Sunday (Feb. 17) night will mark a monumental night for the UFC, as the world’s leading mixed martial arts promotion is set to broadcast its first main card on ESPN with a Fight Night card taking place at the Talking Stick Resort Arena in Phoenix, Arizona.
And the main event of this historic card will feature a highly intriguing Heavyweight bout between the hard-hitting Francis Ngannou (12-3) and the former two-time UFC Heavyweight titleholder Cain Velasquez (14-2).
A ton is on the line for both men. And, stylistically, the matchup is an interesting one.
To start, the 32-year-old Ngannou has had an up-and-down UFC career thus far, to say the least.
Prior to the start of 2018, for example, the beast that is the UFC promotional machine was fully behind “The Predator” and for good reason. Ngannou was 11-1 at the time, with all 11 of those victories coming via stoppage.
At that point, the Cameroonian-French bruiser had compiled six-straight UFC victories and was coming off a vicious highlight reel knockout over the legendary Alistair Overeem. Ngannou’s freakish physique and unparalleled power made him a safe bet for future stardom and heir apparent to the Heavyweight throne.
Fortune, however, was not favorable to Ngannou last year. It all started when he was outclassed and outworked by Stipe Miocic in a title fight at UFC 220. Miocic exposed some glaring holes in Ngannou’s game and many quickly began to write The Predator off as just another derailed hype train.
His next performance didn’t help his cause out either. Ngannou dropped a decision to Derrick Lewis at UFC 226 in an utterly horrendous bout. Yahoo Sports went as far as calling it an “embarrassment.”
But despite the setbacks, Ngannou didn’t give up or give in. Instead, he continued to develop and improve and he finished off 2018 with a bang. Last November, at UFC Fight Night 141, Curtis Blaydes didn’t stand a chance in a rematch as Ngannou took him out in just 45 seconds. This victory reminded fans how dangerous Ngannou can be and it put him right back into the thick of things at Heavyweight.
Stylistically, Ngannou’s strengths are incredibly clear. He’s a tremendous athlete with the pure power to legitimately put any opponent to sleep with one shot.
On the contrary, however, his weaknesses are also obvious. While his defensive wrestling has held up relatively well at times, he isn’t the strongest grappler. In fact, he’s never attempted a takedown in the octagon. And Miocic proved that Ngannou can be taken down and controlled if he gets too wild.
Though his wrestling may not be his strongest skill, Ngannou does have some skill on the ground. Four of his victories have come via submission. He’s never been submitted and he seems to improve with every outing.
What may be his most concerning weakness, though, is his cardio, as he was completely sapped against Miocic. If he hasn’t addressed this, he could be in some serious trouble on Sunday against a man known for his limitless gas tank.
Moving onto Velasquez, the former multi-time champion is widely considered to be one of the greatest Heavyweights to have ever stepped into the Octagon. Unfortunately, his career has been plagued by injuries. He’s been out of action for an entire 31 months.
Last entering the octagon at UFC 200 in July 2016, Velasquez picked up a TKO victory over Travis Browne. Holding wins over Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Brock Lesnar, Antonio Silva, and Junior Dos Santos, he’s only fought four times since May 2013.
Still, at his best, Velasquez is one of the most well-rounded fighters the division has ever seen. Coming from a wrestling background, Velasquez typically fights at a relentless pace, using his incredible cardio to pressure and ultimately break his opposition.
This pace coupled with his incredible kickboxing, honed at the famed American Kickboxing Academy, has paved the way for 12 TKOs in Velasquez’s career. He’s also a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, though he’s never won a fight by submission.
Ultimately, the outcome of this fight will be determined by the answers either man can provide to the pressing questions at hand. First, what kind of shape is Ngannou in? Will he be able to land the big shot? And is Velasquez the same fighter he once was?
As previously mentioned, Ngannou can end any fight with one punch. But if he can’t find that shot, he may get wild and if he tires out, as he did against Miocic, he’ll be in for a long night. That is if Velasquez is indeed a similar version of his old self.
I’ll be betting on the latter. Despite the layoff, Velasquez is a notoriously hard worker and it appears he has something to prove, even namedropping a potential matchup with Jon Jones. I expect him to return in peak form and that, as it would be for any fighter in the class, will be too much for Ngannou.