The UFC is about to make its debut on ESPN and that momentous occasion somehow feels like an afterthought compared to the return of Cain Velasquez.
Believe it, after 31 months out of competition, the two-time heavyweight champion is back. In what will be just his second fight since June 2015, Velasquez has the daunting task of facing a redeemed Francis Ngannou in the main event of UFC Phoenix. In his last fight against Curtis Blaydes, Ngannou scored a stunning first-round knockout, a win that did much to wash away the bitter taste of his last two performances.
If Ngannou adds Velasquez to his hit list, he could earn a second shot at UFC gold sooner than expected.
Lightweight contenders James Vick and Paul Felder co-headline Sunday’s show and both are in need of a win after falling short in their last outings. For Vick, he looks to get back his reputation as a budding contender after a knockout loss to Justin Gaethje spoiled a 9-1 start in the UFC; for Felder, he can extend a three-fight lightweight win streak that was only slightly blemished by a cameo at welterweight against Mike Perry.
In other main card action, strawweight contenders Cortney Casey and Cynthia Calvillo face off, Brazilian jiu-jitsu ace Kron Gracie makes his UFC debut in a featherweight bout against veteran Alex Caceres, welterweight finisher Vicente Luque takes on prospect killer Bryan Barberena, and featherweights Andre Fili and Myles Jury meet in an intriguing clash of styles.
What: UFC on ESPN 1
Where: Talking Stick Resort Arena in Phoenix
When: Sunday, Feb. 17. The three-fight ESPN+ preliminary card begins at 5:30 p.m. ET, the four-fight ESPN card begins at 7 p.m. ET, and the six-fight main card also airs on ESPN starting at 9 p.m. ET.
Francis Ngannou vs. Cain Velasquez
It’s almost unfortunate that Francis Ngannou finished his last fight so quickly, because while he’ll always be able to lean on his outstanding punching power, it would have been nice to see how he defended against Curtis Blaydes’s high-level wrestling. If he could stifle takedowns from Blaydes, he might be able to stay upright against a tank like Cain Velasquez.
One has to assume that Velasquez’s seemingly interminable layoff is going to affect his timing, so the game plan will probably be to take the opening minutes of round one to get a read on Ngannou and stay out of danger. When Velasquez gets comfortable, he’ll shoot in and all the preparation and film study in the world won’t save Ngannou. He’s getting taken down.
Ngannou did a good job of surviving being smothered by Stipe Miocic for 25 minutes, but Velasquez is an entirely different beast. If Ngannou’s energy wanes against Velasquez, the former champ won’t be content to lay-and-pray. Velasquez has years of pent-up frustration to work out and he’s going to take all of that out on Ngannou, who won’t make it past the third round.
James Vick vs. Paul Felder
The big (no pun intended) knock on James Vick is that he’s never been able to put his absurd 6-foot-4 frame to great use at 155 pounds. His two KO losses have come against opponents able to absorb his shots, get inside, and dent his chin.
Paul Felder is both durable and an accurate striker. See where this one is going?
There’s a chance Vick catches an overly eager Felder with something early on, but Felder’s speed will allow him to dictate the pace and keep Vick from getting into a rhythm. That should result in Felder winning exchange after exchange until he starts consistently finding Vick’s chin. Once those defenses break down, Felder will be free to pick his spot to go in for the kill and get the KO.
Cortney Casey vs. Cynthia Calvillo
Cynthia Calvillo continues to be a conundrum. She’s clearly a talented grappler with a high motor, a trait that can take her a long way even though she’s only been competing since April 2016; however, issues with making weight and doubts about her all-around game seem to have put a ceiling on the 31-year-old’s growth for now.
In Cortney Casey, Calvillo is being given a tough test after needing just a round to dismiss Poliana Botelho in her comeback fight from a nine-month cannabis suspension. Casey is an active stand-up fighter with incredible strength who will punish Calvillo with sheer volume. While this could be a good test of Calvillo’s standup skills, she’ll probably be more inclined to use her striking as a means to set up takedowns and search for submissions.
It’s tough to say which Casey will show up on fight night, the confident striker who can at times impose her will on an opponent, or the limited grappler who fails to get out of first gear. I’m favoring Calvillo for her consistency, trusting that she’s made enough improvements since her lone loss against Carla Esparza to wear Casey down and possibly even snatch a submission.
Alex Caceres vs. Kron Gracie
And so the next member of the Gracie family enters the fray. It seems like every few years a new Gracie pops up in the UFC, generating an instant buzz that maybe it’s this Gracie who will be the one to match the achievements of the pioneering Royce.
I lost the plot with the matchmaking here as I was surprised that the debuting Kron Gracie was matched up with someone with as much big show experience as Caceres. Sunday marks the 20th UFC appearance for “Bruce Leeroy.”
Don’t discount the long layoff Gracie has had either. Caceres has never been a world beater, but he didn’t earn the right to make that many walks to the Octagon by being a pushover. He’s versatile enough that the matchmakers may regret booking Gracie against him as opposed to a foe that would serve to showcase his skills.
The good news for Gracie is that Caceres is vulnerable to submissions. Over half his 11 losses have come by way of tap out. If Gracie gets him down, it should be a wrap. I’m just not confident he’ll be able to wrestle with Caceres as easily as some are thinking and if it comes to a decision, Caceres should be able to eke another one out.
Vicente Luque vs. Bryan Barberena
This looks like a classic “Bryan Barberena wins” scenario on paper.
Vicente Luque is one of the welterweight division’s rising stars and one of the best finishers in the UFC, period. The expectation is that he’ll tee off on Barberena and finish with strikes or stun and submit him.
Barberena’s sturdiness will be tested here as outside of an aging Jake Ellenberger and a still wet-behind-the-ears Sage Northcutt, he’s never had to defend against someone with Luque’s quick strike capability. That’s not to say that the resourceful Barberena can’t find a way to neutralize Luque. If “Bam Bam” can get Luque to waste his energy on early flurries, it will pay dividends in the later rounds, possibly enough for Barberena to pull off the upset.
But every second that goes by is a chance for Luque to land a fatal blow and I like him to either finish in round one or win a convincing decision after knocking Barberena down a few times.
Andre Fili vs. Myles Jury
It’s the controlled chaos of Andre Fili versus the methodical Myles Jury to open up the UFC on ESPN main card.
Jury is a B+ fighter in multiple categories, which is good enough for him to beat a good chunk of the featherweight roster. He rarely loses his composure and his ability to stick to a game plan has kept him from crumbling when the going gets tough. Simply put, in a sport where calamity is often just around the corner, it’s rarely Jury who makes the first mistake.
However, Jury can be outclassed on the feet and he isn’t always the quickest to adapt when it’s become clear he’s in the Octagon with a superior striker. His takedowns will have to be perfectly timed to ground the agile Fili. On the flip side, the pressure is on Fili to not be complacent. From the start, he needs to be the one deciding where the fight will take place, otherwise Jury will be content to outwork him in a traditional kickboxing match.
As wild as Fili can be at times, I still like him to win this one on the scorecards based on his aggression and creativity in the standup.
Aljamain Sterling def. Jimmie Rivera
Manny Bermudez def. Benito Lopez
Andrea Lee def. Ashlee Evans-Smith
Scott Holtzman def. Nik Lentz
Luke Sanders def. Renan Barao
Jessica Penne def. Jodie Esquibel