The Ultimate Fighting Championship made its official ESPN debut on Sunday, with former title contender Francis Ngannou stepping into the Octagon for the second time in under three months to face two-time champion and all-time heavyweight great Cain Velasquez in the main event.
Though the heavyweight centerpiece was somewhat anticlimactic -- Ngannou landed some scary punches around the same time Velasquez’s knee appeared to buckle, resulting in a 26-second knockout for the Cameroonian -- there was plenty of worth-your-Sunday-night action underneath it, including a “Fight of the Year” candidate between Vicente Luque and Bryan Barberena and the successful UFC debut of Kron Gracie.
In the first chapter of this new Sherdog series, “The Vanquished,” we will weigh in on the action and explore what’s next for the UFC on ESPN 1 main card losers.
Cain Velasquez vs. Curtis Blaydes: The anticipation for the return of “Cardio Cain” was real, with fans’ most recent memory of the former champion being at UFC 200, where he dismantled Travis Browne in one round and earned a “Performance of the Night” bonus in the process. Unfortunately, what fans got was a reminder of why Velasquez had been out since that time -- with a freak knee injury and some hellacious punches from Ngannou cutting his night short and potentially creating a roadblock to another fight in 2019. Though there are legitimate doubts about whether we will see Velasquez again in the Octagon soon, the 36-year old asserted at the post-fight press conference that he intends to continue competing if his body holds up. If the Fight Gods grant us that wish to compensate for a truly bizarre weekend in combat sports, Blaydes would be an appropriate dance partner next time out. Fourth in the UFC’s official rankings and himself coming off of a 45-second KO loss to “The Predator” in Beijing, Blaydes possesses many of the same weapons as Velasquez, utilizing a wrestling base to overpower opponents and a varied ground-and-pound arsenal once he reaches a dominant position. “Razor” will fight Velasquez’s training partner Justin Willis in March, and win, lose or draw, he should face Velasquez next.
James Vick vs. Alexander Hernandez: For the second time in two outings, James Vick was outclassed on the feet, dropping a unanimous decision to the unranked Paul Felder in what stands to be a significant obstacle to his title aspirations for the short-term future. While “The Texecutioner” went 9-1 in his first 10 UFC fights and has solid wins over the likes of Jake Matthews, Joseph Duffy and Francisco Trinaldo, he has now been winless for a full year; and given his lack of charisma and association with controversial head coach Lloyd Irvin, it seems safe to say the UFC will be happy to get him out of the spotlight. Matchmaking wise, a fight with the No. 13-ranked Hernandez makes sense, with the much hyped 26-year-old having been soundly beaten by Donald Cerrone at UFC Fight Night 143.
Cortney Casey vs. Alexa Grasso-Marina Rodriguez winner: Casey has not had much luck in her UFC career, dropping three of her last four fights via scorecards. The results could quite easily have gone her way with a different set of judges. With her loss to Cynthia Calvillo, the 31-year old Casey will likely find herself on the outside of the strawweight Top 15, and it will take some serious rebuilding if she intends to challenge for a title before hanging up the gloves. A fight that makes sense in her return would be against the winner of Grasso-Rodriguez, as they square off at UFC on ESPN 2 in March. The No. 13-ranked Grasso has gone 2-2 in her UFC career and has not lived up to fans’ expectations since her impressive run in Invicta Fighting Championships. Meanwhile, Rodriguez will look for her first UFC victory after her September debut ended in a draw.
Alex Caceres vs. Kyle Bochniak: Caceres appeared confident in the buildup to his fight opposite Kron Gracie, with the MMA Lab stalwart believing his experience -- this was his 20th UFC appearance -- would make all the difference when they met in the center of the cage. As it turned out, such confidence was misplaced. “Bruce Leeroy” lasted barely two minutes with Gracie before succumbing to a textbook rear-naked choke, resulting in Caceres’ fourth loss in six outings. While Caceres is unlikely to ever challenge for a title, he remains an exciting fixture in the 145-pound weight class, and a fight opposite fellow journeyman Bochniak would likely translate into fireworks. “Crash” last fought at UFC 231, where he dropped a split decision to Hakeem Dawodu.
Bryan Barberena vs. Carlos Condit: Barberena marched into his fight with Vicente Luque as the biggest underdog on the card, but there was nothing lopsided about what ensued. The two welterweights earned “Fight of the Night” honors for their striking battle, which set a welterweight record for significant strikes landed; and if it were not for Luque landing a pair of brutal knees in the final 10 seconds of the fight, “Bam Bam” might well have walked away with a win on the scorecards. Owing to Barberena’s incredible performance, fan-friendly style and workman mentality, the UFC would be smart to give him a high-profile opponent for his next appearance, and a bout opposite a former interim champion in Condit fits that bill. One of the most beloved 170-pound competitors in UFC history, “The Natural Born Killer” has dropped four straight bouts since his epic championship fight with Robbie Lawler at UFC 195.
Myles Jury vs. Doo Ho Choi: After earning 15 straight wins to begin his MMA career, Jury hit a series of stumbling blocks in the past four years, dropping four of his last six while navigating injury woes outside the cage. While showing signs of the old “Fury” in his bout opposite Andre Fili, Jury was outworked on the feet and never really found his rhythm, dropping a unanimous decision that will place him even further outside the Top 15 he once looked poised to run through. For his next fight, a bout opposite the 27-year-old Choi makes sense, with the “Korean Super Boy” having also dropped his past two bouts.