The time has come for the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s debut on ESPN -- sort of. A few sets of prelims have already aired on the network, but this serves as the first ESPN main card, and as with Fox before it, the UFC has elected to go with Cain Velasquez as a headliner to get the ball rolling. His UFC on ESPN 1 main event against Francis Ngannou may be the most intriguing matchup on the card this Sunday in Phoenix, but there are a number of well-made fights involving recognizable names and interesting prospects.
In terms of pure action, this might not live up to the first two UFC events on ESPN Plus, but it still figures to get the promotion off to a good start on its new home. Without further ado, the UFC on ESPN 1 “Ngannou vs. Velasquez” preview:
HeavyweightsFrancis Ngannou (12-3) vs. Cain Velasquez (14-2)
ODDS: Velasquez (-185), Ngannou (+160)
The good news: Velasquez has made it back to the Octagon. The bad news: Even if he looks good here, it is unclear exactly what that means going forward. At his peak, Velasquez was probably the best heavyweight in MMA history, a relentless wrestler with impressive quickness for his size and, most importantly, one of the best gas tanks in the sport. Velasquez ran through his competition with little trouble, save for a title loss to Junior dos Santos in which he came in much too injured. Even so, Velasquez clearly won their trilogy by getting revenge with two one-sided wins. Then his career fell apart. Word was always that his ridiculous training regimen and the risk of injury would be the only things preventing Velasquez from becoming an all-time great, and indeed, a cascade of injuries has limited him to only two fights since 2013. One of those was an absolutely baffling loss to Fabricio Werdum, simply because Velasquez apparently decided to disregard that he was fighting at altitude in Mexico City. The other was his last fight, a one-sided beating of Travis Browne. Given how Browne’s career has gone since that fight -- and the fact that it was two and a half years ago -- it is unclear what that means for how Velasquez looks here. Even if Velasquez looks good and despite the fact that he has a bunch of fresh matchups ahead of him, it is unclear if the UFC is going to put him in the title hunt, simply because he cannot be trusted to stay healthy. At any rate, it all becomes moot if he fails to get a win, and Ngannou represents a fascinating challenge.
Thankfully, it looks like the UFC has not ruined Ngannou yet, despite its best efforts in 2018. Ngannou captured everyone’s attention with his rise up the ranks. For one thing, he cuts an impressive figure; had he been born in New Jersey rather than Cameroon, he likely would have found a career in football or some other high-level sport. Ngannou appeared to be an MMA natural. Yes, a lot of his fights were quick, brutal knockouts, but in moments, Ngannou managed to show a rapidly improving grappling game and an understanding of how to set up his lethal fists. That actually made Ngannou a slight betting favorite heading into his title challenge against Stipe Miocic, but instead, Miocic exposed all the flaws in Ngannou’s game, staying out of trouble, pressing his wrestling and eventually wearing out Ngannou on his way to some brutal later rounds. Ngannou kept fighting through exhaustion and never broke, so it looked like a case of his being too raw rather than too mentally weak, but his subsequent loss to Derrick Lewis raised a whole new set of issues. Concerned with gassing, Ngannou did not do much of anything, losing a 15-minute staring contest that made people worry that he had been broken for good. However, Ngannou was back to his old self in November, knocking out Curtis Blaydes in short order, which put those concerns to rest for the time being. Velasquez does not figure to be an easy out, but now there is at least hope that Ngannou can keep developing as the UFC keeps throwing him into the shark tank.
It is a pretty simple dynamic. The two likeliest scenarios are Ngannou scoring a quick knockout or Velasquez, much like Miocic, avoiding trouble early and pressing his wrestling for a one-sided decision. Of course, a lot of that depends on how Velasquez looks, which is a gigantic question mark, between his long layoff and the fact that he is now 36. Frankly, even if Velasquez is in peak health, his legendary cardio should not be a given. It has now been more than five years since Velasquez has been in the championship rounds, so even if this goes a while, it is possible Ngannou could still be the more dangerous of two completely exhausted men. It can be tricky to project a dropoff before there is any evidence of it inside the cage, but with Velasquez’s injuries and time off, it feels comfortable here. Ngannou should be able to hit Velasquez before he can get his wrestling going. Ngannou via first-round knockout is the pick.
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