Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) made its presence known to Phoenix, Arizona, last night (Sun., Feb. 17, 2019) for its debut event on ESPN. Unlike last week’s event, UFC on ESPN 1 was a talent-rich card from top-to-bottom that featured a great deal of high-level action. In the main event, former champion Cain Velasquez met recent title challenger Francis Ngannou in a violent wrestler vs. striker match up. Elsewhere on the card, a bunch of Bantamweights scrapped, bad blood was settled in the co-main, and there were a great deal of finishes. Let’s take a look at the best techniques and performances of the night!
‘The Predator’ Strikes
“Do not, under any circumstances, allow Francis Ngannou to punch you.”
Cain Velasquez understood this rule and tried to follow it. At first, he hung back and kicked, but Ngannou’s range control saw his early kicks miss. After narrowly avoiding a terrifying right hand, Velasquez realized he needed to close the distance in order to avoid breaking the Ngannou Rule. While denying a takedown along the fence, a hip bump from Ngannou created a small amount of space, allowed him to shovel an uppercut that snapped Velasquez’s head back.
Velasquez was rocked and crumbled over his own knee, ending the fight in 24 seconds.
Can someone replicate Stipe Miocic’s success against Ngannou and drag things into later rounds, where Ngannou is less deadly? Maybe. To be frank, though, I’m unlikely to ever pick against Ngannou. Based on his last two fights, we’re clearly at a point where Ngannou only has to land one semi-clean shot in the opening round to end the fight. That is an absurdly small margin for error, and the consequences for breaking the Ngannou Rule are brutal.
Can Daniel Cormer follow the Ngannou Rule? Jon Jones? Can Miocic do it a second time against an improved “Predator?” No one can say for sure, but all options would be fascinating.
Luque And Barberena Go Mad!
Man, what an absolutely ridiculous fight!
Both these men entered the cage with a reputation for great violence, and they absolutely delivered. In the first round alone, Luque landed at least a dozen knockout-worthy blows — the thick beard of Barberena remained unbothered. Not only unbothered, but he responded by dropping Luque badly with a minute left in the round! Somehow, Luque bounced up despite the bad knockdown, nearly finishing a rear naked choke in response. However, Barberena escaped and landed huge punches to end the round.
How do you score a round like that?
Luque made some very important adjustments in the second and third. Against Barberena’s deep gas tank and iron chin, Luque began to pick his spots rather than land whenever possible. Often, Luque would keep his guard high and let Barberena throw, mostly blocking the shots but also conserving energy. When Luque did throw, he landed much harder shots than his opponent, who was prioritizing activity. In addition, Luque began to use the right kick opposite the Southpaw more often, seeking to hurt the body and legs since the skull was concrete.
Luque’s strategy shift allowed him to conserve energy while still dealing out damage. In the final seconds of both the second and third, Luque released that loaded up energy in the form of a brutal combination and follow up clinch knees. The first flurry dropped Barberena; the second knocked him out.
Fili Gets ‘Touchy’ With The Jab
The great part about this article is I’m allowed to pick and choose what to highlight, so spoiler alert, I’m going to embrace my bias and highlight my Team Alpha Male teammate, Andre Fili.
Last night was the finest performance of Fili’s UFC career. Opposite a very well-rounded and notoriously crafty fighter in Myles Jury, Fili committed to the jab more than he ever has previously. In past fights, Fili has relied more on his kicking game to be his rangefinder than the jab. In this fight, there was a much better balance, as Fili made it a habit to snap Jury’s head back with jabs, setting the strike up well with lots of feints, hand-fighting, and doubling up on the strike.
That is not to say Fili abandoned his powerful kicks. Instead, he paired the jab largely with the right low kick, which is a great combination of techniques. If a fighter is leaning back to avoid the jab, his lead leg is generally vulnerable. At the same time, if his feet are preparing for the kick, it’s harder to employ effective head movement opposite the kick. The combination proved very effective for Fili, who won a majority of the exchanges throughout 15 minutes.
As a fan of technical fighters, I also have to admire some of the little things about Jury’s game, too. While he needed a lot more volume and power punches, Jury’s ability to completely avoid Fili’s Southpaw left kick with footwork and awareness is a credit to his coaches and strategy. I don’t think “Touchy” even threw it, because Jury simply never allowed him the position to fire one of his best weapons.
