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  1. On Sunday 17th February, the Octagon is in Phoenix, Arizona. And it’s the big debut on ESPN. Not ESPN+, the proper ESPN. And they’re bringing a beast of a fight. ESPN MAIN CARD Francis Ngannou vs Cain Velasquez James Vick vs Paul Felder Cynthia Calvillo vs Cortney Casey Alex Caceres vs Kron Gracie Vicente Luque vs Bryan Barberena Myles Jury vs Andre Fili ESPN PRELIMS Jimmie Rivera vs Aljamain Sterling Benito Lopez vs Manny Bermudez Ashlee Evans-Smith vs Andrea Lee Nik Lentz vs Scott Holtzman ESPN+ PRELIMS Renan Barão vs Luke Sanders Jessica Penne vs Jodie Esquibel Aleksandra Albu vs Emily Whitmire Really like this. Just cross everything that Cain actually survives his training camp and makes it to the cage this time. If Cain actually stays in one piece and fights on this card, he’ll have the distinction of main eventing the first big UFC cards on both FOX and ESPN, pretty cool bit of trivia if you’re a Cain fan. So yeah, Francis Ngannou vs Cain Velasquez headlines. Tremendous fight. If it happens. If. Let’s not harp on the ‘if’ though. Let’s be glass half full optimistic types and go ahead on the assumption that Cain doesn’t get broken again. This is a massive fight for Cain, make no mistake. He’s been gone so long and he’s coming right back in against a monster with huge KO power who challenged for the title just last year. The fact his comeback is happening in Phoenix makes it even bigger for him. CB Dolloway, Ryan Bader and Big Cain V there on the wrestling mats at Arizona State University. Cain was born in California but he actually grew up and went to school in Arizona. It’s probably the place he considers home as much, if not more than Cali or Mexico. Cain came into MMA as a NCAA Division I wrestler. He trained at AKA in San Jose from day one of his MMA career and was being hyped by Javier Mendez and Dave Camarillo as a future heavyweight champion from the jump. He turned pro in October 2006. Fought once in Strikeforce and once in Bodog, 2 first round stoppages, and that was it. At just 2-0 he was signed by the UFC. He made his UFC debut on the undercard of Serra vs GSP 2 in Montreal in 2008. TKOing Brad Morris in 2 minutes. From there he battered Jake O’Brien and Denis Stojnic, moving to 5-0. In June 2009 he got his first real test. Taking on Cheick Kongo at UFC 99 in Cologne, Germany. It wasn’t plain sailing. Kongo hurt and dropped Cain three times in the fight. But Cain showed a granite chin, survived and bossed the rest of the fight with his overwhelming wrestling and ground and pound. He won a clear decision despite the 3 knockdowns, which tells you just how dominant he looked the rest of the time. In his next two fights he stopped Ben Rothwell and the legendary Antônio Rodrigo Nogueira. His record now stood at 8-0 with 7 by KO/TKO. Time for a title shot. Brock Lesnar was only 5-1 at this point but he came into this fight on a massive wave of momentum having beat Shane Carwin, Frank Mir, Randy Couture and Heath Herring consecutively. It seems a bit silly in hindsight but back then many got swept up in Lesnarmania and thought he might be champion for a long time. Brock vs Fedor was the one people were buzzing to see. And hilariously, Cain was being criticised by vocal pockets of the MMA fanbase for being, and I quote, “pillow fisted”. I never got that one. Like I said, 8-0 with 7 finishes pisses all over that theory. It was a knock that was based entirely on Cain not being able to put Kongo away and it was bollocks. Anyway, Brock vs Cain set the messageboards off. I remember it being hotly debated on here as well going in. The general thinking seemed to be that Cain was the better wrestler technically but Brock’s size would be too much and because Cain obviously couldn’t break an egg with his soft hands, he was fucked against Big Bad Brock. Of course, Cain smashed him to bits inside a round. Just destroyed Brock. Dealt with his initial burst and takedown attempt, beat him up on the feet, gave Brock a taste of his own medicine and took him down, then battered him into oblivion with ground and pound. He actually had Brock kind of cowering against the fence at one point. And when it