UFC on ESPN 1: The Real Winners and Losers
It was a case of deja vu in the UFC's debut on ESPN.
The UFC formally entered the ESPN ecosystem last month, but Sunday marked its first visit to the mothership. ESPN was pretty vocal about the occasion. Expectations were high.
Enter Cain Velasquez.
The multi-time heavyweight champ returned to the cage after injuries kept him away for two-plus years. Do not pass Go, do not collect $200, proceed directly to the main event on ESPN.
With a win, the 36-year-old Mexican-American would make a splash in a thin heavyweight division.
There he was again, just as he was back in 2011, when he headlined the UFC's debut event on Fox. Expectations were similarly high, but Velasquez lost the bout and his belt when a Junior Dos Santos right hand flew out of the ether and into the bull's eye.
On Sunday at Talking Stick Resort Arena in Phoenix, Arizona, Velasquez had a great chance at karmic realignment. Even his opponent, thunder-fisted knockout artist Francis Ngannou, was relatively similar.
If Velasquez could do on ESPN what he couldn't on Fox, he would have redemption, contention and plenty of attention.
Or, perhaps history was set to repeat itself. It's been known to happen.
The main event was just one bout on an intriguing 13-fight slate, and as always, the final stat lines do not reveal all. These are the real winners and losers from UFC on ESPN 1.
Winner: Francis Ngannou
Give credit where it's due.
Cain Velasquez flew a little too close to the sun, and Francis Ngannou made him pay. It all happened in close quarters, and it was over in a flash. The fight began, Velasquez threw a few feeling-out low kicks, then he waded inside, and Ngannou landed a quick one-two combination that appeared to land glancingly.
Maybe glancing is enough for Ngannou. Velasquez instantly wobbled and went for a takedown, at which point Ngannou hit him flush with a shovel punch. Velasquez began to fall, and on the way down, his knee appeared to give out.
Velasquez turtled, and after some hammer fists, it was over in 26 seconds. It was hard in the moment, and on replay for that matter, to tell whether the punches or the knee or both sealed the deal. It was easier to determine that the fight was over.
Either way, for those scoring at home, that was 58 seconds faster than Velasquez's knockout loss to Dos Santos in another auspicious TV debut—the UFC's first event on Fox back in 2011.
At age 36 and coming off of a litany of injuries, a 26-second possible-knee-injury-into-knockout was probably not the ideal outcome here.
Will Velasquez be back? It's hard to say, and even harder to sanction. For his part, he told broadcaster Jon Anik in the cage after the fight that his knee only "buckled" and nothing more, and that he'll be back "as soon as I'm all good." So take that for what it's worth.
In the spirit of positivity, though, this slide goes to Ngannou, who after terrible losses to Stipe Miocic and Derrick Lewis now has two consecutive knockouts in a combined one minute, 11 seconds. Is the hype train back on the tracks?
"I promise you guys, I'm back," he told Anik in the cage. "As I said before, I'm back. And you're gonna see me around."
I bet we will.
Winner: Kron Gracie
There's not much to say about this one; you acknowledge it and you move on. Kron Gracie, son of the august presence that is Rickson Gracie—whose name shall be spoken only in whispers—has walked into the UFC Octagon.
And now, verily I say unto you, Gracie has exited victoriously. He earned a submission—what else would he earn?—in his UFC debut.
Alex Caceres never stood a chance. After wetting his whistle with some standup, Gracie got hold of his opponent, dragged him to the ground, got his back and effortlessly finished with a rear-naked choke. He didn't even need one half of one round to get it done.
Gracie has a magical name, but he's also a world champion grappler with good MMA experience before this. His grappling is the obvious strength, but he can crack a bit as well, and he does it all with the sleepy-eyed swagger perfected by training partners Nick and Nate Diaz (Nate was in his corner Sunday).
The future looks bright for Gracie. It started Sunday night.
Loser: The Phoenix Faithful
If competitors feed off the energy of the crowd, the fighters didn't get a square meal Sunday night.
The ticket-buying public at Talking Stick Arena didn't exactly help the UFC get over with its ESPN audience.
Outside of its huge support for Velasquez and numerous collective trips to the concourse, they pretty much booed any time someone wasn't firing off a spinning hook kick or bleeding profusely enough to easily make out on the Jumbotron.
