UFC Phoenix: Velasquez vs. Ngannou Preview From Sadowolf

UFC Phoenix is ahead this Sunday, headlined by a major heavyweight fight atop the card. Remember to check out our Fightful/Talking MMA Pick Em', which is open until the main card starts!

#3 Francis Ngannou (12-3) vs. Cain Velasquez (14-2)

In a main card full of fights that are difficult to predict, we'll start with one of the hardest in the main event. Unlike the others, this fight's difficulty seems to have more to do with the unknown than anything else. Francis Ngannou seemed to be on his way to becoming a broken man after suffering a dominant loss to Stipe Miocic where he was worn out by wrestling and effective pressure; and it was followed by a bizarre decision loss to Derrick Lewis where he appeared so afraid of running out of gas that he just didn't pull the trigger. He would confirm following the fight that he was still affected by the loss to Miocic, and it frankly had him shook against Lewis. However, he was able to rebound in a rematch against Curtis Blaydes where he was a betting underdog despite winning the first fight. One might think Ngannou is "back," but the win didn't really prove anything because it didn't show us anything we didn't already know about Ngannou. He's always going to be a big danger in the early going of a fight, and he still didn't show a ton of nuance to his game. He generally just stalks his opponent waiting for a counter opportunity, and responds to strikes by leaning out of the way and coming back with a vicious uppercut or hook. He's also athletic and physically strong, which generally serves him well when it comes to wrestling. He's not easy to take down, and when you do take him down he's hard to control. Still, he hasn't shown that he can't be outworked if he can't get that early knockout.

Velasquez is an aggressive wrestler with a tireless work ethic in doggedly pursuing takedowns, a brutally effective top game, and relatively tight boxing, though he can be defensively porous; or maybe I should be using the past tense when saying this, because do we even know what kind of fighter he is at this point? He's is an even bigger question mark than Ngannou. It's been just shy of two-and-a-half years since we last saw him in the octagon, and while that last appearance was brutal and dominant, it was also against Travis Browne, who was up and down prior to the fight and hasn't registered a win since. Over a year prior to that he suffered a disappointing title loss to Fabricio Werdum where he apparently trusted his historically great cardio too much and brushed off the fact that he was fighting at high altitude in Mexico City, leading to him gassing and suffering a third round submission loss. Prior to that he looked like a killer, but that was literally almost five-and-half years ago. Since then he's had an endless stream of injuries, including a back injury that was pretty serious. He's had just those two most recent fights within that time frame, and despite the assurances of teammate Daniel Cormier, it's hard to imagine he hasn't lost a step. Although he ran right through Browne, there were definitely signs of degradation in the Werdum fight, and that seems like it was ages ago.

I normally don't like to be influenced by things like training footage I've seen on social media, but I have seen some footage going around of Velasquez at AKA hitting pads, and frankly he doesn't look great. He's noticeably slower and kind of awkwardly off-balance when throwing combinations. Frankly, if he comes into the fight throwing combinations like that at Ngannou he's probably getting knocked out. That lack of explosion in the training footage will likely also affect his ability to effectively wrestle Ngannou, and if that's the case he could be in for a short night. On the other hand he's proven quite tough barring the one quick loss to Junior dos Santos, but Ngannou is the type of fighter that could replicate that finish. With the amount of unknowns and just the fact that it's heavyweight MMA, a scenario with either fighter coming out on top is pretty easy to see, but along with the training footage, the injuries, and the fact that he's now 36 (but probably 50 in fight years), it's always been hard for me to put much confidence in picking fighters coming off long layoffs. Ngannou by first round knockout.

#10 James Vick (13-2) vs. Paul Felder (15-4)
Two big lightweights look to rebound in this one, and it's a fight that could produce pretty different results mostly depending on how what adjustments Vick has made to his game and Felder approaches the fight. Vick is as tall and lanky as they come in the division at 6'3" and though he's been learning to use his reach better and better throughout his UFC tenure, defense has been a huge problem for him when he takes a step up in competition. As a tall fighter who also stands up fairly tall, Vick uses long kicks, punches, and movement to make him less open to big overhands. That is unless you're an effective pressure fighter, where Vick typically responds to that pressure by backing himself into the cage and standing upright, which severely limits his options to escape big shots. This is what caused both of his career losses: he's pressured back into the cage, he has nowhere to go, and catches a big shot as he's trying to make his way out with his chin wide open. He's proven to be a solid fighter otherwise, with good ranged striking, improved footwork, and a pretty wicked guillotine, but he has a clear exploitable flaw that needs to be fixed.

I think a lot in this fight depends on Felder. For one, I'm not sure he's the guy to exploit Vick's poor response to pressure, because he's not a very good pressure fighter. He'll get agressive and walk opponents down, but he rarely cuts them off and he seems to get caught up in going tit-for-tat with his opponents in exciting stand up wars. He's had trouble tracking down mobile opponents on the feet throughout his time in the UFC, and Vick is the type who can move around pick him apart while he gets frustrated and just marches forward trying to get him back. Early in Felder's run I would have definitely picked Vick to do this to him, but to his credit he has learned to calm down a bit on the feet and not be so easy to draw into ego battles on the feet. However, that still doesn't make him a great pressure fighter or a very tactical striker. He's mostly an action fighter with a lot of techniques but not a ton of depth to his striking game. Honestly, even though he has a reputation as an exciting striker, he's better in the clinch and from top position. I liken him to Felice Herrig, who always had the reputation of a kickboxer in MMA when in reality she's a mediocre kickboxer with a much more solid clinch wrestling and grappling game. Similar things can be said of Donald Cerrone; although he's definitely better than mediocre on the feet, he's arguably a better grappler and his wrestling game is underrated.

