The UFC’s first main event on ESPN television belonged to French-Cameroonian heavyweight Francis Ngannou.
Ngannou knocked out two-time UFC champion Cain Velasquez in just 26 seconds on Sunday night in Phoenix. It was Velasquez’s first appearance in 953 days, and it would prove to be a heartbreaking return.
What’s next for Ngannou, Velasquez and the other stars of UFC Fight Night? Here’s ESPN’s take.
Francis Ngannou, heavyweight
Result: defeated Cain Velasquez via first-round KO
Next: Stipe Miocic (for the vacant heavyweight championship)
Let me explain that second part. So Daniel Cormier is the current heavyweight champ, right? And no one seems to know exactly how many fights he has left, right? Well, let Cormier have his fantasy/money heavyweight title defense against Brock Lesnar (assuming the UFC can, in fact, get Lesnar to come back) and then ask him (politely, but forcefully) to drop the heavyweight belt.
At that point, Cormier can either retire or head back to 205 pounds for one more go at Jon Jones (which he has said he’s open to do). And also at that point, you free up the heavyweight belt, which is really what Miocic and Ngannou are gunning for. Everybody wins.
Cain Velasquez, heavyweight
Result: lost to Francis Ngannou via first-round KO
Next: Alexey Oleynik
Nothing happens until we find out the severity of the knee injury Velasquez apparently suffered on Sunday. To the MMA gods: Please, don’t let it be significant. Velasquez deserves to be healthy, and the sport deserves to see him healthy. Don’t take him from us again.
Provided Velasquez can return in a reasonable amount of time, Oleynik makes sense as his next opponent. Oleynik is not a layup. He’s not a gimme. He may be 41 years old, but he’s 6-2 since signing with the UFC in 2014, and he’s been asking the promotion to come up with a path for him.
Oleynik deserves to fight someone like Velasquez. And Velasquez deserves a fight that’s not against a Francis Ngannou type. The UFC threw him to the wolves in his first fight since July 2016. Now it’s fine to take a step back. Oleynik is a legitimate foe, but he’s also manageable for someone coming off a long run of inactivity.
Paul Felder, lightweight
Result: defeated James Vick via unanimous decision
Next: winner of Edson Barboza vs. Justin Gaethje on March 30
Great callout on Felder’s part. It’s a bummer Felder won’t be able to fight on that March 30 card in Philadelphia (his hometown), but having him in attendance with the understanding he’ll fight the winner is the next-best thing. Of course, this depends on his recovery time from the collapsed lung he suffered in Sunday’s fight.
Felder fought Barboza once before, in 2015, and it was glorious. Barboza won a very tense unanimous decision. I would certainly watch a rematch — not to mention a Felder-Gaethje bout, if Gaethje is victorious on March 30.
The lightweight division is chaos, as usual, and there are plenty of names at the top that need to be sorted out. In the meantime, a fight between Felder and the March 30 winner would continue to help establish a pecking order. And it would be a darn good time.
Kron Gracie, featherweight
Result: defeated Alex Caceres via first-round submission
Next: Darren Elkins
Totally stealing this answer from Dominick Cruz, who mentioned it in my conversation with him on ESPN MMA’s postfight analysis Sunday. It’s perfect. Gracie says he’s ready for a top-10 guy, but I don’t know if matchmaking needs to be that aggressive.
Elkins is a guy who has been in the top 10 but has fallen out after back-to-back losses to Alexander Volkanovski and Ricardo Lamas. He’d be a real test for someone like Gracie a good blend of experience and defensive grappling. Booking a fight against him also wouldn’t be rushing Gracie too fast, too soon.
Gracie wants to be back as soon as possible, and Elkins currently has nothing on the books. Sign me up.
Aljamain Sterling, bantamweight
Result: defeated Jimmie Rivera via unanimous decision
Next: winner of Cody Garbrandt vs. Pedro Munhoz on March 2
I’ve been singing the praises of “Aljo” a lot over the past two years, and I’m not about to stop now. This was a relatively dominant performance by Sterling. According to UFC Stats, Sterling out-landed Rivera in total strikes 101 to 24. Grappling is the strongest part of his game, but he didn’t need a single takedown in this win.
Sterling is a problem for the top of this division. I wholeheartedly believe that. I know he lost to Marlon Moraes via knockout three fights ago, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to write him off against elite competition. He got caught by a very dangerous striker. And he appears to have grown from it.
The winner of the UFC 235 meeting between Garbrandt and Munhoz is going to be very highly ranked. The champ, TJ Dillashaw, has his hands full with potential fights against Henry Cejudo and Moraes. Sterling vs. Garbrandt or Munhoz for a future title shot is an obvious call.