UFC on ESPN 1 is now one for the books. All the action took place on Sunday night, February 17th, from the Talking Stick Resort Arena in Phoenix, Nevada. In the night’s main event, Francis Ngannou finished the returning Cain Velasquez by knockout in 26 seconds. It was a vicious way to cap of the main card TV debut on this new platform, and many other fighters leading up to this fight shone bright.
The early ESPN+ fights brought some good action with Emily Whitmire‘s rear-naked choke over Aleksandra Albu and Luke Sanders finishing the once-was best bantamweight on Earth years ago, Renan Barao. Despite missing weight, Manny Bermudez captured a quick first-round finish over prospect Benito Lopez. Both Cynthia Calvillo and Andre Fili captured decision victories over their respected opponents on the main card. And we can not forget about the already incredible “Fight of the Year” candidate between winner Vicente Luque and Bryan Barberena.
But what could be around the corner for these athletes next? It is time to think with a similar mindset to matchmakers Shelby and Maynard. Here are the top five fights to make after UFC on ESPN 1: Ngannou vs. Velasquez. Also, underneath the top five suggestions, I have provided options for all those victorious and defeated from the event. And if you are a Velasquez or Barao fan, I apologize now.
#5 – Aljamain Sterling vs. Cody Garbrandt/Pedro Munhoz winner
Aljamain Sterling put up one of the most impressive victories in his mixed martial arts career thus far. He utilized an effective clinch and dynamic striking attack to secure the 30-27 decision win over top bantamweight Jimmie Rivera, who now is on a two-fight losing skid. Since the infamous “dab” knockout loss to Marlon Moraes back in December of 2017, Sterling has claimed three straight wins over some of the best 135 pounders in the world.
In his post-fight interview, Sterling requested for a potential rematch with Moraes. However, I would like to think that is out of the realm of possibilities due to the fact Moraes has not looked back since that first victory. If we let Moraes have that title shot against TJ Dillashaw (which he very well deserves), we can set up a bout between Sterling and the winner of Cody Garbrandt versus Pedro Munhoz. Those two are set to battle in less than two weeks, so the timing would just be right.
#4 – Kron Gracie vs. Ryan Hall
About as flawless as you could possibly be in a UFC debut. Kron Gracie managed to put away Alex “Bruce Leeroy” Caceres by rear-naked choke around the two minute mark inside round one. Gracie now has three straight victories by this submission having also rear-naked choked notables Tatsuya Kawajiri and Hideo Tokoro in RIZIN. With help from training partner Nate Diaz and the rest of his team, and with further evolution in the striking department, he could become a very dangerous threat for anyone in the featherweight division.
I saw former UFC fighter and current commentator Dan Hardy tweet out a great suggestion for Kron Gracie’s next fight. That would be a matchup against between Gracie and Ryan Hall, who lastly became the first man to ever submit UFC Hall Of Famer BJ Penn. This would have likely take place at featherweight if Hall is willing to cut back down to this weight class, as two of his last three fights were contested at lightweight. Imagine all the wild scrambles and transitions we could see if these two are paired up next. If you’re a fan of Brazilian jiu-jitsu and would be interested in seeing some striking added to the mix, this is the fight for you.
#3 – Vicente Luque vs. Alex Oliveira
Let’s mention this one more time: Vicente Luque vs. Bryan Barberena will forever be one of the greatest fights in UFC welterweight history. The two through down for 14 minutes and 50 seconds, each sharing moments where it looked like one or the other would be finished. But in the last few seconds of the fight, Luque dropped Barberena with a knee from the Thai clinch followed with ground and pound to call an end to the “Fight of the Night” battle. Both Luque and Barberena combined landed a total of 359 strikes in this short period of time, which I believe is the most ever landed in a three-round UFC fight. Crazy, right? Make sure to catch this fight if you have not already.
We know Luque as one of the most exciting fighters on the welterweight roster. Aside from two unanimous decision losses, he has finished all eight of his other opponent inside the distance. If only there was a welterweight with this finishing ability who can fight as wild as him… oh wait, I know. Alex “Cowboy” Oliveira. Another 170 pounder who shares one of the best fights in UFC welterweight history with Yancy Medeiros. Oliveira may be 2-2 in his last four outings (including a submission win over fan-favorite Carlos Condit), but he still remains one of the best in the weight class. Let’s pair the two up for a three-round, non-stop war.
#2 – Paul Felder vs. Justin Gaethje/Edson Barboza winner
Paul Felder is one tough S.O.B. Not only did he capture a decisive decision victory over top lightweight contender James Vick, but he won the final five-minute round with a collapsed lung. To battle until the very end like he did is something incredible. Felder is now 4-1 in his last five octagon appearances, his lone loss coming by split decision on short notice at welterweight against Mike Perry. “The Irish Dragon is coming for you.”
In his post-fight interview, Felder asked for a fight with the winner of Justin Gaethje and Edson Barboza. A pairing with Gaethje is one yet to be seen in the octagon. With both being phenomenal strikers and possessing incredible cardio, the fight would be one you would not want to miss. Felder faced off against Barboza in July of 2015 losing the back-and-forth contest by decision. If any rematch for Felder could happen right now, that would be the one to make. I’d be satisfied with either to be completely honest, and I believe a majority of you would agree. If not, how about a go with Gilbert Burns?
#1 – Francis Ngannou vs. Junior dos Santos
There are some things in life to be fearful of when standing in front of you. Maybe a lion, an African buffalo, or even a polar bear if you’ve trekked through the arctic. But could you imagine having Francis Ngannou staring you dead in the eyes from 25 feet away? I’d prefer not. Former UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez was a willing man to face such a dangerous opponent in his return after nearly three years away from the sport. He would unfortunately fall victim to the terrifying knockout power, being stopped by knockout in just 26 seconds. The victory was Ngannou’s seventh out of eight by either KO or TKO, five of them coming in the first round. Despite a two fight losing skid to Stipe Miocic and Derrick Lewis where it seemed the hype train was derailed, Ngannou has followed it up now with back-to-back sub-minute finishes.
I don’t believe there are many options for Ngannou at the moment. Current UFC heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier is looking to defend his title in a potential fight against Brock Lesnar. If Junior dos Santos manages to get past Lewis on March 9th, I would suggest pairing him with Ngannou in a possible title eliminator fight. If Lewis were to win, however, and Miocic is left on the sidelines without a fight, pair him with Ngannou in what would (hopefully) be a better rematch.
OTHER FIGHTS TO MAKE AFTER UFC ON ESPN 1
Cynthia Calvillo vs. Claudia Gadelha
Andre Fili vs. Cub Swanson
Manny Bermudez vs. Sean O’Malley (suggested by fellow writer Brian Gerson)
Andrea Lee vs. Mara Romero Borella
Nik Lentz vs. Davi Ramos
Luke Sanders vs. Tom Duquesnoy
Emily Whitmire vs. Juliana Lima
Cain Velasquez: retirement (sorry)
James Vick vs. David Teymur
Cortney Casey vs. Xiaonan Yan
Alex Caceres vs. Humberto Bandenay
Bryan Barberena vs. Sean Strickland
Myles Jury vs. Shane Burgos
Jimmie Rivera vs. Ricky Simon
Benito Lopez vs. Andre Ewell
Ashlee Evans-Smith vs. Ariane Lipski
Scott Holtzman vs. Olivier Aubin-Mercier
Renan Barao: released and/or retirement
Aleksandra Albu: released, signed with Invicta FC
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