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Don’t call it a comeback. I mean, we have no idea whether it is or not. Nonetheless, on Sunday in Phoenix, the Ultimate Fighting Championship hosts its first main card on ESPN, with two-time UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez returning from two and a half years out of the cage to headline against Francis Ngannou.
Velasquez has been a betting favorite by closing time in his last five fights, ever since his rematch with Junior dos Santos in 2012, when he brutally avenged his UFC title defeat. Overall, the American Kickboxing Academy product has been favored by the closing line -- excluding Ngannou -- in 12 of his last 14 contests, and God help the souls who bet on Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Brock Lesnar of all people to create that statistic. More interestingly, Velasquez actually opened as an underdog to Jake O’Brien, Cheick Kongo and dos Santos in the rematch. While the “Cigano” rematch makes sense, the O’Brien and Kongo lines, historically speaking, suggest that bookies have had some reservations about Velasquez, but sharp bettors have absolutely hammered him when it counts.
As for Ngannou? Excluding this Velasquez bout, he has been the betting favorite for every single one of his UFC bouts except for, curiously, both of his fights with Curtis Blaydes. That includes his infamously lopsided beatdown against then-UFC champ Stipe Miocic and his languid, terrible performance against Derrick Lewis -- a line that was undoubtedly and directly influenced by his performance in the Miocic contest. Suffice to say, these are two men on which sharp bettors know to throw their dough, even when oddsmakers don’t necessarily recognize what’s what. So, who will get us to the pay window this time?
On top of that, we have another 13-fight UFC card with only three favorites above -200. These are well-matched fights, but to me, that sounds like a ripe opportunity to grate some cheese. Let’s strategize about how to sprinkle a little extra into our wallets with the UFC’s main card debut on ESPN:
Straight Up CashVelasquez (-155)
You may want to hold your money a little longer, since all my inside intel and public numbers indicate that the late money is coming in on Ngannou. If you are a serious sort, I’d keep holding on for a little bit, surveying the betting trend and waiting until you get the choicest money you can get on Velasquez. Keep in mind, he opened at -170, but it’s only within the last week that people started putting considerable cash on Ngannou.
It goes without saying, like anyone, I have significant trepidation about Velasquez here. Not only is he 36 years old, but he’s been out two and a half years. More than that, he has had a lifetime of injuries: the rotator cuff, the surgeries on his knee and the bone spurs in his back. That doesn’t even begin to tell the tale of whatever physiological difficulties he may be suffering from after a lifetime of wrestling. Talk to any MMA fighter from a wrestling background and they’ll tell you two things: “Wrestling hurt me worse than anything I’ve ever done in my life” and “the only time I get hurt training MMA is when I do wrestling.” Noteworthy as well, the Tuesday wrestling practices at the American Kickboxing Academy, run by team captain and UFC heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier, might be the single most demanding MMA practices I’ve ever witnessed in my life.
Beyond that, Ngannou is still scary. Just when the world wrote him off as a flash in the pan, it took him all of 45 seconds to replicate his win over Blaydes in November, rebounding from two humiliating losses to Miocic and Lewis. He has six inches of reach on Velasquez and is a lethal puncher with both hands. Whether it’s the Kongo knockdown early in his career, the dos Santos knockout when the UFC debuted on Fox or how Werdum marked him up, folks will always wonder how Velasquez will react when he gets hit with hard shots, despite displaying a generally sturdy chin throughout his career. I feel you here.
However, here’s the scoop. Ngannou’s entire style is predicated on forward movement and feinting. In fact, by FightMetric count, he lands only 1.97 significant strikes per minute while absorbing 1.94, nearly a one-to-one ratio. “The Predator” thrives on eating a few shots while trudging forward, jabbing and feinting and waiting to twist his hips and shoulders to unload those brain-melting hooks and uppercuts. Velasquez? He is the ultimate stat breaker when it comes to heavyweights. He lands 6.38 significant strikes per minute, easily the highest in history for a UFC heavyweight with more than a couple fights. Total strikes landed per minute? Velasquez’s tally puts him at 6.49, which is the seventh highest in UFC history.
With all due love to Fedor Emelianenko, Velasquez is at the very least the most vicious ground-and-pounder in the history of heavyweight MMA. While Emelianenko would sit in your guard, posture and consider when to drop volleys, Velasquez simply never stops. The minute you try to sweep, scramble or roll to another position, Velasquez’s nimble nature and wrestling ability allows him to just ride and control your body as he keeps rifling you with punches. This fight comes down to two questions. One, can Velasquez get a takedown before eating a big shot? Two, what can he do on top? Ngannou’s career success is predicated on going forward and pressuring. Do you really think that Velasquez will come out, even with an injury-worn body, and try to play counterfighter? Secondly, while Miocic is an underrated wrestler and ground-and-pound artist, he’s not Velasquez. If the former champion gets Ngannou on the floor early, he is going to force feed him the worst beating you can imagine, since “The Predator” still relies on pure athleticism to get to his feet and Velasquez will not permit such a thing.
