Cain Velasquez returning to the cage after two and a half years of inactivity seemed like the perfect way to end a busy weekend of MMA across the globe, especially one that featured several high-profile disappointments. Instead, it took all of 26 seconds for Velasquez’s circumstance to compound and intensify MMA fans’ chagrin, leaving his future more uncertain than ever.
In less than a half minute, Velasquez ate a right hand from Francis Ngannou as he charged into the pocket, leaving the two-time Ultimate Fighting Championship heavyweight titlist bending backwards over his left leg, writhing in pain. The unceremonious conclusion came in the headliner of the promotion’s first main card on ESPN on Sunday in Phoenix, instantly calling to mind the deflating moment seven years ago when the UFC debuted on Fox and Velasquez was dethroned by Junior dos Santos in all of 64 seconds, leaving the world wanting more. However, this incident really takes the pathos to a new level.
Still, Velasquez’s loss, no matter the dismaying circumstance, represented a second straight quick stoppage for Ngannou, who just months after being thrown out with the bathwater is already back on track in the heavyweight division. With that said, the outcome of Ngannou-Velasquez serves to further remind us of the difficult, merry-go-around nature of the weight class and just how challenging matchmaking can be when it involves heavyweights; and if we’re going to be talking about pathos, we need to have ourselves a serious and potentially grim conversation about Renan Barao.
Don’t get it get twisted, though: Main event aside, the UFC on ESPN 1 was mostly a fantastic firecracker of a card. First of all, we got our foremost “Fight of the Year” contender so far between emerging contender Vicente Luque and battle-tested brawler Bryan Barberena, and for the first time in a while, we have a member of the First Family back in the UFC, as Rickson Gracie’s baby boy gave fans a lot to be excited about in his Octagon debut. It was a long weekend, so let’s figure out how to work beyond our main event disappointment and see what we learned at UFC on ESPN 1:
Only Certainty About Velasquez’s Future is Uncertainty
The word “fluke” is always a tricky and polarizing word in sports, especially in prizefighting. Just so we’re all on the same page here, there’s no denying that Ngannou’s clever, submarine uppercut on the charging Velasquez as he pushed him out of the clinch ultimately provided the physical impetus for the former champ to collapse awkwardly over his left knee. That being said, while we’ve seen fighters sustain injuries in similar situations in the past, they still tend to be low-percentage, freakish incidents.
The issue here is that Velasquez’s injury history makes this sort of thing even more dismaying and pernicious. Never mind whatever lingering, low-key injuries exist inside his body from a lifetime of wrestling, Velasquez has had a full-body constellation of nagging, problematic ailments over his career, from his rotator cuff and repeated knee surgeries to bone spurs in his back. Even worse, Velasquez said at the post-fight press conference that there we no previous issues with his left knee, all while speculating it could be a meniscus or MCL injury after the pop he heard.
Velasquez is 36 years old; this by itself normally wouldn’t be the biggest worry in the world, since he’s a heavyweight and in MMA the biggest men tend to have shocking longevity, deteriorating at a slower rate while maintaining their stature in the sport. While it sounds counterintuitive considering they’re the biggest hitters in the game, heavyweights tend to be able to overcome latter-career knockouts and still succeed based on their own horsepower or being more skilled in a typically underskilled weight class. For instance, Alistair Overeem, going on 39 in May, remains one of the scariest men in the division despite 20 years of pro fighting and being known for a historically shaky chin. Velasquez’s greatest rival, the 35-year-old dos Santos, looked like he wasn’t long for the elite ranks three years ago, yet he’s 3-1 since.
In Velasquez’s case, however, his game has long been built on his superior fitness and athleticism when compared to his contemporaries. Now, he is plagued with a body full of recurring injuries, mostly of the soft-tissue variety. If you can’t make it through training camp, require constant surgeries or run the risk of being injured mid-fight, that’s vastly different than the usual erosion of high-level MMA heavyweights.
After the loss, Velasquez said all the right things and re-emphasized that he was re-energized about fighting after his latest camp. We await a diagnosis on his knee injury soon, and from there, we can try to get a handle on how soon he can return and how competitive he might be when he does. Still, we’re talking about a fighter who all but admitted he was considering exiting the sport before signing a new contract prior to this fight; and he spent parts of the summer working out at the World Wrestling Entertainment Performance Center while teasing a future in pro wrestling. Even if Velasquez’s left knee heals sooner rather than later and the American Kickboxing Academy product is still dedicated to the sport, at this point, given his fragility, the next injury could easily be the last one; and now we know just how easily said injury could happen.
Can a ‘Predator’ Get Some Prey Around Here?
Ngannou’s UFC tenure has been a bizarre rollercoaster. It was less than three and a half years ago that he entered the promotion as a physically gifted but largely non-hyped heavyweight upstart. He quickly established himself as the most exciting prospect the division had seen in years, as he racked up a 6-0 mark in the Octagon, all via stoppage. At that point, he was supposed to dethrone Stipe Miocic and take over the division. Instead, he was embarrassed over 25 minutes, with mounting suspicion he was buying into his own hype. He followed the performance by simply embarrassing himself against Derrick Lewis in one of the worst UFC fights in recent memory.
