Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) is set to make its official debut on the ESPN mother channel, as UFC on ESPN 1: “Ngannou vs Velasquez” is set to go down TONIGHT (Sun., Feb. 17, 2019) from inside Talking Stick Resort & Casino in Phoenix, Arizona. The event will feature a Heavyweight showdown between Francis Ngannou taking on Cain Velasquez, who will be making his long-awaited return to action after more than two years away from the fight game. In the co-main event, Paul Felder and James Vick collide in a pivotal Lightweight showdown.
UFC on ESPN+ “Cejudo vs Dillashaw” was the official kickoff event for UFC’s partnership with “The Worldwide Leader in Sports,” but UFC on ESPN 1 will be the first major event to take place on the official ESPN television channel. And the promotion is coming out with the big guns, as former Heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez will make his long-awaited return to action after a 2.5-year hiatus.
Standing in his way is perhaps the hardest-hitting man in mixed martial arts (MMA), Francis Ngannou. Often dubbed as perhaps the greatest Heavyweight of all time, Velasquez did start his career off with a bang, mowing over every opponent standing in his way en route to claiming the 265-pound strap in 2010. After a one-and-done stint as champion thanks to Junior dos Santos, Velasquez re-claimed the strap by dismantling “JDS” in the rematch, defending it a few times before coughing it up against Fabricio Werdum. Perhaps Velasquez’s biggest downfall, though, were his numerous injuries, which kept him out of action for extended periods of time. In fact, over the last five years, Velasquez has only been able to compete four times. Since that time, Stipe Miocic went on to set records as UFC’s Heavyweight king, and Daniel Cormier became “champ-champ” by dethroning him. But, now that Velasquez is finally at full health, he is determined to show the combat world what could have been … and possibly what will be. His first test back isn’t the easiest, as “The Predator” has the power in his hands that can sleep a baby elephant. Or a “Demolition Man.”
After a meteoric rise to the top to a Heavyweight title shot, Ngannou took a nose-dive, getting dominated by Miocic before dropping a snoozer to Derrick Lewis, bringing into question his ego and fighter mentality. “The Predator” managed to dust himself off and return to his head-hunting ways by knocking out top contender Curtis Blaydes in less than one minute. Now, he’ll look to end Velasquez’s momentum before it starts back up again. Known for his power-punching abilities, Ngannou hasn’t really had the need to show off his wrestling inside the cage. And even though he is confident that he has prepared for that aspect of the fight game, Velasquez is an entirely different beast when it comes to grappling. Suffice to say, Ngannou’s best chance to win this fight is to score an early knockout.
That’s because Velasquez’s cardio is through the roof, and if Miocic dragged Ngannou into deep water in the later rounds, Velasquez will more than likely drown him. But, as dos Santos — another power-punching big man — once showed, Velasquez can be taken out early. Coincidentally enough, that big man showdown was tasked to usher in UFC’s deal with FOX.
It’s a fairly decent card. However, I expected the promotion to stack the deck just a tad bit more since it will be the first UFC event on ESPN’s flagship channel.
Original Card Vs. Actual Card:
Ashlee Evans-Smith was set to face off against Lauren Murphy, but was ultimately bounced from the fight card with an injury and replaced by Andrea Lee.
Aside from Ashlee’s unfortunate setback, no other fighter was bit by the injury bug.
Kron Gracie will make his much-anticipated UFC debut this Sunday night when he steps foot inside the Octagon to face off against Alex Caceres. Son of Rickson Gracie, Kron carries with him the name, as well as the skills, to do something special, training in jiu-jitsu in what I can assume since he was old enough to walk. He also trains with Nick and Nate Diaz, so his overall pedigree is legit.
Still, Kron’s name isn’t as big as it could be yet, that’s because he hasn’t been overly active in the MMA world, competing only four times as a professional (4-0), with his last fight taking place under the RIZIN banner in 2016. It’s no secret his bread-and-butter is the ground game, as there isn’t much room on his mantle, closet or basement to hold all of his trophies and medals earned in the submission world. So it’s no surprise that all of his wins in MMA have come via his foes yelling “uncle.” It should be an interesting debut for Kron, who is facing a very-seasoned Caceres, who will be taking part in UFC fight No. 20.
