be, as opposed to the ferocious blood sport it had traditionally been characterized as. Had Velasquez’s hard charging fighting style taken an irreparable toll on his brain?
Velasquez, thirty-nine, grew up in Arizona, the son of a Mexican immigrant and an American mother. A two-time wrestling state champion in high school, Velasquez attended Arizona State University on an athletic scholarship and, after graduating, began fighting professionally in the UFC. In 2010, upon defeating Brock Lesnar in a first-round TKO, Velasquez became the sport’s heavyweight champion. He held the title for just over a year, lost it to the Brazilian Junior Dos Santos, then earned it back in 2012 after defeating Dos Santos in a rubber match. Velasquez held that belt for 896 days, relinquishing it not because of defeat, but because of an injury. He left the league with a 14-3 record.
Along the way, Velasquez and his wife, Molly, gave birth to a daughter in 2009, and a son in 2018. And this is where it gets ugly.
By the end of the day the story of the shooting broke, new details emerged, which the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office confirmed the morning after; the narrative abruptly shifted. What had originally been framed by many outlets as potentially an act of road rage was in fact an attempt at vigilante retribution. The pickup into which Velasquez had fired held Harry Goularte, forty-three, and his mother, Patricia, and stepfather, Paul Bender. Patricia operates a daycare center, Patty’s Childcare, out of their home, in San Martin. Goularte lived in the household but didn’t work at the daycare. According to a press statement released by the DA’s office, Goularte was charged the week prior with “molesting Velasquez’s close family member.” The statement is characterized the relative as “a child.”
According to court documents obtained by ESPN, the child alleged to police that Goularte had escorted him into the daycare’s bathroom and touched his genitals; that Goularte had told him not to tell anyone; and that it had happened “100 times.” The child further claimed he had seen Goularte take other children into the bathroom. At his arraignment, on February 25, Goularte had denied the charges and was ordered to stay in home detention, remain one hundred yards away from children under the age of fourteen, and wear an electronic monitoring bracelet. He’d been released that day without bail.
Three days later, over an eleven-mile span, Velasquez, in a Ford truck, followed a Chevy Silverado containing Patricia and her husband from their home in San Martin to Morgan Hill, where they picked up Harry so he could receive his electronic bracelet. While the precise sequence of events is still publicly unknown, it’s around then that Velasquez first shot at the other car and initiated a high-speed chase. Around five miles north, he T-boned the Silverado, then fired multiple rounds at the vehicle. He missed his presumed target, Goularte, but shot Bender’s arm and torso. Bender survived. Hours later, during a traffic stop, Velasquez was apprehended.
Once these new details emerged, the initial shock expressed within the MMA community instantly gave way to a brothers-in-arms-style of support not uncommon in the sport. Former Olympian and UFC fighter Ben Askren tweeted, “I don’t want to live in a country where you can’t shoot someone who sexually molested your child.” The tweet has garnered over 13,000 likes. Joe Rogan got involved, as Joe Rogan is wont to do. “My only wish,” he said on the March 4 episode of The Joe Rogan Experience, “is that he did it with his hands. My only wish is that he just ran that car off the road, pulled that guy out of the fucking car, and beat him to death.” Rogan referenced the alleged molestation victim as Velasquez’s daughter, but a few days later, MMA fighter Ryan Bader, his friend and former ASU wrestling teammate, alleged on Instagram that it was in fact Velasquez’s four-year-old son.
Velasquez is currently being held in Santa Clara County Main Jail. On March 7, he was formally charged with ten counts: attempted murder; shooting at an occupied motor vehicle or aircraft; three counts of assault with a firearm; three counts of assault with a deadly weapon; willfully discharging a firearm from a vehicle; and carrying a loaded firearm with intent to commit a felony. California’s firearms laws are among the strictest in the country. The judge hearing the case, citing the “clear and convincing evidence that there is a substantial likelihood that release would result in great bodily injury, not just to the named complaining witnesses in this case but to Santa Clara residents at large,” denied Velasquez bail . If convicted of all ten counts, he could face at least twenty years in prison.
Velasquez has hired high-profile defense attorney Mark Geragos. Geragos is no stranger to the spotlight, having previously represented celebrity clients such as Michael Jackson, Sean Combs, and Chris Brown. In highly charged comments to the media, Geragos has begun arguing his case in the court of public opinion, pitting the moral law against the law of the land. “Is there anybody out there who finds it to be beyond the pale that a father was not consulted when they released the perpetrator back into the public with zero-dollar bail?” he said recently outside the courthouse. “Yet they’re holding Cain with no bail. This is why people are disgusted—and rightfully so—with the criminal justice system.” At least two GoFundMe campaigns to raise money for Velasquez’s defense were removed by the company, citing its policy that the service cannot be used to benefit those charged with violent crimes.
Robert Weisberg, co-director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center, told the Mercury News that Geragos might plan to play to the jury’s sympathies, arguing that any reasonable person would be strongly tempted to take action under such circumstances. Juries are made up of humans, after all. And most parents can at least understand why Velasquez did what he did.
Within much of the MMA community, the question of Velasquez’s culpability is no question at all. This is a violent sport, and violence is often driven by rage, and rage can be born from very dark places. “I feel sorry for him and his family,” Dana White said in an interview with Barstool Sports. “It’s a horrible thing. I don’t know enough details to speak on it, but from what I’ve heard, you know, we all say we’d do it if that ever happened to us—Cain did it.” Groups wearing “Free Cain” t-shirts, current and former UFC fighters among them, have gathered outside the courthouse for his appearances. The bail denial galvanized his supporters; they were particularly affronted that while Velasquez sat in a jail cell, awaiting his plea hearing, the man who’d allegedly molested his child, also awaiting his plea hearing, was free. If Goularte had been denied bail, they argue, they reason, the entire situation would have been significantly less painful for all involved.
What Velasquez’s supporters seem to overlook is the brazen recklessness of his actions that day. A stray bullet could have struck a bystander, a child in a passing car. The car chase that proceeded it could have easily flipped a family of four on their way home from McDonald’s. And in the end, what good comes from a father behind bars at the precise moment his family needs him most? The catharsis of vigilantism after allegations as egregious as these might be a sweet temptation. It is also very against the law.
If the case goes to trial, it will fall upon the jury to weigh some knotted moral quandaries. How should punishment be meted out to a man who’s almost assuredly guilty of attempted murder, but whose situation strikes a powerful sympathetic chord? He was a hero in the octagon to many. Now, to many of those same people, he is a hero for picking up a gun. Heroes do nothing if not inspire. In a case like this, that’s a dangerously slippery slope.