The last time the UFC had a main card debut on a major platform, Velasquez ended up on his face in all of 64 seconds courtesy of dos Santos. Unless Ngannou can land the same kind of heat off of his back foot -- which is not his specialty -- he is going to be in for a rough night. Velasquez is going to put Ngannou on his back foot almost immediately and segue his way into the necessary takedown. The Cameroonian’s only saving graces will be that it will be short and Velasquez won’t be in 2012 vintage form. Nonetheless, this should be the former champion’s triumphant return in style.
Straight Up PassJames Vick (-120), Paul Felder (+100)
I’ve never told anyone to “just avoid this fight entirely.” In every other case before this, it’s one or the other, but there’s a first time for everything.
Now, I’ve gone on record and said that I think Vick will win in a close and probably bloody decision. It seems bettors are following that suit: He opened at +130 and is now a -120 favorite. With that said, while being primarily offensively aggressive operators with different styles, they have weirdly congruous numbers from a statistical perspective. When it comes to landing significant strikes, defending them, landing takedowns, defending said takedowns and all of that jazz, they’re not within a few tenths of a point away from each other. This is, for all intents and purposes, a pick-’em fight. However, notes of style are what dictate MMA outcomes, and frankly, I’m not sure how they’re going to mesh here.
Vick has six inches of reach, and over the course of his career, he has gotten much better at using his simply enormous and freakish 6-foot-3 frame to punish lightweights. At the same time, his best defense is his offense. He still leaves his chin hanging in the air at all times, which is how he got so thoroughly embarrassed by Beneil Dariush and Justin Gaethje. Meanwhile, Felder tends to betray his well-rounded skill set, get sucked into brawls and abandon strategy, yet has a monstrous chin and can seemingly absorb anything an opponent throws at him. Vick has an offensive grappling advantage with crafty chokes -- a small part of why I favor him slightly -- but it’s questionable if he will even get that opportunity here, by means of either knocking down Felder or willingly trying to wrestle.
For a fan, this fight is pure crackerjacks. We could be in for anything here; a quick highlight-reel stoppage seems as likely as a 15-minute, potential “Fight of the Year” war. That’s all the more reason to put your money elsewhere. Yes, if we do the gun-to-my-head test, I’m going to take Vick based on his size, greater versatility and Felder’s track record of getting seduced into brawling, but it just takes one moment for him to step inside of one of Vick jabs or long, janky right hook to absolutely destroy his face. While I feel a measure of relief that bettors are pounding my hair-splitting pick on “The Texecutioner,” never in a lifetime would I bet on this fight. Unless you have some inside info on one of these dudes having a major injury coming into this bout, just avoid the sweat, kick up your feet and enjoy the violence.
A Prop-ular BetKron Gracie Wins Inside the Distance (-195)
Gracie at -300 against Alex Caceres is ridiculous as it is. Gracie to win inside the distance at -195? You think one of the best technical grapplers on the planet is going to drag “Bruce Leeroy” out over 15 minutes? There is cognitive and betting dissonance here, and we should be keen to exploit it.
Look, I’ve been watching this sport for almost 20 years now, and I’ve seen plenty of world-class grapplers not excel at actually fighting in a ring or cage. Most recently, we saw A.J. Agazarm blow it in his fighting debut for Bellator MMA, despite being a fantastically accomplished grappler and former collegiate wrestler for Ohio State. However, the stakes are different here. Gracie is a tier if not two tiers above Agazarm as a technical grappler, and he already has significant MMA experience. He has humiliated accomplished grapplers like Hideo Tokoro and Tatsuya Kawajiri and made them look like rank amateurs. The grappling world still reveres Gracie as one of the best on the planet, and he is so secure monetarily speaking that he hasn’t even bothered competing in the last five years. It pays to be Rickson Gracie’s son, I suppose.
Caceres’ scramble-heavy style shows a complete disregard for position and has gotten him tapped a half dozen times in his MMA career. This is a bout straight out of a 1980s episode of Superstars of Wrestling. Caceres isn’t a full-blown jobber; somehow, this will be Caceres’ 20th fight under UFC employ, which is truly mind-blowing by itself. Think of it more like when the World Wrestling Federation wanted to push a heel and lined him up against S.D. Jones or Sam Houston. He’s facing a guy who has some wins on television, but you know the underdog has zero chance, even if you are 6 years old.
This is going to be a textbook grappling clinic. While I am curious if Gracie -- he has been training his boxing under Richard Perez and working with Nate Diaz and company -- tries to flex any striking skills he might have learned, we already know enough from his grappling career and first four MMA fights to know how this is going to go: Close the distance, trip takedown, full mount, punches, armbar or rear-naked choke, goodbye to “Bruce Leeroy.” Gracie at -300 is generous to Caceres in its own right, but -195 to win inside the distance? That’s a steal. It’s just a shame that bookies aren’t offering Gracie to win by submission in the first round, or we could all be buying our significant others shiny baubles and new cars by Monday.
