UFC on ESPN Staff Picks: Predictions for Ngannou vs. Velasquez

Nathan McCarter@McCarterNFeatured ColumnistFebruary 14, 2019

UFC on ESPN Staff Picks: Predictions for Ngannou vs. Velasquez

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    The UFC is coming to Phoenix and the Talking Stick Resort Arena this weekend with a massive heavyweight tilt.

    Top contenders Francis Ngannou and a returning Cain Velasquez will try to stake their claim as a title contender for 2019. It is a true test for both men but for different reasons. Velasquez has been out of action for some time, while Ngannou still has to prove he has improved his grappling.

    In the co-main event, lightweights James Vick and Paul Felder get the spotlight for a three-round fight that will almost assuredly satisfy the fans' appetite for "swangin' and bangin'".

    The main card is filled with six fights, including Kron Gracie's UFC debut.

    The B/R crew of Scott Harris, Jonathan Snowden, Jeremy Botter and Nathan McCarter are back together for another round of staff picks. Let's get to business and see who the experts think will walk out of Phoenix with their hand raised high.

Andre Fili vs. Myles Jury

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    Scott Harris

    A fight between two prospects who aren't prospects anymore. Jury is more polished, but Fili may be a tad underrated. Yes, he has five UFC losses, but three of those were to Yair Rodriguez, Michael Johnson and champion Max Holloway. If Fili can turn this into a wild striking match, he should pull the upset. And don't forget that Fili trains with Chad Mendes, who knocked Jury out in Jury's last contest. Sound the (mild) upset alarms.

    Fili, TKO, Rd. 2

             

    Jonathan Snowden

    The jury is out on both fighters, two once-promising prospects who have settled into middling careers in the UFC's middle class. I think Fili is the better fighter, so he will win. How's that for a brief summary?

    Fili, unanimous decision

            

    Jeremy Botter

    This is going to be one hell of a fun fight, and I’ll skip the part where I tell you how it’s going to go, because the truth is I have no idea. This is the kind of fight that should open every UFC fight card: A banger featuring two fighters booked in this position solely because they’re going to deliver a fun fight.

    Jury, unanimous decision

         

    Nathan McCarter

    I'll move this to a split by taking Jury. It's a close fight to call, but Jury's ability to remain more technical is the ultimate difference. Scott pointed out that Fili will win wild exchanges, and Jury will avoid those making it a more tactical affair. Strap in for a fun 15-minute battle.

    Jury, unanimous decision

Vicente Luque vs. Bryan Barberena

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    Scott Harris

    This is a fun matchup right here. Luque wouldn't hesitate to attack a moving dump truck. Barbarena is a plug-and-play presence in any welterweight bout. The latter is less dynamic, and Luque should win the day. Barbarena will go down but not before notching his second career performance bonus.

    Luque, unanimous decision

           

    Jonathan Snowden

    Barbarena has played spoiler before, upsetting Sage Northcutt when the UFC was looking to push the ever-smiling prodigy to the moon. This time, he'll run into a sterner test. Luque is excitement personified and should prove too much for the MMA Lab product.

    Luque, unanimous decision

          

    Jeremy Botter

    This fight does nothing for me on paper, but those are the kinds of fights that often surprise me the most. I guess what I’m really hoping for here is a good fight, because it’s hard to get invested in two athletes who, between them, share only the accomplishment of derailing the UFC’s plans for Sage Northcutt.

    Barbarena by decision

              

    Nathan McCarter

    Barbarena has a chance to slow down this fight and turn it into a slog, but Luque will get him out of there before that can happen. I am expecting a big performance and first-round stoppage out of Luque in this spot. A couple of early stuffed takedowns makes Barbarena a sitting duck.

    Luque, TKO, Rd. 1

Alex Caceres vs. Kron Gracie

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    Scott Harris

    If you had a chance to watch Kron Gracie compete under the Rizin banner, you know he's more than a novelty. No one needs to explain why he's a danger on the ground—and four submissions in four pro MMA fights, only one of which left the first round, provides a pretty clear signpost—but he can crack a bit as well.

    Caceres is no world-beater, but he's a UFC veteran and a tough out for anyone. If I wasn't such a weenie I might pick the upset, as Caceres has skills in all areas. And yet, a weenie I am, as well as a believer in Gracie's potential as an exciting new addition to the featherweight landscape.

    Gracie, submission, Rd. 2

          

    Jonathan Snowden

    This is similar, conceptually, to the Cortney Casey vs. Cynthia Calvillo fight. Gracie is a jiu-jitsu standout and a fantastic prospect based on grappling credentials alone. But he's also proven in Rizin that he's a real fighter. Even better, UFC is treating him like one.

    Cacares is no walk in the park and should provide Gracie a stern test. In nine years fighting for UFC, he's managed to win nine and lose nine. That's impressive symmetry—and only a draw can maintain it.

