Cain Velasquez finally makes his return to the Octagon this Sunday evening (Feb. 17, 2019), just in time for the first-ever Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) foray into the ESPN Fight Night era. Standing in the way of his triumphant comeback is Francis Ngannou, freshly removed from a knockout victory over highly ranked Curtis Blaydes in Beijing, China. UFC on ESPN 1 will also feature a fight between top Lightweight talents James Vick and Paul Felder, as well as Cynthia Calvillo against Cortney Casey in one of the most alliterative match ups in UFC history.
There are seven “Prelims” undercard bouts split between ESPN and ESPN+. Let’s look at the first batch:
115 lbs.: Jessica Penne vs. Jodie Esquibel
Jessica Penne (12-5) — the former Invicta Atomweight champion — reached the semifinals of The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) 20 before falling to top seed and eventual winner Carla Esparza. She edged Randa Markos in a “Fight of the Night” to open her Octagon career, then went on to lose three straight.
This will be her first fight in nearly two years.
Jodie Esquibel (6-4) fell short against Ashley Yoder in her TUF 23 bid, but joined UFC one year later, debuting against Karolina Kowalkiewicz in Gdansk, Poland. She lost a unanimous decision, then returned to action the following year with a loss to Jessica Aguilar.
She will give up five inches of height and three inches of reach to Penne.
I genuinely feel bad for Penne. Even though she’s undersized for the division, she’s a lot better than her 1-3 Octagon record would suggest — she deserved the win against Taylor and the other losses came against a pair of monsters in Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Jessica Andrade. She’s still a dangerous grappler with solid-if-unspectacular stand up, which should be enough to carry her past Esquibel.
Esquibel’s striking has been found wanting in the Octagon and she looks out-gunned on the ground. Penne wrangles her to the mat and chokes her out midway through.
Prediction: Penne via second-round submission
135 lbs.: Renan Barao vs. Luke Sanders
It is now more than 28 months since Renan Barao (34-7) won a fight, and more than five years since he won more than one in a row. He is just 1-5 in his last six and was last seen losing a split decision to newcomer Andre Ewell in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
He has submitted 15 opponents and knocked out eight others.
Luke Sanders (12-3) hit the ground running in UFC with a “Performance of the Night” submission of Maximo Blanco, only to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory against Iuri Alcantara and Andre Soukhamthath, he rebounded with a decision over Patrick Williams, only to tap to a Rani Yahya heel hook four months later.
Six of his eight stoppage wins have come by form of knockout.
This is a “loser goes home” fight if I’ve ever seen one. Barao hasn’t even looked good in victory since thrashing Urijah Faber in 2014 and Sanders, though clearly talented, just can’t stop shooting himself in the foot. The difference is that Sanders is still a strong fighter when he’s at his best, while Barao doesn’t seem capable of reaching even a fraction of the heights he once cruised at.
Weird part? Sanders is actually the older of the two.
Barao’s ironclad takedown defense and “meh” offense wrestling means we’re in for a striking battle, one which favors the more powerful and far less weathered Sanders. Volume and a good sprawl carry “Cool Hand Luke” to a decision victory.
Prediction: Sanders via unanimous decision
115 lbs.: Aleksandra Albu vs. Emily Whitmire (3-2)
Aleksandra Albu (3-0) signed with UFC in 2013, only to pull out from her debut against Julie Kedzie with an injury. “Stitch” ultimately made her first Octagon appearance two years later, submitting Izabela Badurek, then took a 27-month layoff before winning a decision over Kailin Curran.
This will be her first fight in 1.5 years.
Emily Whitmire (3-2) tapped Christina Marks in the opening round of TUF 26, only to succumb to Roxanne Modafferi’s ground-and-pound in the quarterfinals. TUF teammate Gillian Robertson caught her in an armbar at the finale, but Whitmire successfully upset Jamie Moyle in her next appearance.
“Spitfire” stands three inches taller than Albu at 5’5.”
There are only two types of information my brain retains: pointless pop culture minutiae and fights. Even then, I can barely remember anything about Albu’s UFC efforts. I had to look up tape on someone with two fights in the Octagon and I am, frankly, disappointed in myself.
Albu’s strength is impressive, but her rock-bottom fight IQ is worrying. Worse, she compensates for technical deficiencies with athleticism, which does a number on her gas tank. Whitmire’s superior technique and cardio should allow her to control things on the feet, and if Albu pulls guard or tries to force a throw, Whitmire’s submissions are a real threat. Whitmire turns away an early surge to tap an exhausted Albu late.
Prediction: Whitmire via third-round submission
Four more UFC on ESPN 1 “Prelims” undercard bouts to preview and predict tomorrow, including a clash of unbeaten Bantamweight prospects and a featured fight between two Top 10-ranked fighters in the division. See you then, Maniacs.
Remember that MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC on ESPN 1 fight card on fight night, starting with the ESPN+ (7-day free trial here) “Prelims” matches online, which are scheduled to begin at 5:30 p.m. ET, then the remaining undercard balance on ESPN at 7 p.m. ET, before the ESPN main card start time at 9 p.m. ET.
To check out the latest and greatest UFC on ESPN 1: “Velasquez vs. Ngannou” news and notes be sure to hit up our comprehensive event archive right here.