was all over, Brock was a mess with blood absolutely pissing out of a huge gash on his cheek. Cain Velasquez, at just 9-0, was the UFC undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. Unfortunately for Cain, his next fight was a disaster. In his very first title defence, on the big FOX debut show in November 2011... He got knocked out in about a minute by Junior Dos Santos. He lost his title and his unbeaten record in one minute. I always say that it’s fascinating how different fighters handle their first defeat and come back from it. Some learn, adapt and improve. Others are never the same once that invincible aura is gone. Cain bounced back in style. Smile you son of a bitch. No, it’s not Jaws. It’s Cain turning Bigfoot Silva and the Octagon canvas blood red. The fight lasted under 4 minutes and look at the carnage. He also bounced back against Junior Dos Santos. Fucking hell, did he bounce back. After mauling Bigfoot, Cain got a rematch with JDS for the title at UFC 155 in December 2012. What followed was one of the most savage beatings ever witnessed in MMA. Look at this shit; Cain obliterated his face for the entire 5 rounds. 25 minutes of GBH. How Junior saw the final bell I’ll never know. Less than a year later they had the rubber match and Cain fucked him up bad again. Cain vs JDS 2 and 3 are considered two of the worst and most brutal beatdowns in MMA history to this day. JDS has never been quite the same since. Sadly, this is where the wheels started coming off for Cain too. He’d just won the trilogy with JDS who was his biggest threat and the consensus #2 best heavyweight in the world at the time. Cain should’ve been riding high and, with JDS in the rear view, building on his legacy. But over the next few years, he spent most of his career like this; It started in 2014. He coached TUF: Latin America opposite Fabricio Werdum, with the two set to fight in November. But Cain suffered a knee injury and had to have surgery. That seemed to open the floodgates for injury after injury over the next few years. In June 2015, the Werdum fight did eventually happen, at UFC 188 in Mexico. And Cain lost again. It was an incredible fight, a back and forth war, but Werdum was having one of his ‘ON’ nights and looked sharp everywhere, submitting Cain with a guillotine in the third. Cain vs Werdum 2 was supposed to go down in February 2016 but, you guessed it; He missed the first half of 2016 and finally came back in the summer. He fought Travis Rousey-Browne at UFC 200 in July and crushed him in the first round. Amazingly, despite all the layoffs, he looked great and like he hadn’t missed a day. But at the same time, Browne had been floundering for a while prior to this so it’s hard to really gauge how good Cain was here. He couldn’t have looked much better though. Once again, Cain vs Werdum 2 was booked for UFC 207 in December 2016. And once again... This time the athletic commission wouldn’t clear him because of a back injury. And that’s the last we heard of Cain and fight bookings for ages. Francis Ngannou has an interesting backstory. He grew up in poverty in Cameroon and was working by the age of 12. In his early 20s he started training boxing to try to escape his shitty situation. At the age of 26 he arrived in Paris, France to try to make something happen with his boxing dream. He was skint, homeless and didn’t know a soul in Paris. He got a break when a boxing coach discovered him and let him train at his gym for free. His coach said that from early on, he watched Ngannou in the gym and thought he’d be a perfect fit for MMA. So Ngannou was talked out of Boxing and into MMA. ”The last time I was in Cameroon, I brought a lot of materials for MMA and Boxing, to open a gym. Now I just bought a big space to start the gym, as well. A lot of children in Cameroon, because of me, they have a dream. They say, ‘I will be a champion in MMA. I will do boxing like Francis’, because they saw me when I was young. I didn’t have anything. I didn’t have any opportunity. And today, they see me, and they are dreaming. They are thinking that something is possible. Even when they are so poor, something is possible in life... It’s not easy. It’s so hard, but