An Un-propular BetRenan Barao-Luke Sanders Does Not Go to Decision (-125)
As MMA lovers, whether you’ve watched this sport for 10 months or 10 years, we all have an acute understanding that age is relative to this sport. Sanders is a year older than Barao and is still seen as a hyper-athletic prospect who, if he could just stop being so overaggressive and slipping up, could really make something of himself. Meanwhile, at 32, Barao is seen as a washed-up fogey. This is how the fight game goes. Barao is paying the price for having a documented 42 fights on his record and turning pro when he was 18 years old.
There are a lot of lies and erroneous maxims to which people hold fast in this sport, but “fight age” is certainly not one of them. There is no doubt that Barao is on the decline, even though 32 years of age hardly constitutes being an “old man.” Yet, the proof is in the pudding. He is 1-5 in his last six fights, and it’s not just that he lost those fights but how he lost them. Barao is ever-increasingly languid and can’t seem to hold his steam beyond the first five minutes of any single contest. Contrast that with Sanders, who comes out in every fight with pure piss and vinegar, throwing caution to the wind and trying to kill his opponents with reckless abandon.
I think these two tendencies cancel out one another. Yes, I can see Sanders landing a punch, diving into the clinch against the fence and kneeing Barao into the fetal position. With that said, what I think is more likely is that Barao puts his best foot forward in the opening round, as he’s done in his recent bouts, then completely dies in a cardiovascular capacity and simply runs away for the final 10 minutes. Look at the Brian Kelleher or Andre Ewell fights for Barao. He fights respectably for five minutes, then it’s as if somebody has tazed him and he just spends the rest of the fight retreating. Sanders’ issue is that he gets out to an emphatic start, then gets a little too froggy and gets clocked, as was the case against Andre Soukhamthath; or he winds up in a leglock, like his losses to Iuri Alcantara and Rani Yahya. Barao, despite being a fantastic grappler, just won’t have the stamina to effectuate that scenario.
The likely scenario here? The opening round will be competitive, no matter how inadvisably aggressive “Cool Hand Luke” may be. Perhaps Barao even lands some clean counters in the round. After that? Barao is just going to circle, circle and circle some more. Sanders is a natural finisher, for better or for worse, but the Brazilian’s recent modus operandi suggests that the minute he gets winded -- also known as Round 2 -- he is just going to run and try to be an elusive target. While it may be spiriting to see Sanders, 1-3 in his last four inside the Octagon, get back on track, this has all the makings of another pathetic and deflated performance from a former UFC champion who is overdue for a pink slip, as he just rides out the fight for a full 15 minutes.
An Accumulation ContemplationVelasquez (-155)
Manny Bermudez (-190)
Andrea Lee (-160)
Total Odds: +308
Again, I’m as nervous as any Velasquez backer on whether he is going to cash us out. It just takes one punch from Ngannou to end things, if “The Predator” can show us that he can generate the same potent punching force off of his back foot as he can when he is going forward. This could easily be our parlay breaker, but we’re talking about one of the three best heavyweights ever, even with all his injury woes, taking on a woefully deficient opponent. At -155 and with that line probably going to get sweeter, you’d be a fool not to put this in your parlay, especially with so many evenly matched contests on this card. Where else are you going to find this value?
Well, Bermudez is one place. Typically, you’d think a 13-0 prospect like Bermudez against a 9-0 prospect like Benito Lopez, especially at 135 pounds, would be a dead heat and potentially a nip-tuck battle. Yet, look at their styles. Lopez’s entire game is throwing spinning and flying attacks while gassing himself out within seven minutes. He gave up his back to Albert Morales almost immediately and, honestly, did not deserve that decision.
Bermudez is just a natural grappler; the knack for submissions seems to be in his DNA. It’s not just that he simply has 10 subs in his 13 wins, but it’s how he does it. He reminds me of a young Charles Oliveira. He just intuits how to entangle, sweep and grab advantageous positions on his opponents. Lopez has a terrible habit of exposing his back, even going back to the regional California circuit. “The Bermudez Triangle” is going to exploit that with haste, unless Lopez can land a low-percentage flying knee or jumping switch-step head kick. Lopez’s style is a gift and a curse. He will surprise some opponents but falter when savvier fighters can take advantage of his aggression. Bermudez is the latter. The only question is if it’s a rear-naked choke, an over-the-top armbar or a rolling triangle choke that does the trick.
As for Lee, she has improved her game massively over the last three years, never mind all of the horrific personal travails she has needed to endure courtesy of ex-husband Donny Aaron. With that said, she has the perfect style to foil Ashlee Evans-Smith. Evans-Smith is a wrestler by trade, so you’d think she would be able to exploit Lee’s takedown defense. However, she only lands 27 percent of her takedowns inside the Octagon. Meanwhile, Lee has improved the weakest part of her game. Even off her back, “KGB” is a sweep-or-submit threat, which has implications for the matchup. What I anticipate is Lee using her karate background to use her reach advantage and kicking offense to maintain range and work and out-game to tag Evans-Smith consistently and clearly earn herself a decision win.