Preview: UFC on ESPN 1: Ngannou vs Velasquez

Mixed Martial Arts has finally made it to the big leagues with this fight card. No ESPN8, “The Ocho,” here; UFC gets top billing with a packed card. A heavyweight #1 contenders’ match, an intriguing lightweight bout and a debut for a legacy UFC 1 family member – what more could you want? 

Main Event
Heavyweight Division – 206 to 265 lbs.
Cain Velasquez 14-2-0 vs Francis Ngannou #3 12-3-0

The UFC is “all in” and returns to primetime cable television with a top notch (not the lesser) main event in what I’ll call “The Return of the King.” That King is former heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez. Velasquez is coming off a two-and-a-half-year layoff due to several surgeries to repair his back and shoulder. This is the second-longest layoff of Velasquez’s career due to injury and has left fans wondering what could have been of his title reign if he was healthy.

Velasquez’s last fight was a TKO victory over former heavyweight contender Travis Browne at UFC 200 in a fight which he dominated from the opening bell. When healthy, Velasquez has world-class wrestling to go along with his freakish stamina. He keeps the pace of a lightweight and easily wears heavyweights down. His only losses have come under strange circumstances. The first was back in November of 2011, when he was knocked out by Junior Dos Santos in the main event of another debut cable television card, UFC on FOX 1.  In this fight he was knocked out 64 seconds into the first round in what can only be described as “getting caught” with a big punch.

His second loss was in June of 2015 against Fabricio Werdum at UFC 188. This fight card was contested in the Mexico City Arena that sits about 7,350 feet above sea level. Werdum and his team went to Toluca, Mexico six weeks before the fight to acclimate to the atmosphere, and Velasquez waited until two weeks before the fight. The difference was noticeable; Velasquez was sluggish and slow, while Werdum was fresh and strong. Werdum capitalized and used his Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu prowess to end the fight in the third round via guillotine choke.

Other than those two blemishes, Cain Velasquez has dominated the competition at Heavyweight and looked to be a few levels above every challenger, even avenging the loss against Junio Dos Santos twice in fights that can only be described as taking years off of Dos Santos’s life.

Francis Ngannou is a relative newcomer to the sport of MMA, only taking it up at the age of 26 in 2013. Prior to that, he tried to become a professional boxer but fell in love with MMA once his trainer in Paris introduced him to the sport. Ngannou is a traditional boxer turned mixed martial artist and relies heavily on his striking game. He is very athletic and is one of the hardest hitters in the UFC. His knockout power and freakish speed are the avenues to his success, and he has used those skills to earn seven finishes in nine UFC fights. He has spectacular knockouts over veterans Alistair Overeem and Andre Arlovski and two wins against rising contender Curtis Blaydes. His two losses have come against the top of the division, including a loss to former Heavyweight Champion Stipe Miocic and a lackluster showing against Houston’s own Derrick Lewis.

Ngannou has never faced a wrestler of Velasquez’s caliber and he has struggled with the two fighters who fought him smart and didn’t get into a brawl with him. Velasquez will certainly rely on his strengths and take this to the ground early and often.

Cain has fought tougher competition and has more avenues to win. I have Cain via TKO in the 3rd.

Co-Main Event
Lightweight Division – up to 155 lbs.
Paul Felder 15-4-0 vs James Vick #10 13-2

Any fight that James Vick is a part of is of interest. He stands 6 feet 3 inches tall and has a 76-inch reach, leaving most opponents in the lightweight division struggling to get within range of the lanky Texan. He has used his physical advantages to win 9 out of 11 UFC fights since joining the promotion in August of 2013. He is a well-rounded fighter with a high fight I.Q. He is coming off a devastating knockout loss against Justin Gaethje, a fighter known for taking two shots to give one of his. Gaethje figured out the distance puzzle early and put Vick to sleep with a massive overhand right hand 97 seconds into the first round.

Felder is a, for lack of a better term, a journeyman UFC fighter, as reflected with his 7-4 UFC record. He flirted briefly with a top-15 ranking in 2017, but his recent last minute move up to fight at 170 lbs. proved ill-timed, and the loss (along with wins by other lightweights) saw his ranking tumble out of the top 15. Along with his mixed martial arts training, Felder moonlights as a color analyst for the UFC and he does a very good job of explaining the fight game from a fighter’s perspective. At 5’11” and with a 70.5 inch reach, he’ll be at a disadvantage before he even takes a step into the Octagon. Felder uses a solid striking game and above average fight I.Q. to grind opponents down. He is always looking for openings and isn’t afraid to throw leather.

I have Vick winning by decision.

Highlight Bout

Featherweight Division – up to 145 lbs.

Alec Caceres 14-11-0-1NC vs Kron Gracie 4-0

Rarely do fight fans get what they want, or what they deserve for that matter. What they do get sometimes is a small nugget from the MMA gods. This fight and everything to do with Kron Gracie is a nugget bestowed upon us. Kron Gracie is the youngest son of arguably the greatest Mixed Martial Artist that no one knows, Rickson Gracie. Rickson Gracie’s legend, or myth depending on how you look at it, is very well documented and is one of the great “what ifs” in UFC history. His half-brother and legend in his own right Royce Gracie is the well-known Gracie that put Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu on the map. Royce was chosen over Rickson to compete at UFC 1 due to his slighter frame. The patriarchs, Helio Gracie and Carlos Gracie, thought that Royce’s slighter frame would accentuate the fact that Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu was defeating these larger opponents instead of showcasing the best fighter they had in Rickson. The rest is history.

Tonight we get to see the evolution, or lack thereof, of the Gracie system. Kron Gracie is a world class Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioner and won the Abu Dhabi Combat Club Submission Wrestling World Championship in 2013 for the under 77 kg (169.75 lbs) category. He is 4-0 in his young mixed martial career and has won every fight by submission. His striking is very basic at this point but he does have some power that he’s showcased in the few fights that he’s had.

Alex Caceres is not only a fan favorite but also a Dana White favorite. He alternates wins with losses and has a 9-win, 9-loss record in the UFC with one No Contest, and has had several multi-loss runs that would normally have afforded him his walking papers. The reason Caceres sticks around is because he has an exciting fighting style that throws caution to the wind. His fighting style is fluid and you can see him experimenting with his strikes throughout his fights. His striking wins his fights and his lack of grappling loses. He has four losses by submission and has been submitted by lesser quality Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu players than Kron Gracie.

I do have to factor in debut UFC jitters, but I just don’t see Kron Gracie losing. I have Kron Gracie by submission in the 2nd round.

Undercard

There are 3 more fights on the main ESPN card, and they have very evenly matched fights. Andre Fili takes on Myles Jury in a featherweight bout, Vicente Luque takes on Bryan Barberena in a welterweight bout and #11 Cortney Casey takes on #12 Cynthia Calvillo in a women’s strawweight bout.

What: UFC on ESPN 1: Ngannou vs Velasques
Where to watch: ESPN
When: Saturday, February 17, 2019
Time: Main Card 8:00 p.m. CST

P.S. Three of my favorite fighter nicknames are on this card, in order reverse order:

#3 James “The Texecutioner” Vick
#2 Andre “Touchy” Fili
#1 Alex “Bruce Leroy” Caceres

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