it’s possible.” - Francis Ngannou Ngannou made his MMA debut in November 2013. He went 5-1 before the UFC snapped him up in late 2015. He quickly turned heads with his scary appearance and by stopping Luis Henrique, Curtis Blaydes, Bohan Mihajlovic, Anthony Hamilton and Andrei Arlovski. At UFC 218 in December 2017, Ngannou was matched up with Alistair Overeem. An experienced veteran of 60 plus MMA fights plus a beast striker in his own right. It was the PPV co-main event. The biggest stage Ngannou had been on and against the toughest test so far in his career. To say Ngannou passed the test would be an understatement. He fucking waffled Overeem with a terrifying left hook and knocked him out cold, stiff as a board, in less than 2 minutes. One of the scariest knockouts ever. Ngannou was now 11-1 and coming off the biggest win of his career with a highlight reel Knockout Of The Year contender. The hype on him was insane going into 2018. With Dana going full on with it and claiming Ngannou as the most powerful man ever, a destroyer of worlds etc. All went tits up. 2018 was a bit of a disaster for Ngannou. He got his title shot against Stipe in January and got completely outclassed, outwrestled and exposed for 5 rounds. Then in July he lost a decision to Derrick Lewis in one of the crappest and most disappointing fights of the year. He did somewhat redeem himself in November though. Ending the year on a high, knocking out Curtis Blaydes in 45 seconds in their rematch in Beijing, China. We heard nothing of Cain for what seemed like forever. No updates, fuck all. And when he did finally pop up, he was talking about possibly jumping over to WWE and was even at the Performance Centre. ”THAT’S GOTTA BE CAIN! THAT’S GOTTA BE CAIN!” Cain in WWE would be the illest fit since John Cena’s suit. Of all the MMA fighters you could see giving it a go, Cain wouldn’t get near my list. His personality is drier than a Ryvita and, as we’ve established, he’s so injury prone. I don’t know what he’s thinking. Definitely Shawn Michaels’ chin. Ngannou vs Velasquez promo; Goosebumps. So there you have it. What happens here? If Cain is still anywhere near on form I think he beats Ngannou and stops him. But all these layoffs and injuries have got to take a toll sooner or later. And if he’s off at all, Ngannou only needs that one punch. James Vick vs Paul Felder should be a really good fight. Both like a scrap. Vick is coming off a quick KO loss to Justin Gaethje but was on a nice little run before that. Felder’s in a similar boat. Lost to Mike Perry last time out in a good fight but had rattled off 3 stoppages before that. I like this matchup and the timing of it. Jimmie Rivera vs Aljamain Sterling is another nice piece of matchmaking. I rate Rivera. He’s won 21 of his last 22 fights and beat Urijah Faber, Thomas Almeida, Pedro Munhoz and Iuri Alcantara. He got knocked out by Marlon Moraes last year but rebounded with a win over John Dodson in September. Sterling also got KOd by Moraes in late 2017 but had a successful 2018 with wins over Brett Johns and Cody Stamann. Again, I like the timing. Both guys are just on the fringes of getting in that contender mix at 135 now so we’ll see who goes forward here. Cynthia Calvillo vs Cortney Casey I’m not that arsed about. It’s alright. Calvillo is quite entertaining to watch. Real good grappling. If it goes to the ground she usually finds a way to get the finish. Her only loss is to Carla Esparza. She submitted Poliana Botelho in her last fight. I think Casey is on the way out here. 8-6 record and she’s lost to most of the decent-good opposition she’s faced. Just think Calvillo is fresher and more of a threat. Myles Jury vs Andre Fili will likely be decent enough. At one time both of these two were thought to be pretty good prospects. I don’t know what it is though, I’ve just never got into watching either of them. Jury is coming off that quick KO loss to Chad Mendes so he needs to make something happen here to stop the plummet. Bruce Leroy vs Kron Gracie is ***WAND’S ONE TO WATCH*** this time. Didn’t even know this was booked until now but there’s something I love about this pairing. Caceres is one of my favourite prelimers ever. I’m