Cain Velasquez (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

Toe-to-Toe: UFC on ESPN 1 Preview and Predictions

The UFC comes to ESPN on Sunday, Feb. 17, marking the first event to feature the main card on the flagship network of the UFC’s new media partner. Just like the promotion’s first event on Fox, this show will be headlined by heavyweight juggernaut Cain Velasquez.

Velasquez returns from an over two-year layoff as he seeks to climb back to the title that he held during the Fox debut. His opponent is former title challenger Francis Ngannou, a heavy-hitting knockout artist who has proven numerous times that he has next-level power in his hands, even among heavyweights. Velasquez is one of the most well-rounded fighters the heavyweight division has ever known, though, and he has twice held the championship belt. Ngannou looks to mount back-to-back wins since dropping two straight, first in his bid to win heavyweight gold against Stipe Miocic and the second a remarkably lackluster contest with Derrick Lewis.

The co-main event is a lightweight showdown between James Vick and Paul Felder. The bout was scheduled to take place twice before only to be canceled once when Vick opted to take on Justin Gaethje when Gaethje’s opponent pulled out and then postponed along with several other fights when UFC 233 was scrapped. Both Felder and Vick are looking to remain among the upper echelon of the crowded 155-pound division and rebound from losses. Felder fell to Mike Perry in a welterweight contest, and Vick suffered a first-round knockout to Gaethje, who is now set to headline the UFC’s event on March 30 in Philadelphia against Edson Barboza.


Also of note on this card is the UFC debut of Kron Gracie, the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu phenom and nephew of UFC co-founder Rorion Gracie. Gracie, who makes his promotional debut at featherweight after going 4-0 under the Rizin Fighting Federation banner, takes on UFC veteran Alex “Bruce Leroy” Caceres in a main card showdown.

UFC on ESPN 1 takes place in Phoenix at the Talking Stick Resort Arena. The early prelims will stream live on ESPN+ at 5:30 p.m. ET. The broadcast switches to ESPN for the rest of the night at 7 p.m. ET for the remainder of the prelims. The main card kicks off at 9 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Dan Kuhl and Matt Petela break down the action in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.

Cain Velasquez has not seen action since 2016. Now, he’s back in the headliner of this show opposite Francis Ngannou. Does Velasquez, 36, still have a title run left in him?

Kuhl: I don’t know what to think about Velasquez. It was already hard to have any expectations about him from one year to the next, because his fights were always so far apart. Then, a slew of injuries has kept him sidelined for over two and a half years. So, let’s look at the Velasquez of old.

Velasquez was easily headed toward being the greatest heavyweight champion of all time. He has been in the UFC for almost his entire professional career. Velasquez has won or defended the heavyweight strap in 25 percent of his total pro fights, and he trains at one of the best camps in the game, American Kickboxing Academy, where he is surrounded by current and former champions at the highest levels of the sport. He is known for a viciously fast-paced attack, and he has only gone the distance twice, both in winning efforts. Unfortunately, fans have not seen him in action since he handed Travis Browne a TKO at UFC 200 in July 2016.

Velasquez is entering a new UFC contract on Saturday with a heavyweight landscape that looks nothing like it did the last time he fought. In fact, there are only two or three guys ranked in the top 15 who were also ranked last time he set foot in the Octagon.

Velasquez’s next opponent, Ngannou, was only 2-0 in the UFC at the time, but the Cameroonian big man is now 7-2 in the promotion. Ngannou is coming off a second TKO victory over Curtis Blaydes. He is known for nasty first- and second-round finishes, but he is 0-2 in fights that have gone the distance.

Ngannou will be at a significant height and reach advantage over the former champ, but that has almost always been the case for Velasquez. The California native has been training his ass off and appears to be healthy. A win over his third-ranked opponent will certainly launch him right back into the top five.

I’m going to go with Velasquez in this one. He is no stranger to ring rust, and he is still young enough to make one more run at the belt. Even with the wholesale changing of the guard across almost every UFC division, there is still time left for a nostalgic run from Velasquez. He does bring a pace that Ngannou has never faced in the UFC, and this should lead to a TKO before the midpoint of the fight.

Petela: Luckily for Velasquez, the career of a heavyweight fighter typically peaks later than that of fighters in lighter weight classes. Velasquez may be 36, but that doesn’t make him over the hill chronologically. His teammate and current champion Daniel Cormier will be 40 next month, and the man who DC defeated for the belt, Stipe Miocic, is merely three weeks younger than Velasquez. The bad news is that the numerous physical setbacks may have taken a toll on Velasquez that means the best version of the once dominant champion is likely gone for good.

