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UFC on ESPN 1: Ngannou vs. Velasquez - Fights to make

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All the best, most interesting, and unquestionable coolest fights the UFC needs to book following their latest event in Phoenix, AZ.

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The UFC’s first card on ESPN was a reasonable success, at least for home viewers. Those who showed up live seemed to voice a much less glowing opinion throughout the evening. However, Vicente Luque and Bryan Barberena put on a war for the ages, Kron Gracie got a glowing debut, and while Cain Velasquez didn’t get to feed off his grand return, Francis Ngannou added to his resume and may have bought himself a return ticket to title town.

So, will DC really skip Stipe to fight the ‘Predator’? Is AlJo “in the mix” at bantamweight? And will Vicente Luque ever get a ranked opponent?

To answer all these questions – and many more – I’ll be using the classic Silva/Shelby method of fight booking. That means pitting winners against winners, losers against losers, and similarly tenured talent up against one another. If you’d like to get a shot at making some fantasy matchups of your own, leave a comment below starting with, “We are still searching space for Alistair Overeem’s head.” I’ll pick one winner from the responses to join me next time.

This week, there was no winner because my schedule got wild and I forgot to choose one (apologies to MegaMax and Gugaber). So, let’s get to the fights:

FRANCIS NGANNOU

It seems pretty clear that Ngannou has given Daniel Cormier exactly what Cormier wants: a good excuse to keep ignoring Stipe Miocic. DC almost certainly is going to look at Ngannou just the same way he did at Derrick Lewis; he’s a big, scary opponent that can fill some seats and be out-wrestled when the time comes. For the sake of argument, however, let’s assume that the champ gets that Lesnar fight he wants more than anything. If that happens, then the next step for Ngannou is much less clear. He’s already lost to Stipe, so it’s hard to imagine the already-reluctant-to-lose-his-spot former champ taking a dangerous rematch. And that Derrick Lewis fight sucked so bad that booking it twice would be a crime. If Lesnar returns and Junior dos Santos defeats Lewis, book JDS vs. Ngannou. If not, then the UFC will have to hope Volkov beats Overeem, otherwise they could be stuck with a top 5 at heavyweight that either doesn’t want – or doesn’t need – to fight one another.

CAIN VELASQUEZ

Whether you want to chalk this up as purely knee related, or the direct result of a clubbing short uppercut, Velasquez’s return did not go well. The former champion didn’t just get stopped quickly, he got hurt again. That could be the end of his time in the cage, but I’ve been thinking that since 2013. If it takes another 3 years for him to come back, then there’s no telling who he could fight or what that could mean. But, if all goes as well as possible, and Cain is back this year (and he wants to keep doing all this), then Oleksiy Oliynyk would be a more reasonable bounce back. If that fight can’t be made in the moment then, win or lose, Alistair Overeem would be a rock solid return fight for Velasquez as well. The ‘Boa Constrictor’ is Option A, but I’m just as down for a fight with the ‘Demolition Man.’

PAUL FELDER

Unfortunately for Felder, most of the fighters around him that would make the most sense are either already booked, people he’s already beaten or lost to, or coming off a loss. It’s hard not to imagine that the UFC will pursue Cerrone vs. McGregor, so can Felder get a top 5 guy to give him the time? Al Iaquinta, Kevin Lee, Tony Ferguson, and Dustin Poirier are all unbooked (although Poirier is injured). If Iaquinta wants to fight soon and T-Ferg is holding out for a shot at Khabib, then I would absolutely be 100% behind Iaquinta vs. Felder. But, ‘Ragin’ Al’ seems like he’s very willing to be choosy about getting a big fight. Felder called for the winner of Gaethje vs. Barboza, and if that’s Justin Gaethje, I’m here for it. However, lightweight is deep enough to stay active and not wait for one result or another. So, how about Paul Felder vs. Gregor Gillespie. The ‘Gift’ has earned a name opponent next time out, and Felder has struggled enough in the cage that he’s not likely on any title contender’s wish list. Gillespie vs. Felder sounds like a sensible next bout for both men.

JAMES VICK

Vick seems to be meeting a hard wall after years of running up a strong resume and complaining about not getting the ‘big’ fights he deserved. It could be time for the 6’ 3” lightweight to consider moving up a division and putting on a little mass, or he may end up in gatekeeper status at 155. Assuming he stays where he’s at, Vick could be an exceptionally tough bounce-back fight for Alexander Hernandez. But, I’d rather see Hernandez take things a little easier after getting KO’d by Cerrone. Fights against Daniel Hooker, Nik Lentz, Charles Oliveira, or Yancy Medeiros all sound decent. Of all those, Hooker probably makes the most sense. Another lanky striker who’s found trouble against the elite and looking to regain momentum. James Vick vs. Daniel Hooker should tell us something about either fighter’s future.