    Draw

    Jeremy Botter

    If you’re not tuning in for Cain, you’re tuning in for Kron. And if you aren’t, you should be. Kron Gracie is not your usual ho-hum Gracie fighter; he’s a brilliant technician who has adapted his submission game to mixed martial arts in a way few others have. The dude can strike, too, though he won’t be mixing it up with Cacares too much on the feet.

    One last note on this fight: Alex Caceres has been in the UFC for a long time, and that’s an accomplishment; for a guy who came off like a pure gimmick on The Ultimate Fighter, he’s had staying power.

    Gracie by submission

    Nathan McCarter

    This is excellent booking for Gracie's first UFC bout. Caceres is a high-action fighter who has almost always failed against the upperechelon fighters. The matchup guarantees action while being a litmus test for Gracie's ceiling. We finally get true potential from a Gracie in this fight. He'll score an early takedown and choke Caceres out to announce his arrival.

    Gracie, submission, Rd. 1

Cortney Casey vs. Cynthia Calvillo

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    Scott Harris

    Cynthia Calvillo is the Colonel Nathan Jessup of the strawweight division. Get her on her feet and lead her where she's dying to go. Indulge her inherent desire to brawl. Help her forget her own winning grappling skills. All that said, Casey-Sanchez hasn't shown the skill or fight IQ to get it done. The prospect cruises, for now.

    Calvillo, submission, Rd. 1

           

    Jonathan Snowden

    Calvillo's advantageon paper, at leastis in her grappling. But I saw Casey negate jiu-jitsu wiz Mackenzie Dern's grappling game when the two sparred. I think she'll be able to handle whatever Calvillo musters up.

    Casey, unanimous decision

    Jeremy Botter

    Calvillo is relentless, and she’s a good grappler. But Casey can more than hold her own against top-level submission fighters, which makes this one perhaps more of a toss-up than it might seem on the surface.

    Calvillo, unanimous decision

    Nathan McCarter

    Scott hit the nail on the head. Casey, who has excellent athletic gifts, is frustrating to watch because of her poor Fight IQ. It rears its head again in this fight. Calvillo will be able to use wild exchanges to get inside and grapple effectively. It'll be a grimy, 15-minute fight that won't end up on anyone's best-of list.

    Calvillo, unanimous decision

James Vick vs. Paul Felder

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    Scott Harris

    This is a close fight. James Vick will have a five-inch height advantage on Paul Felder. Nevertheless, I like Felder to find Vick's chin. He's no Justin Gaethje, but Felder's creativity and precision will guide him to a knockout.

    Felder, TKO, Rd. 2

    Jonathan Snowden

    Vick has the reach advantage, but he's not always especially adept at using it. Eventually, Felder will find his way inside. Once there, he'll do enough damage to finish this fight.

    Felder, TKO, Rd. 2

          

    Jeremy Botter

    Felder is my favorite of the current crop of fighters-turned-commentators on UFC broadcasts. He’s analytical and smart, and that’s his biggest advantage against someone like Vick, who gets emotional and susceptible to mistakes during big fights. Felder finds Vick’s open chin and turns the lights out early.

    Felder, KO

         

    Nathan McCarter

    Remember how Justin Gaethje was able to analyze and plaster Vick in their fight? Yeah, Felder is much better at analyzing opponent's striking weaknesses. While he doesn't hit as hard as Gaethje, he isn't lacking in the power department either. He'll figure out the distance and put it all over Vick.

    Felder, TKO, Rd. 2

Francis Ngannou vs. Cain Velasquez

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    Scott Harris

    I shan't tell a lie: I'm excited for the return of Cain Velasquez. Ring rust is real, but his pressure and wrestling will still be enough against a Francis Ngannou who has been exposed as an uneven competitor.

    Velasquez, unanimous decision

      

    Jonathan Snowden

    Ngannou will always be dangerous in the early stages of a fight. His uncanny power assures him, at the very least, an opportunity to end anyone's night if he lands one on the money. But the Miocic fight exposed his weakness for everyone to follow—Ngannou is vulnerable to the takedown. That makes Cain Velasquez, and not the fearsome striker, the real nightmare in this fight.

    Velasquez, TKO, Rd. 3

          

    Jeremy Botter

    I can’t bring myself to pick against Cain Velasquez, not even when he’s facing the most terrifying man in sports entertainment. Velasquez has been gone a long time (again), but even after a decade derailed by injuries, Velasquez is an unrelenting force. Ngannou does one thing and does it really well; he won’t have the space to do it here.

    Velasquez, TKO

          

    Nathan McCarter

    After seeing how Stipe Miocic handled Ngannou with his grappling, Velasquez is the smart pick. But I am not smart. Give me Ngannou.

    I'm not sure if I'm untrusting of Velasquez returning in peak form after all his time away from the cage and multiple injuries, or I may just be a big Ngannou fanboy. The loss to Miocic has weighed on Ngannou, but he has been working to improve on his weaknesses. That'll allow him one clean shot on Velasquez, and that is all it will take. Ngannou puts himself back in position to contend for gold in 2019.

    Ngannou, KO, Rd. 1