Even though Velasquez may never be 100 percent again, he will still be a force to be reckoned with in the UFC, as long as he isn’t fighting at altitude. “Cardio Cain” will be in full effect during this contest with Ngannou. His pressure wrestling will allow him to exploit the glaring weaknesses of Ngannou that Miocic exposed during their title contest in Boston at UFC 220. Miocic proved that Ngannou is a different fighter in the later rounds of a fight and does not have the same type of cardiovascular endurance befitting an all-time great heavyweight.

Call it a hunch, but I keep coming back to what Deontay Wilder said before his recent heavyweight boxing match with Tyson Fury. Wilder suggested that the more technical Fury had to be perfect for the whole fight, whereas Wilder and his one-punch knockout power only needed to be perfect for one second. While that proved to be slightly incorrect — Fury seemingly rose from the dead after being dropped viciously in the final round — I have a feeling that Ngannou will land a punch similar to the one that propelled him into a title shot and separated Alistair Overeem from consciousness at UFC 218. If this proves to be true, it will likely mark the end of any hope Velasquez has at reclaiming the belt that once seemingly felt like it would be his forever.

Paul Felder lost his only fight of 2018 to Mike Perry and has already seen his fight with James Vick pushed back twice. Can Felder get his career back on track at this event?

Petela: Felder’s split-decision loss to Perry came on short notice and was fought at welterweight as opposed to lightweight, where he is accustomed to fighting. In Vick, he takes on a fighter coming off a devastating first-round knockout loss to Justin Gaethje. Before the Gaethje fight, Vick was about as brash and confident as a fighter could be, going so far as to call Gaethje the “Homer Simpson” of MMA. However, the outcome of this fight rests on whether that knockout loss grounded Vick or if it will prove to be the beginning of the end of his shot as a legitimate title contender.

Felder will be out to prove a point this weekend. He wants to show that he’s as good a fighter as he is broadcaster. Vick isn’t the guy to prove him wrong, either. Felder’s last three victories have come by some form of knockout, and Vick’s chin is not made of granite, as Gaethje and Beneil Dariush have already proven.

If it comes down to a grappling match, Vick’s long limbs could prove to be a problem for Felder. Vick has the ability to snatch a guillotine or d’arce choke from seemingly every angle and threaten with armbars and triangles off of his back. However, it’s unlikely that much of this fight will be contested on the canvas. It won’t go the distance, either. Felder will get a knockout victory before the end of round two and call out Al Iaquinta, who he has also previously been scheduled to fight before Iaquinta pulled out due to his issues with the UFC.

Kuhl: Honestly, Felder could easily be in the top 15 among UFC lightweights, and it’s kind of sad that he isn’t. The short-notice loss to Perry should have no influence on Felder’s lightweight ranking, and the fact that he went to split decision against a natural 170-pound fighter should actually be an accolade. Taking that away, Felder had a couple decision losses well over three years ago. Since then, he has gone 5-1 as a lightweight with his only loss coming as a doctor’s stoppage against Francisco Trinaldo. I’m sure Felder has had a great time building clout as a media talent, but his fighting career has been lurking in the shadows. Felder is due for a breakout year.

Vick, on the other hand, has been fairly consistent, but he is certainly beatable. His UFC wins, outside of the one over the aforementioned Trinaldo, haven’t been over any legit ranked fighters. Vick is a talented guy, and he is unusually tall and super rangy for a lightweight, but Felder is a much more well-rounded fighter.

Felder will come out with a vengeance. His role as a media personality is great, but a successful fighting career is more important to these guys. Felder needs to get back in the win column to be taken serious as a competitor, and he knows that. Felder will indeed earn a knockout victory in this one.

Kron Gracie — do we need to know this name?

Kuhl: Anybody who knows anything about Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu knows about Kron (pronounced like “cone”) Gracie. The youngest son of Rickson Gracie is a black belt in BJJ and judo, and he holds over a decade’s worth of hardware in grappling competitions, including a gold medal at ADCC in 2013. Gracie is 4-0 in pro MMA, all by first- or second-round submission, but he hasn’t fought since his last Rizin win in December 2016.

The UFC brought Gracie on last last year, and his fight this Saturday against veteran Alex Caceres at featherweight will serve as his promotional debut. While a fight against the 14-11 Caceres might make it look like Gracie is getting thrown to the wolves, Gracie’s last two opponents had a combined record of 68-38-4. He is no stranger to fighting experienced opponents. In the BJJ arena, he has faced the who’s who of the grappling world as well, so he is definitely a guy fans should keep their eyes on.

