UFC Phoenix: Is Cain Velasquez vs. Francis Ngannou a Title Eliminator?

Cain Velasquez
Cain Velasquez Credit: Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com

In a sparse heavyweight division with few challengers emerging, could Cain Velasquez vs. Francis Ngannou at this weekend’s UFC Phoenix be a title eliminator?

This coming weekend former UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez will return to the octagon after a break of over two and a half years. He’ll be locking horns against the knockout artist and former title challenger, Francis Ngannou in the main event of UFC Phoenix (UFC on ESPN 1). The question which looms over the card is whether the winner will be announced as the next title challenger. As to why that might be the case, and where the winner will end up, well let’s try to break that down.

Francis Ngannou had a genuinely disappointing 2018. On paper, he went 1-2, against some of the best fighters of his division. This by usual heavyweight standards would be considered a decent year, given heavyweight is a thin division. However, it wasn’t the results of his fights that led to the negative backlash, it was the way the fights played out. Ngannou was dubbed as a monster, a fighter who went into his fights with the intention to destroy. So when he was scheduled to fight Stipe Miocic for the heavyweight title people expected a firefight. The fight instead turned out to be a snooze fest that angered fans. Worse, that dull fight was repeated the next time out against Derrick Lewis. And more so. Ngannou vs. Lewis was derided as perhaps the worst heavyweight fight of all time. Exaggeration? Perhaps. But both these incidents cost Ngannou in terms of a heavy fan backlash. And frankly, that put an end to all the hype around him. Luckily, he managed to turn things around just a little when he defeated Curtis Blaydes to end an otherwise disastrous 2018, finishing the year on a relatively positive note.

Locking horns with Ngannou will be former heavyweight titan Cain Velasquez. Standing with a record of 14-2, Velasquez has had an illustrious yet injury-plagued career. With his last fight coming at UFC 200, he returns to the octagon after almost a three year break.

The former heavyweight champion still holds a special place in the hearts of most MMA fans, mind you. Whether it was knocking out Brock Lesnar or his amazing trilogy against Junior Dos Santos, Velasquez has always delivered what fans have expected of him. So despite this long break, every fans still hold the Mexican-American in high regard.

Still, there are some troubling signs. Recent videos of Cain in the gym haven’t exactly made him look good. Something seems a bit off. Certainly, he hasn’t looked the Velasquez of old. Maybe that’s reading too much into things, however. No one can say what is going through his mind, or if those videos showed him going full-out. In the past, he has taken such long breaks off and returned to resounding success — but that was a different era. Back then division was home to a different set of powerhouses, though not much has changed in terms of age as the divisional top ten’s average is still around 35. However, relatively younger fighters like Curtis Blaydes, Derick Lewis, Ngannou, and Alexander Volkov have slowly begun to take over.

The heavyweight main event at UFC Phoenix is an interesting one. It’s a high risk, high reward match-up for both parties involved. He who wins cements his position in the minds of MMA fans. For Ngannou, barring another Lewis-style performance, it would even manage to wash away the memory of his lackluster performances. A title shot? Why not, if Brock Lesnar continues to focus on the WWE. Although, if Cormier is still the champ and Velasquez wins, that isn’t likely to happen.

Were Ngannou to come out victorious, he would be winning against a former division stalwart. His clear and one-sided loss to Stipe Miocic, however, will likely make sure he doesn’t get an immediate title shot.

He who loses, meanwhile, will be relegated to gatekeeper, a label hard to remove for UFC fighters. On a side note, if Velasquez were to lose, at least some MMA fans would be expecting him to hang up his gloves.

One fight isn’t a judgment for anyone’s return, but MMA fans have little to no long-term memory. A win could grant the victor a title-shot given the division has no clear number one contender, albeit as mentioned it’s complicated due to Cormier and Velasquez’s friendship. That, and DC at this point in his career being more inclined to take money fights. So no, this fight probably shouldn’t be considered a title eliminator. Even if it turns out to be one.

UFC on ESPN: Ngannou vs. Velasquez airs live February 17 on ESPN+ in the US, CTV2 in Canada, and SONY TEN 2 in India on February 18.