It’s been quite the year for firsts in the UFC.
On Sunday, Feb. 18, the first UFC on ESPN event will take place at the Talking Stick Resort Arena in Phoenix, Arizona, United States.
The promotion has loaded up the fight card with a relatively deep list of must-watch fights and fighters, and we’re here to share our predictions for each of the main card bouts.
If you’re interested in more detailed breakdowns and predictions by our expert MMA handicapper, make sure to check out Sriram Muralidaran’s UFC predictions.
Francis Ngannou vs. Cain Velasquez
Cain Velasquez finally returns to the Octagon this weekend. It’s the former UFC heavyweight champion’s first appearance since July 2016, when he defeated Travis Browne in the first round at UFC 200. There are a lot of question marks surrounding his return, and many of those will be answered as soon as the bout begins on Sunday.
Velasquez is up against a man who only 13 months ago was being marketed as one of the most terrifying fighters on the planet. The UFC cranked up the hype machine for Francis Ngannou after he nearly took the head off Alistair Overeem’s shoulders. The talk has died down just a little after he was dominated by Stipe Miocic and then his involvement in whatever happened inside the cage that night against Derrick Lewis. But recently he got back to his days of old when he crushed Curtis Blaydes in the opening moments of their bout.
Cain Velasquez is a moderate betting favorite in the UFC on ESPN 1 main event, but that hasn’t stopped 7/15 of us picking Francis Ngannou.
Those of us on Ngannou’s side are expecting him to get it done early in rounds one or two, whereas those picking Velasquez see it lasting long enough for his typically overbearing endurance to help him take over.
Picking Ngannou: Jake Nichols, Nick Cowie, Michael Fiedel, Sriram Muralidaran, Drake Riggs, DC Howard, Joe Mayall
Picking Velasquez: Jay Cranford, Abhinav Kini, Ollie Carlson, J. Hyon Ko, Steven Rae, Charles Sganga, Stuart Kurth, Tony Crozzoli
James Vick vs. Paul Felder
For a while, it seemed like James Vick and Paul Felder was just one of the UFC’s many cursed fights. The two were originally scheduled to stand toe-to-toe in July last year, but Vick was rescheduled to face Justin Gaethje after his bout with Al Iaquinta never eventuated. Felder lost his chance to fight a notable adversary in the 155-pound division, but was then given the opportunity to move up to 170-pounds to challenge Mike Perry.
Felder was decisively outworked by Perry over three rounds – despite the strange split decision outcome – but the result had (and shouldn’t have) any impact on his standing as a lightweight.
Like Felder, Vick is coming off a defeat that snapped an impressive winning streak. But unlike his new 155-pound opponent, Vick was starched by a destructive right hand that sent him crashing to the mat.
Vick and Felder are both looking to bounce back and the team here are expecting a competitive battle.
Picking Vick: Jake Nichols, Ollie Carlson, Nick Cowie, J. Hyon Ko, Steven Rae, Sriram Muralidaran, Drake Riggs, Tony Crozzoli
Picking Felder: Jay Cranford, Abhinav Kini, Michael Fiedel, Charles Sganga, DC Howard, Joe Mayall
Cortney Casey vs. Cynthia Calvillo
A pivotal women’s strawweight fight features on the UFC on ESPN 1 main card.
Cynthia Calvillo is back and she’s raring to slice through the division after returning from a nine-month suspension. The 31-year-old made easy work of Poliana Botelho in November, defeating her via rear-naked choke in the first round.
Calvillo will be up against the often underrated Cortney Casey, who provides a legitimate challenge to all of her opponents. Casey’s 4-5 record in the UFC doesn’t tell the full story, as her defeats came against highly-regarded opposition such as Claudia Gadelha, Felice Herrig and Michelle Waterson. She’s never been finished inside the distance in the UFC, making this an extremely fascinating clash.
Picking Calvillo: Jake Nichols, Jay Cranford, Abhinav Kini, Ollie Carlson, Nick Cowie, J. Hyon Ko, Steven Rae, Michael Fiedel, Sriram Muralidaran, Drake Riggs, Charles Sganga, DC Howard, Joe Mayall, Tony Crozzoli
Alex Caceres vs. Kron Gracie
Kron Gracie will make his UFC debut this weekend in Phoenix.
The Gracie family member has racked up four professional wins from four fights, with three of them in RIZIN. Gracie hasn’t competed December 2016, when he submitted Tatsuya Kawajiri in the second round with a rear-naked choke. That was the 30-year-old’s fourth consecutive submission win and many of us are picking him to do the same at UFC on ESPN 1.
He’ll be facing Alex Caceres, who has been nothing but inconsistent since joining the UFC in 2011. Caceres has lost three of his last five bouts but most recently returned to winning ways when he scores a split decision win against Martin Bravo at The Ultimate Fighter 27 Finale.
Picking Gracie: Jake Nichols, Jay Cranford, Abhinav Kini, Ollie Carlson, Nick Cowie, Steven Rae, Michael Fiedel, Sriram Muralidaran, Drake Riggs, DC Howard, Joe Mayall
Picking Caceres: J. Hyon Ko, Charles Sganga, Tony Crozzoli
Vicente Luque vs. Bryan Barberena
Some people believe it’s a crime that Vicente Luque isn’t fighting higher-ranked opponents after winning seven of his last eight bouts in the UFC. But this fight against Bryan Barberena seems like a case of perfect matchmaking.
Fun fact before Bryan Barberena vs. Vicente Luque at #UFCPhoenix:
– Bryan Barberena has never been knocked out or submitted in the UFC (5-3)
– Vicente Luque has finished his opponent in all of his seven UFC wins, four via KO/TKO and three via submission (7-2)
— The Body Lock (@thebodylockmma) February 13, 2019
Barberena is as tough and durable as they come. If Luque can earn the finish and become the first to stop Bryan Barberena inside the distance, the UFC should do all they can to boost him up into greater matchups.
Although all the team here are picking Luque to win, there’s a certain level of unknown that will only present itself if Luque is unable to get Barberena out of the cage early. The latter half of this contest – if it makes it that far – will certainly be interesting.
Picking Luque: Jake Nichols, Jay Cranford, Abhinav Kini, Ollie Carlson, Nick Cowie, J. Hyon Ko, Michael Fiedel, Sriram Muralidaran, Drake Riggs, Charles Sganga, DC Howard, Joe Mayall, Tony Crozzoli
Andre Fili vs. Myles Jury
Andre Fili and Myles Jury will kick-off the UFC on ESPN 1 main card.
Both featherweight fighters have similar records in their last few fights, each winning two of their last three and now entering this fight after a defeat.
Fili has recently scored wins over Artem Lobov and Dennis Bermudez before eventually being run down by Michael Johnson, who won a split decision.
Jury’s wins against Mike De La Torre and Rick Glenn earned him a shot against Chad Mendes, where he was crushed inside the opening round.
The bookmakers have Jury as a slight favorite.
Picking Fili: J. Hyon Ko, Charles Sganga
Picking Jury: Jake Nichols, Jay Cranford, Sriram Muralidaran, Drake Riggs, DC Howard
Jake Nichols is The Body Lock's Editor in Chief. Previously, he was the MMA Editor at RealSport.