Former UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez will take on No. 3 contender Francis Ngannou in the main event of the first UFC Fight Night card to appear in its entirety on the ESPN television network.

UFC Fight Night Velasquez
Cain Velasquez makes his return to the UFC heavyweight division against Francis Ngannou on Sunday as part of the first UFC card to appear on ESPN. (Image: Rey Del Rio/Getty)

ESPN has now aired two previous cards on their ESPN+ streaming service, with some of the preliminary fights appearing on television. But this will be the first time that every fight at a UFC event will be available live on cable through ESPN.

A Legend Returns to the Octagon

Headlining the card is an intriguing matchup between one of the current top contenders in the heavyweight division and one of UFC’s all-time legends.

Cain Velasquez (14-2) hasn’t fought since 2016, when he stopped Travis Browne late in the first round. But the 36-year-old former champion is widely considered to be one of the best heavyweights in the history of MMA, even if he may have lost a step since his prime years.

During a media luncheon on Wedneday, Velasquez said that he has only come back stronger since his hiatus from the UFC.

“It was something that I really needed just for my body and my mind to take a step back and regroup,” Velasquez told reporters. “I needed to take time for myself. I have always done the quick comeback as fast as I can. But for what? What’s the rush for? I have always had some positive and some negative stuff happen when I come back too early.”

In particular, Velasquez may regret attempting to come back too soon from a knee injury in 2011. That was likely a factor in his first-round knockout loss to Junior dos Santos that year, one that came on the very first UFC on Fox card. Velasquez would later fight Dos Santos two more times, winning both contests.

Ngannou Rebounding from Disappointing 2018

Francis Ngannou (12-3) is trying to put himself back in the title picture. He won his last fight against Curtis Blaydes in November, but that came after two consecutive losses to Stipe Miocic and Derrick Lewis – the two men currently listed as the No. 1 and No. 2 contenders for Daniel Cormier’s heavyweight championship.

“I look at last year as a learning year,” Ngannou told Yahoo Sports. “I took up the sport late and I didn’t know everything you need to be able to be successful. This is a very difficult sport and you have to know how to live the life of a fighter. It’s not just [technique]; it’s more than that. It’s understanding what it takes to be the best. I had to learn that.”

Scoring a win against perhaps the biggest name in UFC heavyweight history could give Ngannou a case for another shot at one of the names above him on the rankings list. But to do so, he may have to score a quick win against Velasquez, who has shown the ability to go the distance in fights without getting gassed. Conversely, Ngannou has struggled with fatigue in his longer bouts, most notably in his loss to Miocic last year.

While there are question marks surrounding Velasquez given his age and his long layoff from the sport, oddsmakers still give him the advantage on Sunday. Bovada has made Velasquez a modest -165 favorite over Ngannou (+135) in the fight.

The card, also known as UFC on ESPN 1, will take place at the Talking Stick Resort Arena in Phoenix, Arizona.

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