UFC on ESPN: Ngannou vs. Velasquez Picks
UFC on ESPN: Ngannou vs. Velasquez Picks
When: Sunday, February 17, 2019
Where: Taking Stick Resort Arena, Phoenix, Arizona
Heavyweight fireworks are in store on February 17 in Phoenix, as former kingpin Cain Velasquez battles hard-slugging contender Francis Ngannou in a fascinating main event. This is a true crossroads fight, with the winner of this bout getting an almost-certain title shot, while the loser goes to the back of the line. Who can get the upper hand in this battle of big men? Will the all-around skills of Velasquez, however dormant they may be, be too much for the rampaging Cameroonian? Or will Ngannou prove that time waits for no one in this sport and score another violent victory?
Francis Ngannou, 12-3 (8 KOs, 4 Submissions), (+145) vs. Cain Velasquez, 14-2 (12 KOs), (-165)
Former UFC Heavyweight Champion Cain Velasquez takes on Francis Ngannou in the main event of UFC on ESPN. This is one of those fights that almost can’t be unexciting. And it’s also a fight where only two outcomes seem likely. This won’t be a drawn-out decision win for Ngannou or Velasquez. Either Cain’s overall menace will surface, and he’ll wipe Ngannou off the planet, or he has grown stale and left a crease for Ngannou’s power to prevail. Velasquez is now 36 and coming off a string of terrible injuries. But he’s on the short list of the greatest heavyweights ever. After 2.5 years out of the game, can he topple the dangerous Ngannou?
While Velasquez has been out-of-action; Ngannou’s career in the UFC took off. Ngannou was the favorite to beat then-champion Stipe Miocic, and he lost lopsidedly. He showed he can’t really cope with a wrestler who won’t immediately yield to his power. That would suggest problems in this matchup against a wrestler of Cain’s pedigree. Nevertheless, Ngannou has the one equalizing weapon that renders a lot of analysis moot—punching power. And it’s not just power, as opponents are sometimes vaporized in the octagon. Ngannou’s rise to the top was swift and violent. But the one-sided loss to Miocic and a subsequent loss to Derrick Lewis took off a lot of shine. His last fight, a KO of Curtis Blaydes, showed he is still in the mix and not a man to be regarded lightly. This is a strong move by Ngannou and his team, a dangerous fight where a lot can go wrong, but a win puts his career right back on track.
On one hand, Cain is perhaps the most-formidable fighting machine ever seen in MMA at this size. He was indefatigable and a rolling wave of pressure in his day - an imperturbable force. And that’s not a fighter Ngannou can really be expected to beat. His team is banking on the fact that this sport doesn’t favor long spells on the shelf. For all his menace and reputation, Velasquez has fought twice since 2013, and one of those fights was a loss to Fabricio Werdum when he lost his title. That’s a pretty weak track record of recent activity. So it’s easy to see where Team Ngannou is coming from.
Again, punching power is the one equalizer. Ngannou’s power is scary, especially against a fighter so recently-unaccustomed to taking shots. However much you might like Cain in this matchup, that’s the big gap where Ngannou can potentially thrive—wielding his power against a guy who hasn’t seen a lot of action recently. And even in Ngannou’s two defeats, he lasted the distance, showing he’s not all smoke-and-mirrors. He’s been getting better at defending the takedown, and if he wants to get to the top at some point, he’s going to have to beat a good wrestler.
Cain Velasquez looked great in his last fight, a KO of Travis Browne. But the injuries kept piling up and at the end of the day; his body was unable to withstand the rigors of what he was capable of doing. He’s truly an athletic freak, fighting like a great fighter of a lower weight. Not many big men move like Cain. Alas, with all the wear on his body, can we expect him to be the same force? I think he will be close enough to his old self. The problem with Ngannou’s case of winning is that even a diminished Velasquez still looks to be a major style-matchup issue for him.
Granted, Ngannou can win this fight by unleashing those heavy hands, and it’s not like Cain has never been troubled by punches before. I just don’t think it’s a very proactive or positive case for victory and that the winning daylight for Ngannou lies more in Cain’s projected slippage. And they’re going to need it because if Velasquez isn’t rusty, tentative, or diminished greatly by injuries, this has the potential to be a wipeout. Could it be wishful thinking to assume Velasquez can approach his former level? Perhaps, but not any more-quixotic than thinking hard-punching alone is enough to assuage a fighter of Cain’s stature.
I’m sure Ngannou can stuff some takedowns. That doesn’t mean he can stuff them all or avoid being driven into the cage where Cain will inflict some close-up damage. Ngannou needs room to get off, and Cain won’t give him any. Sure, he might have to avoid some dangerous incoming fire, but he will get Ngannou down, and no one has been better at G&P than Velasquez. And Ngannou will gas at some point, while Velasquez has always been in excellent shape—perhaps the best stamina in the history of the division. Even if Cain lost a step, he had a step to lose. How far would he have needed to drop to put him on par with Ngannou? That would have required a fall too precipitous to bank on with any confidence.
Ngannou is a wild-card and one that can’t be discounted by any means. And maybe it’s true that he was written off prematurely, as he is still a developing fighter despite being 32. I just think these are the spots where his shortcomings will come to light—some mental weakness when things don’t go his way and an incomplete bag of MMA tools. His merit can’t be written-off, hence being only a mild underdog of just +220. I just see this pairing of styles being all wrong for Ngannou, and despite the issues of inactivity, a version of Velasquez that is even a reasonable facsimile of his old self should win this easily. I’m taking the ex-champ in this one.
My Pick to Win: I’m betting on Cain Velasquez at –165 betting odds at BetOnline. I see the true spectrum of hope for Ngannou being less than his odds would indicate. A prime Cain would have been -700 in this matchup and the inactivity looms as an issue, but not enough to not make -165 a tasty-enough nugget to pursue.