Saturday night in Arizona see’s the long-awaited return of the former heavyweight division kingpin – Cain Velasquez. The welcome home party, Francis Ngannou, is one of the most imposing figures ever seen at heavyweight with the ability to stop anyone among the top fifteen with one shot.
An NCAA Division 1 All-American and consensus heaviest hitter in heavyweight history clash in Phoenix this weekend, but this match has so many more factors and implications.
There is no doubt Cain is a slick boxer. This was apparent with his stoppage over Minotauro Nogeuira. But, I think we can all agree his wrestling background is obviously his “meat and potatoes”. Absorbing almost two significant strikes a minute is detrimental when facing the Batié native, Ngannou, but the smothering style of wrestling and top pressure exacted by another former world champion in Stipe Miocic should be the obvious blueprint in order to prevent immediate danger against Francis. ‘The Predator’ was almost stuck to the canvas for the majority of his clash with Stipe, unable to create any space for a scramble or a stand-up.
Dropping another loss in an unmemorable meeting with Derrick Lewis after his premier promotion defeat to Miocic, Ngannou was pitted against former foe Curtis Blaydes in Beijing last November with the Juco national champion looking to avenge a doctor stoppage defeat to the rugged Cameroonian. In desperate need of a win, Ngannou remained composed and unleashed a massive overhand right inside the opening minute staggering the Elevation Fight Team product before follow up shots forced Marc Goddard to call a halt to the action.
Ngannou rebounded with a solid win and subsequently forced the fellow title surging Blaydes to return to the drawing board with his four-fight winning streak snapped.
Earning a shot at Stipe’s crown as a direct result of a terrifying knockout of Alistair Overeem and an earlier bludgeoning of Andrei Arlovski, Ngannou is still unquestionably one of the favourites to eventually pick up the strap with tweaks to his conditioning eyed at Vegas’ state of the art UFC Performance Institute. His ability to leave his opponent staring at the bright lights above the Octagon canvas early on will be a huge facet of this fight.
A fan favourite within the MMA community, the first Latin-American gold holder Cain Velasquez has dropped from the ranks entirely due to nagging back and neck injuries. Last competing at the monumental UFC 200 card against fellow division drop off Travis Browne, ‘Hapa’ was dispatched with certain ease inside the opening round with Cain’s boxing something to note heading into Saturday’s main event.
With arguably the most impressive résumé in Heavyweight antiquity, Velasquez has beaten the likes of Brock Lesnar to earn his first title, Junior Dos Santos twice during their legendary trilogy, Antonio ‘Bigfoot’ Silva and former PRIDE FC great Minotauro Nogueira during his career prime. Dropping the title to JDS then currently suspended Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu player Fabrício Werdum at high altitude in Mexico, ‘Cardio Cain’ seen his often renowned conditioning diminish severely as he shot for a late takedown and fell into a guillotine as ‘Vai Cavalo’ claimed the Heavyweight crown.
Octagon rust is still somewhat of an open debate in the community, with the likes of bantamweight great Dominick Cruz refuting the theory but we’ve no doubt seen the return of one time promotion best’s suffer from jitters with Conor McGregor, in particular, looking flat-footed throughout his loss to Khabib Nurmagomedov at UFC 229 with coach John Kavanagh attributing the defeat to a lack of previous cage time. The theory suffers when studying Ronda Rousey’s return to action against Amanda Nunes as she was picked apart inside one minute, similarly to Brazil’s Cris Cyborg who also fell to the hands of Nunes despite competing only eight months prior compared to Rousey’s year hiatus.
It remains to be seen which Cain Velasquez makes the walk this weekend if he swarms Francis like he’s swarmed Brock Lesnar and the more technical boxer, Dos Santos, expect Ngannou to be forced into fighting from the back foot with a watchful eye on a shoot from Cain. Based on Velasquez’s tendency to eat some significant shots, I pick Ngannou to find his chin sometime in the opening round, he only needs to find it once.
Official Pick: Francis Ngannou via first-round knockout.