UFC on ESPN: Ngannou vs. Velasquez - Predictions and Picks
While some preliminary fights have been broadcast on the network, this Saturday marks the first time the UFC will present a full show in primetime on the ESPN channel, as UFC on ESPN: Ngannou vs. Velasquez goes down live from Phoenix, Arizona.
It’s a major show with a pretty packed card; the main event speaks for itself really, while the undercard features a strong mix of hot prospects, veteran contenders and even former champions and title challengers. Oh, and a new representative of the legendary Gracie family is making his Octagon debut!
Here are the predicted outcomes for UFC on ESPN: Ngannou vs. Velasquez.
#1 Francis Ngannou vs. Cain Velasquez
This one is simply a huge fight for the UFC’s Heavyweight division, as it could well decide the next title challenger – whether that means a fight against Daniel Cormier or a fight against someone like Stipe Miocic for the vacant title is another story entirely – and perhaps even the next champion.
Cain Velasquez, as has been documented plenty of times, hasn’t fought now since his UFC 200 win over Travis Browne. That came all the way back in July 2016, as various injuries and an apparent contract negotiation have kept him on the shelf. He’s supposedly as healthy as he’s ever been now, but how much of that is believable is a mystery. We’ve heard it plenty of times before and at 36 years old now, it’s hard to imagine that he’s finally managed to stop his body falling apart.
When he was healthy, Velasquez was probably the greatest Heavyweight the UFC has ever seen, and arguably still represents the ultimate evolution of the division – a world-class wrestler with incredible striking skills and both speed and stamina to match, essentially a souped-up version of the great Fedor Emelianenko tailored perfectly to the UFC’s Octagon.
Velasquez simply destroyed anyone in his path from his 2008 debut through to his 2010 title win against Brock Lesnar, and answered any questions surrounding his chin and punching power with rousing wins like his knockouts of Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Ben Rothwell. But injuries began to rear their head shortly after, and he spent a year on the shelf before dropping his title to Junior Dos Santos upon his return.
He regained the title from JDS in 2012 and then continued to dominate the division, but injuries once again sidelined him throughout 2014, and a banged-up version of his former self was dethroned by Fabricio Werdum in 2015. And since then, he’s only fought that once, a stirring win over Browne that gave flashbacks of his 2008-13 dominance.
Francis Ngannou meanwhile debuted in December 2015 and immediately had fans suggesting that he could be the future of the division. A hulking 6’5”, 254lbs of apparently pure muscle, ‘The Predator’ destroyed everyone in front of him with vicious striking power, taking out 5 opponents before near-murdering veteran Alistair Overeem to gain a title shot.
But then things went wrong. He blew up badly when he couldn’t score an early KO in his title match with Stipe Miocic and fell victim to Miocic’s superior wrestling and cardio, and following that – the first loss of his UFC career – he looked terrible in a summer fight with Derrick Lewis, barely throwing a punch in a ridiculously gunshy showing.
Suggestions of his total downfall proved to be false, though, as he took out dangerous wrestler Curtis Blaydes with strikes in just 45 seconds in November. It was essentially a return to the “old” Ngannou of his pre-Miocic fights. So can he do the same to Cain Velasquez on Saturday?
For me, this all comes down to one thing, and that’s whether Cain looks anything like his former self. In his prime, Cain was simply a nightmare opponent for Ngannou; if Ngannou thought that Miocic’s cardio and wrestling were tricky to deal with, he’s got no idea – Prime Velasquez was on another level entirely in both areas and there’s no way he’d have let a gassed foe like Ngannou reach the final buzzer as Miocic did.
But how much of that Cain still remains is a total question mark. He looked brilliant against Browne, admittedly, but even that was almost 3 years ago and he’s been through a serious back injury – something debilitating to even the healthiest athletes – since. And while 36 isn’t old for a Heavyweight – Alistair Overeem, for instance, is 38 and still looks fresh – few fighters have been through as many serious injuries as Velasquez.
It’s also notable that outside of the Browne fight, the previous times in which Cain returned from long layoffs (13 months between 10/2010 and 11/2011 and 20 months between 10/2013 and 06/2015) marked his only two losses in the Octagon, as his style, which relies heavily on an ability to push an insane pace, doesn’t lend itself well to ring rust.
Stylistically, Velasquez remains a horrible opponent for Ngannou, but then again outside of the Miocic fight, the best wrestler the Frenchman had faced was Curtis Blaydes – and Ngannou was able to stuff Blaydes’ takedowns and beat him twice.
I’d love to pick Cain here – it’d make for a great story and he’s my second-favourite Heavyweight of all time behind Overeem – but for me it’s just a risk too far and I’m not comfortable in taking a guy who’s not fought since 2016, when he relies so much on an ability to push the pace. I’m going with Ngannou to take him out ala JDS in their first fight.
The Pick: Ngannou via first round KO