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Imagine for a moment: Francis Ngannou up and knocks out Cain Velasquez in the first round of UFC on ESPN’s main event Saturday. What if he does it in 1:04?
That’s the kind of parallel that could implode small fragments of the space-time continuum. Roughly seven years ago, a favored Velasquez fell to a sudden right hand from Junior Dos Santos just 64 seconds into the UFC’s debut event for a little network known as Fox.
With the loss, Velasquez’s heavyweight title changed hands and his path to superstardom veered into a ditch.
Now it’s 2019. Velasquez (14-2) is 36 years old and returning to the cage after an injury-plagued two-plus years on the shelf. He’s headlining yet another big TV debut—this time the UFC’s first event on the Worldwide Leader—against yet another opponent with an effortless knack for the knockout. Imagine the deja vu breakout that would occur from seeing Velasquez again staggering backward behind the force of a massive overhand shot. This time it would be delivered by the French Cameroonian Francis Ngannou (12-3).
But that’s where potential symmetries end. The Velasquez who is set to make the walk Saturday in Phoenix at Talking Stick Resort Arena is far removed from the one who faced Dos Santos in Anaheim, California. But if Velasquez can undo a bit of MMA history against Ngannou, it will be just what he—and the UFC—needs. Time is a flat circle in the UFC, and Velasquez is poised to take advantage.
As for the matchup itself, the 32-year-old Ngannou is not quite as imposing as prime Dos Santos. Even so, fighters underestimate him at their peril. Everyone knows about his record-breaking punching power. UFC officials including president Dana White have said Ngannou’s power rivals that of a Ford Escort based on the 96 horsepower his punches created. No word on whether it was a tremendous, very powerful, incredibly well-painted and strong Ford Escort, and I’m not entirely sure that’s an apples-to-apples comparison from the promotion, and now that I’m thinking about it I’m pretty sure I’d rather be hit by Ngannou than a car, but there it is.
In any event, something in the equation is real, as evidenced by the six knockouts he’s laid down in his UFC career, punctuated by highlight-reel hooks and uppercuts. Both hands are dangerous; his left is a Jordan Peele thriller. If you rush in, his counters will put you out.
Nevertheless, Ngannou’s gas tank and complementary skills—including permeable takedown defense or any significant wrestling acumen—haven’t been up to snuff. Witness his suffocating loss to then-champ Stipe Miocic in January 2018 or his endless staring contest with Derrick Lewis last July.
Ngannou seems more Dave Kingman than Junior Dos Santos. Dos Santos is a twinkle-toed boxer and jiu-jitsu black belt. His career takedown defense rate, per FightMetric, is 80 percent, a full 10 percentage points higher than Ngannou’s. Kingman was a baseball player canonized for a simple performance trait: He seemed to hit a tape-measure home run or strike out. Not a lot of gray area.
All to say, if Velasquez can avoid the home run stroke, he should be able to use his wrestling, ground-and-pound and superior cardiovascular stamina to wear Ngannou down and out, and in the process grab some redemption for that UFC on Fox 1 letdown all those years ago.
More importantly, a win would put Velasquez right back on the heavyweight fast track. And it’s not a long track these days. Daniel Cormier, who is also Velasquez’s best friend, is the heavyweight champion. After that, there’s Miocic, Lewis, maybe Aleksei Oleinik if you want to have some fun, and that’s about it for the weight class.
A win over Ngannou would put Velasquez squarely in the thick of it, despite his protracted absence. There are still fans who remember his two title reigns—which covered four combined years—as there are those who remember that “sea-level” debacle.
Julie Jacobson/Associated Press
So a win carries plenty of stakes for Velasquez, but the UFC has to be even more excited by the prospect. That must be why UFC officials put him in this position in his return fight, with nary a tuneup bout in the equation. If Velasquez delivers on ESPN, he’ll become “its” fighter, someone the network’s viewers (many MMA novices among them) can follow as he continues on his redemption tour and road to a title shot.
Not a bad hook for the UFC’s new partnership.
In addition, a successful Velasquez would go a long way toward pumping up what is generally regarded as the UFC’s glamour division. Everyone loves the big guys, but Miocic, for all his greatness, hasn’t connected with casual fans. Ngannou did, but then he lost two straight in uninspiring fashion. Lewis did to some extent, but then Cormier embarrassed him. After the champ, there’s not a lot here. Velasquez can make a big impact.
And the UFC is still presumably hoping for a foothold south of the border, where boxing interest is historically strong but similar MMA fandom has yet to materialize. Mexico native Yair Rodriguez is popular, but even he hasn’t carried weight like Velasquez. On top of Saturday’s big ESPN debut, UFC ratings are at historic lows and stars are in short supply for such a star-driven sport. After Conor McGregor, the star picture gets pretty murky.
The son of an undocumented immigrant father and an American mother, Velasquez and his story resonate with a wide audience. He’s compelling to those on either side of the U.S.-Mexico boundary and quite possibly beyond for reasons that probably don’t need to be articulated in the current climate.
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Before he ran into a series of persistent, confounding back and knee injuries, and despite humbling losses to Dos Santos and Fabricio Werdum, Velasquez was in the conversation for the greatest MMA heavyweight ever. He doesn’t have the chiseled physique or, uh, Ford Escort-type power of some other competitors, but his relentless, often bloody style and stoic charisma made him the unquestioned face of the heavyweight division. If he can defeat Ngannou on Saturday, he could become the face of much more.
Scott Harris covers MMA and other sports for Bleacher Report and other places.