Yet, here we are, just six months after the Lewis debacle. Ngannou has rededicated himself to training under Fernand Lopez at the MMA Factory in Paris and stopped Curtis Blaydes and Velasquez in less than 80 seconds combined. I know heavyweight can be a mercurial division, especially for such naturally gifted athletes like Ngannou, but this is wild even by those standards. However, Ngannou’s rocket-strapped rise to the top, descent back to Earth and present intensifying run really highlights the difficulties with matchmaking in the UFC’s heavyweight division, especially once you push a prospect to the stars and he falters at the top.
I’m not saying the UFC shouldn’t try to grab lightning in a bottle and capitalize on a hot heavyweight contender when he emerges, since it happens too frequently and the division is year after year hampered by the same six to eight fighters rotating at the top. The problem: In three and a half years, the UFC has almost exhausted every interesting and sensible matchup for “The Predator.” Just two wins removed from the Miocic and Lewis blowouts, it’s dubious that Ngannou deserves another crack at the UFC heavyweight title; plus, UFC President Dana White was adamant after UFC on ESPN 1 that the promotion has another defense in mind for current champion Daniel Cormier.
If that’s the case, the best thing the UFC can hope for is that dos Santos beats Lewis on March 9, so it can pair Ngannou with “Cigano.” Short of that, there are few high-level options for Ngannou. He has already clunked Blaydes twice, and there’s no purchase in rematches with Overeem and Miocic. Plus, it would be deleterious to Ngannou if a rematch with Miocic results in a repeat of their first meeting. Failing that, what do you do? Have a rematch with Lewis, with White telling the masses that both guys are serious this time and will actually engage with one another? That’s a hard, grisly sell.
I am sympathetic to the fractured, stagnant nature of the heavyweight division, and for that reason, I wouldn’t wring my hands if the promotion, seeking to recontinue Ngannou’s rebuild, paired him with an Alexander Volkov, Alexey Oleynik or the winner of Blagoy Ivanov-Ben Rothwell. An active Ngannou against a Top 25 fighter of any kind is better than him just sitting on the sidelines. The best laid plans at heavyweight tend to go awry; just look at Bellator 216 on Saturday, when 21-0 former champ Vitaly Minakov returned to the promotion, only to inexplicably trip over his own feet against Cheick Kongo. Matchmaking for Ngannou in this moment isn’t impossible, but it’s going to be hard to please most folks unless dos Santos can come through big against Lewis next month.
A Barren Landscape for ‘The Baron’
I’m not sure of the immediate future awaiting Barao. I don’t want to be overly grim, either. That being said, his future shouldn’t be in the UFC, and even outside the walls of the Octagon, the former bantamweight champion may well find himself in an unhospitable circumstance.
Barao’s bout with Luke Sanders lasted just one tick beyond six minutes, but even in that short timeframe, it put the modern reality of the Brazilian on depressing display. As has been the case over the last four years and change, Barao looked good for the opening five minutes, cutting off Sanders’ striking with smart body kicks and clean footwork. As soon as the first round ended, Sanders cornerman Santino Defranco told him to step through the body kicks and launch his left hand. Fast forward one minute. “Cool Hand Luke” came inside of a Barao body kick and ignited a left cross on his face before savagely pounding him out.
Barao is 2-7 in the last five years, with said wins coming over Mitch Gagnon and Phillipe Nover. After clocking in at 138 pounds for the Sanders bout, he has now blown weight for three of his last four fights. Plain and simple, there’s just no rationale for Barao being on the UFC roster in 2019, his championship past notwithstanding. Barao has been in the MMA game proper for 14 years, but don’t forget that he grew up training under his father, who was a prizefighter, so he has been at this for the vast majority of his 32 years on Earth. While I do think there’s something to be said for the 135-pound division getting better on the whole since the Brazilian was on top of the bantamweight world, that hardly explains Barao’s complete physical depreciation and intensifying struggles on the scale. Save T.J. Dillashaw, no one in Barao’s 43-fight career has ever really delivered a critical beatdown on him. Yet even if Barao cruised through mostly mediocre competition during his 33-fight unbeaten streak, a decade and a half of training camps and cutting weight can make even a 32-year-old fighter look like he’s 42, especially in a smaller weight class.
What comes next for Barao is uncertain and possibly unsettling. In years gone by, we could just reflexively say, “Oh, go back to Brazil and get paid.” Well, with the economic downturn in Brazil over the last few years, there are no promoters paying decent money. Pretty much every elite Brazilian prospect is trying to get to the UFC, Bellator MMA, One Championship or Rizin Fighting Federation as fast as possible, while journeymen and veterans tend to get plum details to serve as tuneup opponents for major promotions in Russia. The best, consistent money for a guy like Barao would be to use his name value to head to a promotion like Absolute Championship Akhmat, but look up and down an ACA card, or any other emerging Russian organization for that matter. You think Barao wants to be facing some 17-1 sanda fighter or some 8-0 Russian wrestler? These promotions are replete with them right now, especially in smaller weight classes. With a UFC pink slip seeming like a foregone conclusion, Barao is going to have some choices to make, but none of the options seem especially rosy right now.
