In a parallel universe, Cain Velasquez vs. Francis Ngannou would be the biggest fight in history: A heavyweight championship clash between the greatest of all-time and the freak of all freaks. Joe Rogan would be going red in the face, Dana White would be screaming at Ariel Helwani, the press tour would be chaos, people everywhere would drop their differences and come together, world hunger would end, it would be the sporting event that defined a generation.
But we’re not in that parallel universe, we’re in this one. And here it’s just a run-of-the-mill main event on a lesser card. But friggin’ CAIN VELASQUEZ is coming back! Why are we not all freaking out over this? We should be paying 35-40% more attention! Come on! We last saw him in action in an extremely one-sided warm-up exercise at UFC 200. That was three years ago. What were you doing three years ago? Exactly, I can’t remember either.
When you look at their records, Velasquez and Ngannou are eerily similar, but their fighting journeys couldn’t be more different. Velasquez exploded into the UFC heavyweight world in 2008 with just two fights under his belt. That’s a long-ass time ago; to put that into perspective, it was the year the world thought Lil Wayne was great. Those were also the golden days of the UFC when steroids were the norm and it was perfectly okay to wear ‘Condom Depot’ as a sponsor on your shorts. But it’s not okay anymore, and neither is Lil Wayne.
Even though he is now regarded as one of the very best fighters in his weight class, his name spoken in hushed tones by those discussing legends and legacies, what he’s best known for is his fragility. Injury follows Velasquez around like a lost puppy. Consider that since Velasquez’s last fight, Ngannou had his debut and fought nine times, once for the title. Let that one sink in.
This is not surprising considering where Velasquez trains. American Kickboxing Academy claims to be a fighting gym, but actually, it’s a torture chamber specializing in shortening fighters’ careers. Think of the many frustrating setbacks of Daniel Cormier, Luke Rockhold, and Khabib Nurmagomedov. Though I can’t back the following statement up with hard evidence, fighters at AKA train only by smashing each other with lengths of 2×4.
Injuries aside, let’s assume Velasquez comes into this contest at full strength. What are his chances of victory? Pretty high, actually, thanks for asking. What makes him so formidable isn’t his punching power, which if you think of Ngannou as the basking shark of power then Velasquez must be somewhere in the middle of the aquatic food-chain, like a sea bass, or dolphin. It’s not his size, either. Again the analogy between basking shark and sea bass still holds water there. As do these marine-based puns. In fact, he gives up reach, weight, height, and power to his opponent in almost all of his fights.
What led Velasquez to past wins against bigger, stronger opponents was his suffocating PRESSURE. His pressure is so pressurizing that it can only be conveyed in capitals. Joe Rogan summed it up best when he said it’s like trying to fight off a 1000-pound wet blanket. Velasquez’s only losses have come when his opponents have managed to maintain distance. He’ll punch his way into the clinch, string a few takedowns together and aim to keep a dominant position until he either stops the fight or the bell stops it for him. But this isn’t 2008, and the game has moved on and produced a new breed of heavyweight.
And with that seamless segway, enter the new breed Francis Ngannou. Here was an enormous punch-monster who was young and hungry, dispatching people not only with his fists but with submissions, too. It looked like he was on an inevitable trajectory toward superstardom and the heavyweight belt, much like his older, savvier opponent. Sadly Ngannou was tossed into the lion’s den far too early. On the strength of one knockout (albeit one of the greatest and most shocking), his hype outstripped his skill. While the world was sold a vision of an unstoppable destroyer, Stipe Miocic shattered that image and humanized Ngannou’s once god-like status with a five-round mauling. The cracks in Ngannou’s fighting skill-set were exposed, and Derrick Lewis furthered that by revealing his less-than-solid mental toughness next.
That one, by the way, must surely go down in history as one of the very worst heavyweight fights of all time. Ngannou was afraid to engage for the fear of being hit and beaten. Though he shook that off with a knockout win over Curtis Blaydes, those weaknesses are still there. Cain Velasquez, sneaky, wily trickster and veteran that he is, will do what he does best: close distance, clinch, smother and grind and win. It’s hard to knock somebody’s head off when you are wearing them like an itchy sweater. And that’s exactly what Velasquez is. A 240-pound itchy sweater that hits you in the face a lot. His shots might not be fight-ending, but he’ll pepper you like he’s seasoning a steak. As steak goes, Ngannou is a big slab of meat.
Ngannou’s only chance to win this fight is to knock Cain down (or out) early. It’s been done before and it can happen again. He swings fast and accurately, and all it takes is one shot. Further than that, he’s enormously strong. If he’s been training properly he will have worked on clinch defense, ensuring that he doesn’t get trapped up against the cage or taken down. Far bigger and stronger than Velasquez, if he can keep his opponent at range his chances go up exponentially. We saw, however, that he wasn’t able to keep the smaller man off him in the Miocic fight. How much he’s improved since then will be revealed this weekend.
Remember that Velasquez is a two-time heavyweight champ and widely regarded as one of the best ever. Besides that, he’s fighting at sea level. Thanks to my superior research skills, I can tell you that Phoenix is at a paltry 1100-foot elevation. The Phoenix, also, is a mythic bird that rises from the ashes of its own demise, and if there’s one fighter who can epitomize such a comeback, it’s Cain Velasquez.