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Diggin’ Deep on UFC Phoenix: Ngannou vs. Velasquez - ESPN+ prelims preview

Get the scoop on the early contests on the UFC’s premiere event on ESPN, featuring Jodie Esquibel welcoming former title challenger Jessica Penne back from suspension.

It could be said the UFC is going all out with their first official event on ESPN. After all, the early contests feature a former champion in Renan Barao and a former title challenger in Jessica Penne. The truth is, these are your typical early contests on either of the streaming services (whether it be ESPN+ or Fight Pass). Either the combatants are fighting for their employment or they’re young enough in their careers that we can’t get a grip on what their upside is. Basically, you’re probably not missing much if you don’t have ESPN+. If you don’t, start your free trial on a different weekend.

The early prelims begin on ESPN+ at 5:30 PM ET/2:30 PM PT on Sunday.

Jessica Penne (12-5) vs. Jodie Esquibel (6-4), Women’s Strawweight

Remember when Penne was a legit badass? If you’re newer to the sport, you don’t as it was prior to the UFC’s integration of the strawweight division. The first winner of a women’s fight in Bellator in addition to being the first Invicta atomweight champion, Penne had her soul stolen by Joanna Jedrzejczyk in 2015 and has never been the same since. Part of her issue is she is a small strawweight, struggling to get her opponents on the mat where her BJJ and judo skills stand out the most.

Fortunately for Penne, she’s fighting another natural atomweight in Esquibel. A former professional boxer, Esquibel is most at home in the pocket where she can put together her punching combinations at will. She racks up volume in a hurry, but she also has allowed her opponent to generate more damage on her in the process. Her small frame and short reach play a part as she is forced to enter her opponent’s range to land her own offense.

The biggest factor in how this contest plays out is going to be the takedown defense. Esquibel’s submission defense has long been a question mark whereas Penne’s grappling game is her biggest strength. Esquibel’s takedown defense has been strong thus far against the likes of Karolina Kowalkiewicz and Jessica Aguilar. Combine that with Penne likely having lost a step – maybe two – at the age of 36 and I feel confident in picking Esquibel. Esquibel via decision

Renan Barao (34-7, 1 NC) vs. Luke Sanders (12-3), Bantamweight

There was a time when Barao was being talked about as one of the P4P greats on the planet. Whether you agreed with that opinion or not, there is no denying Barao represented an imposing figure for anyone in the bantamweight division. The guy did win 32 fights in a row after all. A single loss from TJ Dillashaw sent Barao on what may be the most precipitous drop in MMA history. Rather than competing for a place in the short history of this sport as the greatest bantamweight, he’s currently fighting for a roster spot.

Somewhere inside of Barao exists the fearless terror who launched flying knees and spinning back kicks without another thought, often landing them with great accuracy. The problem is he no longer has confidence. He’ll usually start out a contest strong, landing takedowns and competing on the feet, but it generally just takes a single good shot and he’s a deer in the headlights. At the beginning of his decline, it looked like he still had his takedown defense to fall back on, but even that hasn’t been the rock it once was in recent contests.

Sanders has suffered a fall himself, though it is nothing like that of Barao. Formerly a hot prospect, Sanders’ decline came when he dropped two consecutive contests he was winning on the scorecards before being finished. A nice pocket boxer with occasional power, Sanders employs a pressuring style that has struggled to get off the ground as he hasn’t utilized his wrestling in the way most expected him to. It isn’t that he can’t get the fight to the ground. It’s that he has made minimal effort to do so in his UFC run.

Barao hit rock bottom when he lost to Andre Ewell in September. Ewell was the perfect stylistic matchup for the former champion and Barao couldn’t capitalize. Sanders is hardly a nightmare matchup himself opposite Barao, but he’s likely to stuff Barao’s wrestling, likely throwing off Barao’s confidence. To be honest though, I don’t have a desire to see Barao continue to step into the cage. Sanders via decision

Alexandra Albu (3-0) vs. Emily Whitmire (3-2), Women’s Strawweight

There’s a good chance you’re unaware of who Albu is given her lack of experience. However, she has been on the UFC roster for over five years. I’m not going to pretend to know the reasons for her lack of activity, but it does give the appearance that her MMA career is secondary to something else.

To her credit, Albu has won both of her UFC appearances, though Izabela Badurek and Kailin Curran are hardly examples of quality competition. While it can be said that Albu’s contests with them were entertaining, they also exposed Albu’s utter lack of defense. Seriously, it’s about as bad as it gets. Nonetheless, Albu’s volume has been able to make up for that shortcoming as she pushes a hard pace that opponent’s struggle to keep up with.

Whitmire, a protégé of former champion Miesha Tate, may be even more green than Albu given she’s been training for a shorter amount of time. She showed major growth in her sophomore UFC effort, showing good distance control against Jamie Moyle, rebuffing all takedown attempts from the wrestler. However, she best known for her ground game as she usually aggressively pursues the takedown. Perhaps she didn’t pursue that option against Moyle due to Moyle’s wrestling ability, but the questions regarding Albu’s ground game make it likely she returns to her roots here.

This is largely a coin flip. Whitmire appears to have more long-term potential than Albu, but she also has a tendency to be overwhelmed. Given Albu’s aggressive nature, I’ll gamble she takes the fight right to Whitmire – no doubt eating some return fire in return – and either takes a decision or finishes her off. Albu via TKO of RD2