Petela: Between Gracie and Ben Askren, I don’t know whose debut I’m more excited about. I can’t count the times I have watched Choke, the documentary surrounding Kron’s father and consensus greatest BJJ practitioner of all time. The apple certainly didn’t fall far from the tree. Gracie is a world-class grappler who has found success so far in his MMA campaign. His grandfather is one of the founders of BJJ, his father is one of the best to ever compete in BJJ, and his uncle is a co-founder of the UFC, so fight fans should all know the name Kron Gracie as he continues down his path to stardom in the combat-sports world.

Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?

Petela: Jimmie Rivera and Aljamain Sterling.

This bantamweight fight should be a fun one between two New York-area competitors. They both share knockout losses to Marlon Moraes, but each man has bounced back since then. Rivera defeated John Dodson, while Sterling topped Brett Johns and Cody Stamann. Both fighters have noted that this showdown has been in the making for years.

New Jersey’s Rivera and Long Island’s Sterling have known about each other since coming up on the regional circuit. There is no deep-seated bad blood between the two men, but they are both more than aware that a win in this fight keeps them near the top of the list of fighters in contention to fight for the bantamweight title once their former foe Moraes gets his overdue crack at the belt.

Kuhl: The lightweight showdown between Scott Holtzman and Nik Lentz.

Lentz always puts on entertaining fights, and people always know what to expect: a ferocious American Top Team mainstay who has outlasted most of his past opponents in terms of staying under contract with the UFC. Lentz is not necessarily in a place to crack the top 15, but he should never be counted out. He rarely gets stopped, as most of his losses have been by decision.

Holtzman, on the other hand, has quietly flown under the radar during his three-year UFC career. He only has two losses on his record, though, and he is currently riding a three-fight winning streak. In October, he earned his first stoppage win since his Octagon debut with a TKO over Alan Patrick. A win over Lentz may not guarantee a top-15 ranking, but it will certainly put him right on the bubble.

Both of these guys are looking to make a statement, and both are super well-rounded fighters. This fight could easily be moved to a featured prelim without any complaints.

Pair this card with…

Kuhl: There’s always a problem when the matchmakers try to have a lot of potentially fast-paced match-ups with a card on ESPN, Fox, Fox Sports 1, etc. The fights have a high likelihood of ending quickly, but the pace of the event is really slow, because of the contractual commercial downtime. It will be interesting to see if the promotion has anything new in store for fans since this is the first ESPN main card, but I’m going to be prepared for a lot of gaps between fights. Nothing suits this card better than a honey-do list. I’m definitely going to need to occupy my time while waiting for the next fight — maybe all night long.

Petela: I, too, will be prepared for a lot of breaks in the action on ESPN. I’ll be sure to have a fully charged phone and well-rested Twitter fingers. If there is anything I enjoy more than watching the UFC, it is complaining about the pacing of UFC events on Twitter. This card should be a dream come true for yours truly in that regard. The mid-Atlantic will probably still be covered in snow, so I will also be sure to keep warm with my favorite fight-viewing friend, Mr. Jack Daniels, which should help speed the night up a bit.

Fight Picks

Fight Kuhl’s Pick Petela’s Pick
Main Card (ESPN, 9 p.m. ET)
HW: Cain Velasquez vs. Francis Ngannou Velasquez Ngannou
LW: James Vick vs. Paul Felder Felder Felder
Women’s StrawW: Cynthia Calvillo vs. Cortney Casey Calvillo Casey
FW: Alex Caceres vs. Kron Gracie Gracie Gracie
WW: Bryan Barberena vs. Vicente Luque Luque Barberena
FW: Andre Fili vs. Myles Jury Jury Jury
Preliminary Card (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET)
BW: Jimmie Rivera vs. Aljamain Sterling Rivera Sterling
BW: Manny Bermudez vs. Benito Lopez Bermudez Bermudez
Women’s FlyW: Andrea Lee vs. Ashlee Evans-Smith Lee Evans-Smith
LW: Scott Holtzman vs. Nik Lentz Lentz Lentz
Preliminary Card (ESPN+, 5:30 p.m. ET)
Women’s StrawW: Jessica Penne vs. Jodie Esquibel Penne Penne
BW: Luke Sanders vs. Renan Barão Sanders Barao
Women’s StrawW: Aleksandra Albu vs. Emily Whitmire Albu Albu