Well, the ‘Fight of the Year’ Race Has a Leader -- By Several Laps
If you had something important to do, missed most or all of the UFC card on ESPN and didn’t get to see the war between Luque and Barberena, first of all, I feel sorry for you. Second of all, get on top of that immediately since it’s very possible it’s still going to be atop the “Fight of the Year” leaderboard when December rolls around.
What I think is important to focus on with Luque-Barberena is that, despite the absurd punch-for-punch sequence in which both men willingly engaged with just under 30 seconds to go, this was not your standard Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots foolishness. For me, a constituent part of what made this fight so good is that there was still considerable technique involved, despite how rugged and violent it all felt. Early on, Luque was drilling Barberena with varied, creative lead hands, lancing rights and bevies of kicks, yet couldn’t make a dent. Then, immediately after dropping Luque on a counter, Barberena had to smartly defend a rear-naked choke and the Brazilian’s trademark brabo choke. This is the kind of fight we reference when we talk about a “technical brawl.”
The fight was dramatic on a strike-by-strike basis. It seemed that for all of Luque’s varied firepower, he just couldn’t hurt Barberena, who wobbled him on occasion with heavy southpaw counters, leading to Luque consciously attacking the body more often in Round 2. There was maybe even more drama than folks realized: While I had Luque up 20-18 headed to the third round, the official scorecards were 20-18 and 19-19 twice, with Barberena giving his opponent hell late. If not for Luque’s dramatic right cross setting up the fight-ending knees with six seconds to go, he very well might have lost. In the end, the pair combined for 332 significant strikes landed, the third-highest tally in UFC history and second-most for a 15-minute fight, trailing Nate Diaz-Donald Cerrone by just two significant strikes.
Luque has been one of my sleeper favorites on the UFC roster for quite a while now, but with his dramatic, third-round knockout of Barberena, I don’t think he’s much of a secret to anyone anymore. He’s now 8-1 over his last nine fights, and he’s finished all eight opponents, tying him for fourth all-time in UFC welterweight stoppages with Josh Koscheck, which is no mistake. He’s easily one of the most offensively gifted fighters on the promotion’s roster. Meanwhile, it may sound cliché or even wrongheaded in many cases to suggest that a fighter gained something immeasurable and important in defeat, but Barberena, despite now being 5-4 in the Octagon, has earned himself heaps of goodwill from his promoter and fans, cementing himself as one of the foremost must-see mid-card action fighters in the UFC. In fact, in nine UFC fights, the only fighter to ever land more significant strikes in a bout than “Bam Bam” is the undefeated Colby Covington, who just kept him glued to the mat for 15 minutes. I don’t think the UFC will be targeting too many fights that will put Barberena on his backside in the near future.
Gracie’s Still a Mystery, but His Ground Game Sure Isn’t
When Jessica Penne rolled her ankle on Sunday morning, it subtracted a fight from the UFC on ESPN 1 lineup and meant that Kron Gracie wouldn’t get the historic designation of being part of the 5,000th fight in UFC history. Regardless, he did exactly what any sane person should’ve expected him to do, running roughshod over Alex Caceres -- incredibly, now a 20-fight UFC veteran -- in barely two minutes. I say “sane person,” because as the outcome showed you, this was a pure showcase fight designed to give Gracie some shine, yet he opened as high as -265 on some sportsbooks. I certainly hope some of you got in on that action.
Gracie had already destroyed better technical grapplers than “Bruce Leeroy” in his brief MMA career, including Hideo Tokoro and Tatsuya Kawajiri, so this was absolutely a no-brainer proposition. Yet even in a brief two-minute walkover, Gracie showed the basic blueprint of why he stands to be a potential MMA success story if he sticks to the sport. His ability to pressure Caceres and then duck under his first significant strikes to get the rear waistlock was clever and expertly executed. From there, all he needed to do was get one standing hook to initiate and brilliant take of the back with both hooks and the rear-naked choke was a mere formality.
Compare this with Gracie’s other MMA exploits so far, as well as his grappling career. Not only is he an above-average athlete, though perhaps not as much as his father was, but his grappling game is built on pure fundamentals taken to the highest degree of expertise. In every position, Gracie is always the attacking party, even if that offense means him playing bottom, outworking his opponent and applying pressure from guard. On top, it’s simple guard passes done to perfection, either to get full mount or claim the back before figuring out how to seal the deal. There’s no flash, no gimmicks, no BS; there’s no stalling, no “revolutionary” guard variations, no rolling or flying attacks. This kind of textbook technique, combined with underrated athleticism, is what makes the 30-year-old so promising.
My major question regarding Gracie’s long-term outlook is simply his own dedication. Gracie effectively stopped grappling competitively five years ago and was more than comfortable moving on from the mat. He has his academy, his name recognition and more than enough money, so he’s free to sample the latest in THC technology and go surfing on a whim. We know MMA is in his blood, but only time will tell if he’s willing to bleed for this sport.