With that said, if Felder decides to try and get the fight to the ground I could see him really putting some damage on Vick and taking away a lot of his weapons. But will he? That's where things get tough to call. He's developed a habit of stubbornly striking with opponents even when he's losing, and it's hard to imagine he's suddenly changed his ways. I see this as a pretty even fights odds-wise, with both men having open pathways to victory, but I think it's a bit more likely Vick starts picking Felder apart, and Felder spends the better part of three rounds trying to get him back and not doing enough. Vick by decision.

#11 Cortney Casey (8-6) vs. #12 Cynthia Calvillo (7-1)

Once a pretty hot prospect at 115 lb, it seems the buzz on Calvillo has cooled off a bit following a loss to Carla Esparza. She was able to rebound with a dominant first round finish of Poliana Botelho, but she still appears to be a clear step behind a top prospect like Tatiana Suarez. She certainly has skills to look out for though; she's a an aggressive wrestler and a pretty venemous grappler. Her stand up is coming along but is mostly ineffective and lacks the power or consistency to give her opponents much pause.
Casey has pretty much settled into the role of gatekeeper in the division. She's tall, long, big, and strong, but she fails to consistently leverage those physical gifts into complete performances because of glaring flaws in each phase of the game. She's a willing, but undiverse and somewhat clumsy striker who is easy to adjust to because she rarely adjusts herself. Her takedown defense is pretty bad, and she's a capable, but hit-or-miss grappler. When her game clicks she can look pretty damn good, such as in her dominant win over Jessica Aguilar, but that just rarely happens.

I expect the stand up not to be of much consequence as neither woman is all that effective there, and Calvillo has had instances of falling in love with her striking and continuing to stand despite it not being in her best interest, but I think she'll incorporate her wrestling at some point. On the ground she'll likely be too much for Casey, whose willingness to engage there will land her in trouble. I'll take Calvillo by submission in the seconds or third round.

Kron Gracie (4-0) vs. Alex Caceres (14-11, 1NC)
Another tough pick based on unknown factors. Kron is the latest of the legendary Gracie family to ply his trade in the UFC, and despite his short career he does have pretty solid wins over Hideo Tokoro and Tatsuya Kawajiri, though it's tough to really determine what those wins really mean these days. He hasn't fought in over two years since, which is also a point of concern, but you figure his grappling, which is the meat of his game, hasn't waned in the time since. His game is normally to strike aggressively (though not particularly well) and close the distance and essentially pull guard, as wrestling is not a strong suit of his. So far he's been effective with it, but I don't anticipate that will continue in the UFC; at least not for long.

Caceres, like the aforementioned Casey is just incredibly inconsistent. He has a flashy, but slick striking game and is a more than competent grappler, but there's no telling if he'll actually show it off in any given fight, sometimes being lackadaisical and defensively porous in either phase. Actually, forget any given fight; it's tough to know how Caceres will look in any given round. It's not hard at all to imagine him keeping his distance and picking Gracie apart for the majority of the fight, but it's just as easy to imagine him slipping up and allowing Gracie inside, and then engaging with him on the ground long enough to end up in big trouble. I think it's somewhat of a toss up despite the odds favoring Gracie pretty comfortably, but I don't see Caceres getting the finish and I can't rely on him to be reliable for 15 minutes. Gracie by second round submission.

Vicente Luque (14-6-1) vs. Bryan Barberena (14-5)
At first glance I thought this was a pretty easy pick, but then I remembered how aggressive Luque is in looking for finishes, and how durable Barbarena is. In Luque's lone UFC loss, he emptied his gas tank going after Leon Edwards in the first round, and was wide open to being grinded on and picked apart down the stretch, and I can imagine Barbarena doing the same. That said, Luque is a very good finisher. He has big power in his hands, and never hesitates hunting or submissions, especially from the front headlock position. He's definitely an offense-first type of fighter, but more often than not he's able to overwhelm opponents and get them outta there.

Barbarena is no stranger to the spoiler role, and he looks to play it again here with the odds positioned against him. He has shown decent power in his hands, and regardless his aggressive, tiring style tends to wilt opponents over time. I've often called Luque one of the more underrated welterweights, but Barbarena just might have the style to upend him here. On the other hand Luque knocked out Belal Muhammad, who has proven extremely tough, and is a solid grappler. Barbarena has a good shot at the upset, but I'll go with Luque to do enough to win a decision if he doesn't finish.

Andre Fili (17-5) vs. Myles Jury (17-3)
Both of these fighters came into the UFC with a decent amount of hype, but have settled in as mid-level featherweights since. Fili's hype centered around his aggressive and exciting striking game, but he has developed a surprisingly stour wrestling game to fall back on. Jury made his bones as a well-rounded technical fighter who was mostly known for his grappling prior to coming in to the UFC, but has shown more flashes of solid wrestling and dangerous striking since. His issue is that he can never show these consistently when he moves up in competition. Overall I think he's shown to be the more effective fighter against the a higher level of competition. This fight should be close, but Fili isn't exactly a step up for him. I think he should be able to handle Fili's volume and wrestling fine, and launch effective counters in return. I'll slightly favor Jury by decision here.

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