There's plenty of fighting history in Arizona—the prestigious MMA Lab is based in the Phoenix suburb of Glendale, for example—and Velasquez is a native of the Grand Canyon State.
But the fans in attendance Sunday, at least the vocal among them, didn't exactly further the legacy.
Winners: Vicente Luque and Bryan Barbarena
When the loser gets a standing ovation, you know you just witnessed a good fight.
Bryan Barbarena and Vicente Luque battled for three rounds, with Barbarena absorbing inordinately heavy punishment from punches, kicks and elbows, then returning fire with a barrage of strikes of his own.
Except for an early ground exchange that nearly saw Luque choke Barbarena out before the latter spun out at the last possible moment, this one played out on the feet.
And it looked to go to a decision, until Luque slammed home some brutal knees from the Thai clinch with seconds remaining.
Barbarena, finally, could take no more. He fell to his knees—he was a man truly going out on his shield. Luque finished the bout and got the TKO with six seconds remaining.
According to the broadcasting team, the two men combined to land roughly 300 strikes, a record for a three-round welterweight fight.
Luque needs to be taken seriously. The 27-year-old just notched his fourth consecutive win and is 8-2 as a UFC competitor. Keep this man on the main card, put him in the top 15 and match him up with Elizeu dos Santos or Gunnar Nelson next.
As for Barbarena, after this fight, I don't think it's unreasonable to call him the toughest fighter in the UFC right now. So, that's what I'm doing.
Loser: Renan Barao
It's up to Renan Barao whether he continues in his fight career.
It's up to me whether to continue watching it. And I think I made my decision. I do not wish to continue.
The former bantamweight champ still has cache, but unfortunately for him, not much of anything else. He had a few nice moments Sunday, but early in the second, he caught a shot on the button from Luke Sanders.
Barao hit the mat and it was over soon after. It only really took one shot, as the follow-ups were academic and likely unnecessary.
It was the sort of flatness with which Barao viewers are now familiar. It's like he didn't realize he was fighting until the van pulled up at the arena. Surprise!
It marked four losses in a row for Barao and the sixth in his last seven dating back to 2015. In 2018, Barao lost to fighters named Brian Kelleher and Andre Ewell. This is the second consecutive fight that saw Barao miss weight.
It's not accurate to say Barao was exposed by Sanders. For all he's achieved in MMA, Barao now has 43 fights as a pro. That's a lot. Barao, and the damage done by all that mileage, were exposed a long time ago. This is just what's left over.
Loser: Jodie Esquibel
If you think living paycheck to paycheck is suboptimal, try living fight to fight.
Every fighter is forced to do it, despite the instability it creates. Strawweight Jodie Esquibel, through no fault of her own, is familiar with that squeezing feeling.
Last June, Esquibel was set to face Jessica Aguilar, until Aguilar was pulled from the bout with a medical issue. Luckily they rebooked the bout for July, with Aguilar beating Esquibel by decision.
It was a similar situation Sunday, with Esquibel's opponent, Jessica Penne, spraining an ankle the day of the fight. Hopefully matchmakers reschedule this one, too. If not, Esquibel may need to pick up a few extra shifts at her second job, if she's lucky enough to have one. Ah, the glamour of the fighting life.
UFC on ESPN 1 Full Card Results
Francis Ngannou def. Cain Velasquez by TKO, 0:26, Rd. 1
Paul Felder def. James Vick by unanimous decision (29-28, 30-27, 30-27)
Cynthia Calvillo def. Cortney Casey by unanimous decision (29-28, 29-28, 30-27)
Kron Gracie def. Alex Caceres by submission (rear-naked choke), 2:06, Rd. 1
Vicente Luque def. Bryan Barbarena by TKO, 4:54, Rd. 3
Andre Fili def. Myles Jury by unanimous decision (29-28, 29-28, 29-28)
Aljamain Sterling def. Jimmie Rivera by unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27, 30-27)
Manny Bermudez def. Benito Lopez by submission (D'arce choke), 3:09, Rd. 1
Andrea Lee def. Ashlee Evans-Smith by unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27, 30-27)
Nik Lentz def. Scott Holtzman by unanimous decision (29-28, 29-28, 29-28)
Luke Sanders def. Renan Barao by KO, 1:01, Rd. 2
Emily Whitmire def. Aleksandra Albu by submission (rear-naked choke), 1:01, Rd. 1
Scott Harris covers MMA for Bleacher Report and CNN