It was not an overly flashy or violent fight, but it was a very clean kickboxing battle.
- Paul Felder defeats James Vick via decision (recap): Felder won this fight in large part thanks to watching film. Felder and his team adjusted brilliantly to the odd strategy of Vick, putting more of an emphasis on forward pressure than ever before. He also stuck to high-percentage techniques of the calf kick and overhand, both of which did serious damage and kept Vick on the defensive. Finally, Felder had a counter well drilled into his head for many of the classic Vick techniques. For example, each time Vick jumped forward with his switch knee, Felder spun into an elbow and generally got the better of that exchange. Felder’s game plan and well-trained habits absolutely made the difference.
- Kron Gracie defeats Alex Caceres via first round rear-naked choke (recap): The conflicting strategies were obvious here: Gracie wanted to latch on and strangle, Caceres wanted to move and kick to frustrate his foe. We didn’t have to wait long to see whose approach would win out, as Gracie ducked a right hook early and grabbed onto the back clinch. From there, Caceres was able to survive maybe a minute before Gracie crawled onto his back and choked him out (watch highlights). Long story short — Kron Gracie made it look easy.
- Aljamain Sterling defeats Jimmie Rivera via decision: Sterling presents each of his opponents with the same problem. He’s the rangier man and makes use of that advantage with long kicks and counter punches. Generally, the answer to that type of range striking is to pressure, but Sterling counters pressure with an excellent wrestling and submission game. It all worked wonderfully for him last night — seriously, it was basically a flawless win for Sterling, who pulled ahead with ease and never let up — but Rivera looked woefully unprepared. Rivera himself said he was “off” between rounds, and it showed: the New Yorker never got anything going and failed to turn it up as the fight slipped away from him. It was a great win for “Aljo” and a really bad loss for Rivera.
- Manny Bermudez defeats Benito Lopez via first round guillotine (highlights): Bermudez’s grappling is a deep skill set. Opposite Lopez, he threatened a back take in classic jiu-jitsu fashion, but Lopez did a smart job of avoiding that and returning to his feet. Once standing, Bermudez did not forget his goal though, keeping a tight wrap on Lopez’s arm to prevent him from escaping the clinch. Bermudez stalled for a moment and waited for an opportunity, eventually using a guillotine choke to force Lopez back down. Once more, Lopez defended well, but Bermudez hung out on the neck until the kickboxer finally did make a mistake. When Lopez attempted to use a high-crotch takedown to stand or reverse position, Bermudez recommitted to the choke and trapped one of Lopez’s arms in the process, leaving him unable to fight hands.
- Nik Lentz defeats Scott Holtzman via decision: No one gives Nik Lentz enough credit for his craft. “The Carny” is not an amazing athlete, but he’s tricky as hell. In the first round, Lentz got the better of his opponent on the feet. From the Southpaw stance, Lentz did a brilliant job of countering with his lead leg. Repeatedly, Lentz flicked up a right high kick as Holtzman punched, and he also routinely blocked his foe’s right high kick while simultaneously chopping the base leg. Holtzman started to find his range and turn up the head in the second though, forcing Lentz to gut through some bad spots and wrestle. It was a gutsy, bloody performance from each man, but Lentz’s superior craft earned him the nod in a close battle.
- Luke Sanders defeats Renan Barao via second round technical knockout (highlights): This fight was as much about Barao’s ability to fall apart as it was Sanders ability to adjust. In the first, Barao kept the fight at kicking range, punishing Sanders from a distance that the Southpaw couldn’t match. Using his right leg to both teep and round kick, Barao had Sanders stuck on the outside and swinging at air. When Sander’s corner advised him to up the pressure and move forward through kicks, he followed the advice in the second round and began to connect with his left hand. Rather than adjust — perhaps by feinting the kick and coming with punches — Barao found himself getting nailed repeatedly by the left hand. Even after a few landed, Barao failed to start moving his head or feet, and the result was yet another bad loss.
For complete UFC on ESPN 1: “Velasquez vs. Ngannou” results and play-by-play, click HERE!