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Diggin’ Deep on UFC Phoenix: N’Gannou vs. Velasquez - Main card preview

Get the scoop on the main card of UFC Phoenix, featuring a lightweight contest between lanky James Vick and gritty Paul Felder looking to establish themselves as top ten talents.

While the main card of UFC Phoenix doesn’t have a contest that looks like it will have an immediate impact on the title picture, all of them either represent a FOTN contender or a contest of high intrigue. That doesn’t mean there isn’t any relevancy to them either. James Vick and Paul Felder are borderline top ten lightweights, a more impressive feat than in any other division given the shark tank 155 represents. Kron Gracie’s UFC debut is a curiosity simply due to his last name. The last Gracie to fight in the UFC: Roger Gracie at UFC 162, so it’s been a while since a member of the First Family of MMA stepped into the Octagon. Plus, it wasn’t that long ago when the UFC was pushing Cynthia Calvillo as the next big thing at women’s strawweight. This is a very good card. Let’s hope the UFC maintains this level of quality down the road.

The main card begins on ESPN at 9:00 PM ET/6:00 PM PT on Sunday.

James Vick (13-2) vs. Paul Felder (15-4), Lightweight

Y’all remember when Vick was on the live version of TUF? When he was a raw prospect, very quiet. Damn… that was a long time ago. Vick is now one of the more outspoken members of a very loud lightweight division, regularly calling out the top of the division and accusing them of ducking him. Ask Kevin Lee about it. Some of the credence to that claim has been lost as he’s been beaten in embarrassing fashion the two times a top ten opponent gave him the opportunity.

That doesn’t mean Vick is a nobody as those are the only two losses on his UFC ledger as his height and reach – measured at 6’3” and 76” respectively – create problems only the best have been able to solve. As he’s progressed in his career, he’s gotten better about using his length to avoid his opponent’s offense while effectively countering. This has led to a more methodical approach as the brawls he was sucked into earlier in his career have largely dissipated. There isn’t much notable about his wrestling or grappling besides a slick guillotine, but his length has made it difficult for most to get in on his hips.

Felder has had some hard luck in his recent UFC run. This contest was originally scheduled for last summer only for Vick getting the call to replace Al Iaquinta for different event. That left Felder fuming at another canceled contest – Iaquinta had pulled out of a contest against Felder months before – so Felder accepted a contest with Mike Perry… at welterweight. Felder may have improved his stock as held his own with his bigger and stronger opponent, but he came up short in the end.

Felder was originally known as a high-risk action fighter early in his UFC career based on his spinning back-fist finish of Danny Castillo and war with Edson Barboza. While he still has the ability for those type of performances, Felder’s showings have been much grittier as of late. His pocket boxing has improved and he’s become a beast to deal with in the clinch. In fact, his last three wins have all come from the strength of his elbows, both standing and on the ground. Felder has also proven to be one of the more difficult lightweights in the division to submit. Just ask Charles Oliveira how easy it is to do that.

I was happy to see this contest rescheduled as it makes too much sense. Both have come up short against stronger opposition and the winner of this will get another chance to break through while the loser likely gets stuck in the gatekeeper role for a while. I’m favoring Felder for two reasons. 1. He has never been blown out in a contest, always remaining within striking distance of snatching victory. 2. The determination he showed to get out of Charles Oliveira’s grasp was about as intense as it gets. Barring bad luck – see his loss to Francisco Trinaldo – Felder doesn’t get beat except by those who are eminently more talented than him. Vick could be more talented than Felder, but is he that much more talented? I don’t think so. Felder via TKO of RD2

Cortney Casey (8-6) vs. Cynthia Calvillo (7-1), Women’s Strawweight

It’s hard not respect Casey. She has consistently faced some of the best talent in the division, often pushing them to the brink if she is unable to walk away with the victory. Her large frame, insane durability, and never-ending gas tank make her a difficult matchup for anyone. While that was about all she had going for her upon her UFC entry, she has since increased her skill set. Now, instead of being a hard-hitting brawler, she shows more precision in her pocket boxing. Even more encouraging has been the creativity in her grappling, submitting Randa Markos in the midst of a scramble, no easy feat. However, there is still one glaring hole in Casey’s repertoire: her takedown defense.

That should have Calvillo salivating. The Team Alpha Male representative has displayed some of the best wrestling this side of Tatiana Suarez in the division. The problem has been Calvillo has a great desire to become just as feared in her standup. It isn’t that she’s bad in that area. She does a solid job mixing up her arsenal to all levels, but it’s an aspect of her game that’s still developing. On the other hand, her ground game – including her grappling – has driven her to four wins in her five UFC appearances. The lone loss? The fight where she most ignored her own impressive credentials. Perhaps Calvillo learned her lesson as she wasted little time imposing her will on Poliana Botelho in her last appearance, securing a round one RNC.