CYNTHIA CALVILLO

There’s no question that Cortney Casey is a tough out and a difficult fighter to look good against, but this also felt like a real chance for Calvillo to tell the division that she was a big step above the rank and file and on her way to title contention. She called out Suarez after the win, and I’m not against it, but I wouldn’t favor Calvillo in that fight at all (also Suarez is apparently fighting Nina Ansaroff at UFC 237). A more reasonable matchup that would give her a better chance for success, while still getting a lot of name value, would be a bout against the winner of Michelle Waterson vs. Karolina Kowalkiewicz. Both women have the edge in experience and situational technique, but neither has the kind of clear size or athleticism edge that Suarez possesses. If it’s a bout against someone without a fight right now, then I’d be totally fine with Cynthia Calvillo vs. Claudia Gadelha. The Brazilian’s recent struggles leave a lot of questions that Calvillo could ask. Otherwise, wait for the winner of Waterson/Kowalkiewicz.

KRON GRACIE

There’s a very good chance that Kron just bought himself a fight with the likes of Ricardo Lamas, Darren Elkins, Chan Sung Jung, or Yair Rodriguez. I hope not, but that tends to be how the UFC treats notable newcomers that win big. A fight with Ryan Hall is something I’d like to see at any point. Especially since I don’t think either of them has enough fear of the other to try and kickbox through it. If not, then I’m alright with Gracie getting another seasoned vet, just... not a proven elite featherweight yet. He’s only had 5 pro fights. Gabriel Benitez wouldn’t be bad, but likely not as exciting as fans would want, as would Shane Young or Shane Burgos. However, I think the ideal next fight for Kron is ‘Mr. Finland’ Makwan Amirkhani. Amirkhani is just that right blend of top-shelf athleticism, wild decision making, and technical wrestling, to make for a fascinating challenge. If Gracie insta-subs him, then yeah throw him in there with a ranked guy. And please try to make that Hall fight happen sooner or later.

VICENTE LUQUE

My man needs some respect. He’s crushing way too many dudes to be just another nameless action fighter stuck on the prelims. At the very least a ranked opponent would be good. If the UFC really does have a grudge against him, they could answer that call by throwing him in with Demian Maia — to see how long he can stay on his feet. Or they could pit him against Geoff Neal to see if Neal can use him as a stepping stone. A fight with Santiago Ponzinibbio is more along the lines of what he deserves, but not a fight I’d think the Ponz would be that into. That leaves me with Luque vs. ‘Cowboy’ Oliveira. Oliveira is coming off a rough loss to Gunnar Nelson, but it’s not a fight he looked bad in. He’s always down to scrap, always fun to watch, and name enough that it should make Luque happy and get some attention. Vicente Luque vs. Alex Oliveira is as well served as I think the Hooft-trained Brazilian could be for a next fight.

ALJAMAIN STERLING

Due to ongoing Cejudo/Dillashaw antics, the top of 135 is a bit of a mess right now. The obvious fight for AlJo to get would be against the winner of Munhoz/Garbrandt. But, if that winner is Garbrandt, then a fight between Garbrandt and Moraes might be a better option as we all wait for this likely-inevitable rematch. That could make this a pretty ideal time for Sterling to rematch Rafael Assuncao. He did well late against the perennial top contender when they met two years ago, and Sterling has obviously improved since. The other options would be fights against John Lineker (if he beats Cory Sandhagen) or the Dodson/Yan winner. Given all the options, machinations, and potential maneuvering that needs to happen, I’ll say match Sterling up with Raphael Assuncao again. It’s a chance for revenge and a fight Assuncao would likely be interested in as a way to reassert his status as one of bantamweight’s very best.

JIMMIE RIVERA

Add Rivera to that James Vick list of fighters hitting hard walls after long runs of success. Sterling felt like an opponent that Rivera’s counter-punching and power could keep him a step ahead of. Instead he got entirely out-classed for 15 minutes. A bout against the winner of Stamann vs. Perez wouldn’t be bad, or possibly Rob Font. Maybe the best idea, given his resume already, would be the loser of Grabrandt vs. Munhoz. Both he and Cody would have a ton to prove if Garbrandt drops his 3rd straight. And if Munhoz loses, this would be a chance to get back a very narrow loss from 2015. With three bantamweight fights scheduled for UFC 235, waiting until that event over will probably provide a lot more clarity for the future. Even still, Rivera vs. the Garbrandt/Munhoz loser looks good right now.

OTHER BOUTS: Casey vs. Esparza, Caceres vs. Davis, Barberena vs. Matthews, Fili vs. Burgos, Jury vs. Skelly, Bermudez vs. Dvalishvili, Lopez vs. Ewell, Lee vs. De La Rosa, Evans-Smith vs. Kish, Lentz vs. Trinaldo, Holtzman vs. Aubin-Mercier, Sanders vs. Katona, Whitmire vs. Yoder, Albu vs. Chan-Mi