How The ‘Prelims’ Look:
Headlining the “Prelims” undercard portion of the event is a highly-intriguing Bantamweight showdown between Jimmie Rivera and Aljamain Sterling. After having his 20-fight win streak snapped rather quickly by Marlon Moraes, Rivera managed to get back into the win column by taking out John Dodson. Now, “El Terror” looks to begin another streak in hopes of finally getting a title shot as he takes on “The Funkmaster.” Sterling started off his career blazing hot with four straight wins before dropping three of his last seven. A win over Rivera would give him his third straight win, though, and shoot him up the rankings a bit more.
Andrea Lee will look to keep her win streak alive after she stepped in on short notice to face Ashlee Evans-Smith, while Benito Lopez and Manny Bermudez face off in Bantamweight action. Staying in the 135-pound division, Renan Barao will look to end his horrible slump when he faces off against Luke Sanders.
Who Needs A Win Badly:
I can’t quite remember there ever been a bigger fall from the top than that of Renan Barao. And I’m not picking on him or ridiculing his slump, it’s just that his nose-dive seemingly came out of nowhere. After reeling off 32 straight wins — seven of those inside the Octagon — and claiming the UFC 135-pound strap and taking out Urijah Faber twice, Barao’s career took a turn for the worse when he ran into current division king, T.J. Dillashaw, in 2014.
After getting knocked out in the fifth round at the hands of “The Viper” — coughing up his title in the process — Barao went on to lose five of his last seven, including another knockout defeat at the hands of Dillashaw. Barao is currently riding a three-fight losing streak. If he loses his fourth straight, there is no telling if UFC will look to retain his services. Indeed, his fight against Luke Sanders truly is a do-or-die situation for the former pound-for-pound great.
Interest Level: 7/10
Aside from the intrigue of seeing which Velasquez will show up on fight night, the main card has some rather interesting fights. Paul Felder will look to get back in the win column after losing to Mike Perry at UFC 226. Vick, meanwhile, also looks to get back on track after getting mopped up by Justin Gaethje rather quickly in his last fight.
Cynthia Calvillo and Cortney Casey will throw down in main card action in a pivotal women’s 115-pound match up. Once considered one of the top female prospects in the game, Calvillo looks to collect back-to-back wins, while Casey looks to do the same after dusting Angela Hill in her previous outing. Vicente Luque will look to collect his fourth straight win when he faces the “Prospect Killer” Bryan Barberana.
Overall, the event features plenty of intrigue and hard-hitting match ups, as UFC on ESPN 1 can make or break some careers once the dust settles. Still, the main course is the reason everyone will be tuning in, as the combat world eagerly awaits if Velasquez can return to full form after being away from the fight game for so long.
Full UFC on ESPN 1 Fight Card:
UFC on ESPN 1 Main Event:
265 lbs.: Francis Ngannou vs. Cain Velasquez
UFC on ESPN 1 Main Card (ESPN):
155 lbs.: Paul Felder vs. James Vick
115 lbs.: Cynthia Calvillo vs. Cortney Casey
145 lbs.: Alex Caceres vs. Kron Gracie
170 lbs.: Bryan Barberena vs. Vicente Luque
145 lbs.: Andre Fili vs. Myles Jury
UFC on ESPN 1 ‘Prelims’ Undercard (ESPN):
135 lbs.: Jimmie Rivera vs. Aljamain Sterling
135 lbs.: Manny Bermudez vs. Benito Lopez
125 lbs.: Ashlee Evans-Smith vs. Andrea Lee
155 lbs.: Scott Holtzman vs. Nik Lentz
UFC on ESPN 1 ‘Prelims’ Undercard (ESPN+):
115 lbs. Jodie Esquibel vs. Jessica Penne
135 lbs.: Renan Barao vs. Luke Sanders
115 lbs.: Alexandra Albu vs. Emily Whitmire
Remember that MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC on ESPN 1 fight card, starting with the ESPN+ (7-day free trial here) “Prelims” matches online, which are scheduled to begin at 5:30 p.m. ET, then the remaining undercard balance on ESPN at 7 p.m. ET, before the ESPN main card start time at 9 p.m. ET.
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