The outcome of this contest depends on Calvillo’s whims. If she wants to prove she can strike, she’s opening the door for Casey to take the W. If she wants to stick to her roots, she’s all but guaranteeing herself a victory. A fighter’s pride can often be the biggest detriment as they look to prove their critics – like me – wrong. However, Calvillo appears to have learned her lesson from her loss to Carla Esparza. She sticks to her roots. Calvillo via decision

Alex Caceres (14-11, 1 NC) vs. Kron Gracie (4-0), Featherweight

While it is likely there is a more inconsistent fighter on the UFC roster, I can’t seem to name one ahead of Caceres at the time I’m typing this up. Now eight years into his UFC career, he’s no longer the youngster brimming with promise and enthusiasm. Instead, given he can’t put forth a string of complete performances, his promise has become maddening and his enthusiasm can be seen as annoying. When Caceres is rolling, he’s a solid stick-and-move fighter with an underrated submission game. The problem is his defense has major holes and his wrestling has never allowed him to fully utilize his grappling to its fullest potential.

Gracie will give Caceres every opportunity to show what he can do on the ground. The youngest child of the legendary Rickson Gracie, Kron has made a nice transition into MMA after a successful grappling career. However, there are some caveats as his most recent wins over Hideo Tokoro and Tatsuya Kawajiri are both combatants well past their primes. How much do those wins really tell us? Regardless, it does appear his time with the Diaz brothers has produced some good results with his striking. Expecting him to be on the same level of Caceres though would be ridiculous as he still has much to learn.

While I haven’t been looking for others’ opinions, every one that I’ve noticed is favoring Gracie. While I agree with the sentiment that Gracie should win this, I don’t see this being the walk in the park many seem to be projecting it to be. Caceres’ diverse and creative striking could very well catch Gracie off-guard and it isn’t like Gracie’s wrestling has shown itself to be functional enough for him to get the fight where he wants it. Nonetheless, Gracie’s strength in the clinch should get the job done before the fight reaches its time limit. Gracie via submission of RD2

Vicente Luque (14-6-1) vs. Bryan Barberena (14-5), Welterweight

It’s been three years since Barberena burst the Sage Northcutt bubble. Barberena’s shine from that upset has dimmed too as he was unable to maintain the momentum of that win for very long. Nonetheless, Barberna has established himself as one of the toughest SOB’s on the roster at any weight class. The only time he’s been finished in his career came in his third fight by submission. Nothing special as an athlete and somewhat small for welterweight, Barberena relies on his endless gas tank to continually press the action, often wearing down his opposition in the process for a late finish.

He’s going to have a hard time executing that strategy with Luque, one of the more unsung members at 170. Widely praised as a promising prospect from his time on TUF, Luque has been tapping into his deep skill set, putting it all together to make him a dark horse at welterweight. A winner in seven of his last eight contests, the only fight that went the distance in that time was his solitary loss as he’s been able to develop some serious power. Over the course of that streak, his striking has overshadowed his grappling. Given his BJJ is his base, that’s no small feat.

I love Barberena fights. The MMA Lab product doesn’t have much of a regard for defense, but usually ends up dealing out far more damage due to his brutal pace. However, Barberena’s ceiling has been established against disciplined opponents with superior physical skills. That describes Luque all the way. If Barberena gets finished, I’m guessing it will be by decision, but I’m betting he makes it to the final bell. Luque via decision

Andre Fili (18-6) vs. Myles Jury (17-3), Featherweight

Expectations were once high for both Fili and Jury. At this point, observers have accepted they are gatekeepers to the top ten… at best.

Fili really had observers excited upon his UFC debut five years ago. He settled into a groove of win-loss-win-loss for a while, finally breaking that stretch last year. For a while, Fili had a bad habit of attempting takedowns when he was winning the standup battle, one of the reasons for his inconsistency. It hasn’t completely solved his inconsistency as Fili tends to get flustered against disciplined opponents – see his bout with Calvin Kattar – but the Team Alpha Male is on the right track.

After opening up his UFC career with 6 straight wins, Jury has since gone a paltry 2-3. Relying heavily on his wrestling when he entered the UFC, Jury has become more of a striker. There isn’t anything flashy about his pocket boxing, but it has proven effective as he consistently times his counters with precision. Nonetheless, Jury has struggled against specialists and better athletes than he. Fili isn’t a specialist, but he doesn’t seem to be any less of an athlete than Jury.

Jury looks like he could be the type of disciplined fighter that gives Fili trouble. That doesn’t necessarily mean Jury is guaranteed to win due to Fili’s physical advantages, most notably in the reach department. Fili’s reach advantage is only a single inch, but it’s an advantage Jury is used to having as he looks to establish his jab. I can see this going either way with a strong chance it becomes a split decision. I’ll go with the younger fighter who seems to be on a more pronounced upward trajectory. Fili via decision