Sunday night was supposed to mark the return to action of one of the greatest heavyweights in UFC history.
Instead, it became another chapter in the injury-riddled story of Cain Velasquez.
The former two-time champion was knocked out in Phoenix by Francis Ngannou just 26 seconds into the main event of the UFC’s first main card on ESPN after his knee buckled under him and he crumpled to the ground and became a sitting target.
“I just can’t believe that happened,” a disappointed Velasquez said at the post-fight news conference.
Velasquez was returning to the cage for the first time since July 2016 after enduring a series of injuries, most notably a recurrence of a back problem that has plagued the career of the two-time all-American wrestler at Arizona State.
He had hoped to put all the setbacks behind him.
“I had a great camp coming in,” he said. “Truly, everything I said before (the fight) about how strong I felt, that was all true. I felt great out there, relaxed and then taking that one step with my left foot, something popped and then when I tried to take another step, it gave out on me, my knee just gave out on me.
“Going in (I was) 100 percent healthy, 100 percent ready and just to have this freak accident, I can’t even believe it. It’s just hard. But that’s sports. That’s what we do. That’s what happens sometimes. It’s just really frustrating.”
Velasquez had said before the fight he would contemplate retirement if things didn’t go his way, but the 36-year-old seems intent on staying the course now.
“I guess I’ve got a lot to prove, and I’m very capable of doing that,” he said.
No title fight for Ngannou
Ngannou said he hoped a win over Velasquez could propel him into a title shot against heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier.
UFC president Dana White was quick to shoot down that possibility.
“Well yeah, Francis is there,” he said on ESPN after the fight. “Cormier’s hurt right now and we have another fight lined up for Cormier first so, we’ll see how this whole thing plays out.”
White declined to identify an opponent for Cormier. There have long been rumors of former champion Brock Lesnar returning from professional wrestling to face him, but Lesnar has logistical concerns in the way with his contract and still has USADA penalties hanging over him.
A third fight with Jon Jones is also a possibility.
“(Cormier) is not healthy yet, so I would never announce a fight without it being done,” White said. “It makes no sense. I don’t even know when Cormier’s gonna be ready.”
Conor-Cowboy not a done deal
UFC color commentator Joe Rogan was not on the broadcast of Sunday night’s UFC event, but that didn’t stop him from dominating the headlines in the blogosphere.
Rogan said a rumored interim lightweight title fight between Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone and former champ Conor McGregor was “a done deal.”
White denied the claim when asked by TMZ.
“Not true,” he said. “It’s not even close to being done.”
White has recently called Cerrone the front-runner to be McGregor’s next opponent when his suspension from the Nevada Athletic Commission for his role in a post-fight brawl at T-Mobile Arena ends in April.
A light heavyweight bout between Jan Blachowicz and Thiago Santos will headline Saturday’s UFC Fight Night 145 card in Prague, Czech Republic.
The main card of the event, which will stream on ESPN-Plus at 11 a.m., also includes a heavyweight bout between Stefan Struve and Marcos Rogerio de Lima.
Four fights on the preliminary card will air on ESPN2 at 8 a.m.
■ Saturday: UFC Fight Night 145 (ESPN-Plus), Prague, Czech Republic
■ Saturday: Bellator 217 (Paramount), Dublin
■ March 2: UFC 235 (ESPN/PPV), T-Mobile Arena
■ March 9: UFC Fight Night 146 (ESPN-Plus), Wichita, Kansas
■ March 16: UFC Fight Night 147 (ESPN-Plus), London