under no illusions that he’s not that good, but he’s great to watch and has had a bunch of really good fights on undercards over the years. There’s a reason the UFC have kept him around for 8 or 9 years despite him losing about half his fights. He’s 14-11-1 now and has lost 3 of his last 5. He’s going nowhere, I know, but I like him. Kron Gracie makes his UFC debut here. Kron is the son of Rickson and grandson of Helio. He’s 30 years old, a BJJ black-belt (obvs), ADCC gold medalist. In MMA he’s 4-0 with 4 submissions. He’s mostly fought in Rizin and submitted Tatsuya Kawajiri in his last fight. Hasn’t fought since December 2016 though. But still, submitting Kawajiri in your 4th fight is impressive. This is probably going to be a squash match but it’ll be exciting while it lasts. Vicente Luque vs Bryan Barberena I’m into purely to see Luque back in there. I think he’s really underrated. Might be because his record, 14-6-1, at first glance isn’t the best. But you look deeper and he’s got stoppage wins over Niko Price, Chad Laprise, Jalin Turner, Belal Muhammad and Hayder Hassan. All solid. He also has a first round TKO win over Thiago Santos back in 2012. He was the first man to beat Santos. He’s a quality fighter and a real finisher. Barberena’s OK, nowt special. Has wins over Jake Ellenberger and Warlley Alves and was the man who took Sage Northcutt’s O. Ashlee Evans-Smith vs Andrea Lee doesn’t do a great deal for me but might be alright. Evans-Smith is best known as the woman who stopped the streak of transgender fighter Fallon Fox. She’s not terrible, but she’s lost any time she’s faced anyone particularly good. Lee I know very little about. Haven’t seen her fight yet. She’s 9-2, Kyokushin black-belt and a BJJ Gracie purple-belt. Renan Barão vs Luke Sanders could be good. Don’t know what Barão has left at this stage though. In the space of a couple of years he went from being arguably the pound-for-pound king to where is he now? He’s only 31 but he seems shot to shit these days. Mad to think he was on a 30-odd fight win streak and now he’s lost 6 of his last 8. He’s fucked. And he’s losing to guys now, like Andre Ewell and Brian Kelleher, who he’d have smoked a few years back. Sanders is 33 years old with a 12-3 record. He’s also in a bit of a slump, losing 3 out of his last 4. Got submitted by Rani Yahya last time. He’s looked decent in some of the fights I’ve watched but it’s not really happening for him results-wise for whatever reason. Highlight of his UFC run so far was his debut where he scored a shock first round submission over BJJ black-belt Maximo Blanco. It’s all been downhill from there. Didn’t realise Sanders is with Becky Lynch until recently either. Who’s ‘The Man’ in that relationship? Benito Lopez vs Manny Bermudez is a fight where I’m not too familiar with either man. Had to Google away to refresh my memory and was reminded of Lopez and his awesome slobberknocker in his UFC debut against Albert Morales. He’s unbeaten at 9-0 and if the Morales fight is any indication he’s definitely got that typical Mexican Warrior style and mentality. Nik Lentz vs Scott Holtzman is OK. I like watching Lentz. Top grappler, tough as fuck, doesn’t mind a brawl. He’s always worth a watch. His 2 fights with Charles Oliveira are real forgotten gems. Can’t recall much of Holtzman but he’s coming off 3 wins and is 12-2 overall. Jessica Penne vs Jodie Esquibel is a bit of a nothing fight between two pretty average fighters. I thought Penne was done, to be honest. The beatings she took from Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Jessica Andrade were disturbing to watch. She had a solid 12-2 record before that but those batterings might’ve been game changers. Esquibel is 6-4, 0-2 in the UFC. Only other thing I know about her is that she’s Keith Jardine’s girlfriend. That’s it. Probably a ‘loser leaves town’ situation. Aleksandra Albu vs Emily Whitmire might be worth a look. Albu is 28, Russian, 3-0 record. She’s mostly known for posting pictures of her arse, and videos of her training which focus on her arse. Whitmire is 3-2 and was on TUF. Can’t recall much else other than vaguely that she had a story that she was homeless when she went on TUF.