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Fortunes changed for five at UFC Phoenix

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

When Cain Velasquez’s knee gave out Sunday night, just seconds into his fight with Francis Ngannou, it was yet another reminder of prophetic conversations from more than a dozen years ago.

Velasquez came to San Jose through a connection with one of his college wrestling coaches, as he was looking to get into MMA after placing fourth at heavyweight in the 2005 NCAA Division I wrestling tournament for Arizona State University. Almost immediately, he became the talk of the old American Kickboxing Academy gym.

Early on, after he’d only had two fights, head trainer Javier Mendez called Velasquez “the most talented fighter who had ever walked through that door,” pointing to the front door of his original gym. That was quite a statement since fighters from all over the world had trained regularly there, including Frank Shamrock and B.J. Penn, who at that time were considered two of the sport’s true legends.

Mendez noted that in addition to Velasquez’s All-American wrestling pedigree, he was developing K-1 level striking skills, and had stamina like never seen before in the heavyweight division. Mendez said that even then, Velasquez would beat Randy Couture, who was the UFC champion at the time. The hype around Velasquez was such that UFC signed him after only two fights and were, from the start, touting him as a potential future world champion.

It seems foolish to say that Velasquez’s career has been a disappointment. He held the heavyweight championship twice. On Sunday, announcer John Anik repeatedly referred to him as the greatest heavyweight mixed martial arts fighter in history. One could argue that statement, but when it comes to complete skill-sets, Velasquez has to be in that conversation. But for overall career results, that’s a tougher argument.

Sunday was the latest chapter of a career that will almost surely be looked back on as a “But what if?”

As much as his championships, Velasquez’s career in hindsight will be remembered for constant injuries. And prophetically, we heard that talk a dozen years ago as well.

One of the gym’s fighters early on raved to me about Velasquez, saying because of his mix of skills, that nobody could beat him even then. The stamina was the key. He noted that Velasquez’s work ethic was second to none, in conjunction with his other skills. But he warned, his work ethic was training at a level that would at some point burn his body out. The prediction from that fighter was Velasquez would win the heavyweight championship, hold it for a while, but when he got into his early 30’s, his body would start breaking down and then he’d become vulnerable.

That conversation was almost a perfect description of Velasquez’s career. He only lost one fight early on, the knockout to Junior Dos Santos on the first FOX show in 2011, when fighting with a serious knee injury. In fairness, Dos Santos went into that fight with a knee injury as well. But the question as to who the better fighter of UFC’s two dominant heavyweights of that era was answered emphatically when Velasquez came back and gave Dos Santos two of the most brutal and prolonged beatings in heavyweight history in their subsequent fights.

But then, his body started to turn on him. In the last five-and-a-half years, Velasquez has fought only three times. While much of last year’s sabbatical had to do with renegotiating his contract, most of his long delays between fights had to do with a variety of injuries.

When he returned, two-and-a-half years after a display of skill that few if any heavyweights could match, in his first round win over Travis Browne, his body gave out on him almost immediately. His camp said in training for the fight, he was the old Cain. Velasquez called the injury a fluke, saying he’d never even had problems with that knee. But as he heads toward his 37th birthday, there are far more question than answers regarding his future.

Let’s look at how Fortunes Changed for Five fighters from Sunday’s show.

FRANCIS NGANNOU - The big winner on Sunday was the fighter whose career had stalled barely a year after UFC had started promoting him as the modern Mike Tyson. Such a quick win over a former champion like Velasquez would normally be enough to get a championship fight. And with Velasquez’s teammate and training partner, Daniel Cormier, as champion, the story writes itself.

But Dana White has since indicated wanting to go in another direction with Cormier, although did not specify what that direction is.

Ngannou could face Stipe Miocic (18-3) in a fight to determine a future heavyweight title contender, or even the championship given Cormier may be retiring sooner than later. But their first fight was a one-sided win for Miocic. If not, the best opponent for Ngannou would be Dos Santos (20-5), provided he gets past Derrick Lewis on March 9. If Lewis wins that fight, while his facing Ngannou could make sense from a rankings perspective, based on their first meeting, that is not a fight anyone would want to see run back.

CAIN VELASQUEZ - Provided Sunday’s injury was really a fluke thing and he can get through a camp and a fight, a good next opponent would be Alistair Overeem (44-17). That’s a fight that had been talked about for years, but somehow never transpired. Velasquez vs. Miocic, if Velasquez was healthy, would be somewhat of a heavyweight dream match. But at this stage, Velasquez would need a strong performance in a win before he should be put in with Miocic.

PAUL FELDER - Felder (16-4) scored a unanimous decision win over James Vick (13-3) in the semi-windup. Residing in UFC’s deepest division, the lightweights, a good next opponent for him would be Charles Oliveira (26-8) or Gregor Gillespie (13-0).

CYNTHIA CALVILLO - Calvillo (8-1) took a unanimous decision over Cortney Casey (8-7). Calvillo then challenged Tatiana Suarez but Suarez is already booked for a fight with Nina Ansaroff, where the winner would likely get a strawweight title shot. For Calvillo, to get to that level she’ll need a win over a fighter like Livinha Souza (13-1) to jump up he ladder.

ALJAMAIN STERLING - Sterling (17-3) notched a one-sided win over Jimmie Rivera (22-2) in a battle of top bantamweight contenders. The win was impressive enough that Sterling could be put in a title match with it, except that Marlon Moraes has wins over both Sterling and Rivera in 67 and 33 seconds respectively. Moraes should be the top contender for T.J. Dillashaw, but Henry Cejudo’s win over Dillashaw at flyweight complicates matters.

Sterling should next face the winner of the March 2 fight with Cody Garbrandt (11-2) vs. Pedro Munhoz (17-3).

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