Breakthrough heavyweight stars in mixed martial arts appear about as often Haley’s Comet.
In recent years, we’ve had the rise of current UFC heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic ... and, well, then there’s a gaggle of guys who held titles in the pre-Ultimate Fighter days, or have resumes which include promotions like the IFL, Affliction, and PRIDE. Even fighters like Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos, who are young’s compared to the Josh Barnetts and Fabricio Werdums, came of age when Brock Lesnar was king.
So when someone like Francis Ngannou comes along, people tend to take notice.
A looping overhand left and a short right hand to the jaw delivered with frightening efficiency was all Ngannou needed to finish former UFC heavyweight champion Andrei Arlovski on Saturday night at UFC on FOX 23. The stoppage in just 1:32 gave Ngannou a 5-0 UFC record, with all five victories coming via finish and just one lasting beyond the opening round.
Ngannou, for his part, isn’t going to back down from the hype which comes from being a heavyweight hope. Asked to pick his next shot, Ngannou, who has all 10 of his career wins via stoppage, aimed for the heaviest of hitters.
“I talked about Junior Dos Santos and Alistair Overeem, but I just talked about them because I think that Cain Velasquez is injured,” Ngannou said at the post-fight press conference in Denver. “If he’s in the game, I’m ready for him. He’s the next one I’d like to fight.”
This is, of course, admirable. But it’s also likely a step too fast. Arlovski is by far Ngannou’s most impressive victory, but Saturday’s fight at Pepsi Center also marked his fourth consecutive defeat, all via stoppage. Arlovski has looked more like the 2010 version of himself in recent outings than 2014, much less the 2004 model.
It’s clear UFC president Dana White is grappling with the idea of how fast to push Ngannou, as well. On one hand, someone crafty like, say, Werdum, could derail the hype train in a hurry. On the other, the UFC is looking to make new stars in the WME era, and it doesn’t get more Hollywood than a soft-spoken killer with the body of a Greek god.
“It’s one of those tough decisions when you have a guy that’s this talented and this freakish,” White said at the post-fight press conference. “The guy’s a monster, and I’m really high on him. I think he’s the future. I don’t know if we’ve ever had a heavyweight champion who is as physically imposing and scary as this guy is.”
Which path White chooses will go a long way to determining whether Ngannou really is that once-in-a-generation heavyweight he’s giving all early appearances he just might become.
UFC on FOX 23 Quotes
“She’s good fighter. Like I said before, I’m martial artist. I’m not only striker like people said. I’m a complete fighter — an MMA fighter.” -- Valentina Shevchenko on Julianna Pena
I hate when ‘Cowboy’ does this. You know, he’s got four wins at welterweight and he wants to fight back-to-back like this, but that’s who this kid is. That’s what he wants to do, it is what it is.” -- White on Donald Cerrone’s loss to Jorge Masvidal.
“Now Masvidal? He never pulls this trigger this kid. He’s incredibly, super-talented. If he fought all the time like he fights tonight, he’ll be a world champion.” -- White, looking on the bright side of the fight
Up: Valentina Shevchenko After Saturday night, there can be no denying that Shevchenko’s victory over Holly Holm wasn’t a fluke. The knock on Shevchenko going into the fight on Saturday night was that she was “only” a kickboxer. A spectacularly good one, sure, but not one who had put all the tools together just yet in mixed martial arts. That went out the window when she pulled a nasty armbar out of nowhere to submit Julianna Pena. Never again let it be said Shevchenko isn’t a well-rounded fighter.
Down: Anrdei Arlovski For awhile there, the former UFC heavyweight champion was held up as the example of the dangers of writing off a fighter too soon. After all, many called for his retirement following a string of bad losses from 2009-11, and he followed up by winning six straight fights and becoming relevant once again. Unfortunately, that second wind has died out as well. A couple weeks shy of his 38th birthday, Arlovski suffered his fourth straight loss -- all of them finishes -- this time by Ngannou’s thunderous fists. He’s only reached the third round once in that span. He’s been knocked out 10 times in his career. It’s hard to see how things get any better for Arlovski from here, at least against UFC competition.
Up: Jorge Masvidal Masvidal’s victory over Donald Cerrone was a nod to the powers of perseverance: Both in the fight and in the big picture. In the former, he basically had to finish Cerrone twice, since Herb Dean seemed to miss the call at the end of the first round (more on this later). But on the latter end, Masvidal’s victory was a well-deserved, well-earned breakthrough performance, one earned after taking one tough fight after another and being on the wrong end of one too many highly questionable split decisions.
Up: Jason Knight. If you were going to draw up what the perfect night for a fighter making their network television debut would look like, it would look a whole hell of a lot like the Mississippi bantamweight’s victory over Alex Caceres. First, Knight looked like an angry wolverine in swarming over Caceres until earning the second-round submission. Then, he made an emotional dedication of the performance to his late father, whose birthday is today. And then he sealed the deal with a callout of “Korean Superboy” Doo Ho Choi, simply on the ground of what an exciting style matchup the bout would make. In one night, Jason Knight marked himself as one to watch in 2017.
Down: Julianna Pena There’s no doubt that in her own way, the “Venezuelan Vixen” is one of the realest people in mixed martial arts. She believed everything that came out of her mouth this week in the buildup to the fight. But if you’re going to compare Holly Holm to Buster Douglas and then dismiss your opponent’s skills while you’re at it, you better be able to back it up in the cage. Pena basically said Shevchenko was just a kickboxer and not a complete fighter. Shevchenko answered by submitting her on the ground with an armbar. It’s not as though Pena was completely outclassed in the fight; she was winning the second round before she was caught. But a measure of humility to go with that confidence would go a long way.
Herb Dean’s non-ending of the Cerrone-Masvidal fight at the end of the first round was the biggest item of contention coming out of the evening. On replay, it certainly appeared the veteran referee stepped in before the horn sounded to end the round as Masivdal unleashed what sure looked like a a big fight-ending flurry on the grounded Cerrone. At the post-fight press conference, White noted it was so loud in the arena that he couldn’t hear the horn, and had to call the production truck to get their opinion on whether Dean had made the right call. Still, top-level referees are put in this spot because they’ve demonstrated their abilities to get these split-second calls right and in this case, it doesn’t appear Dean did so.
Beyond that, it was a relatively smooth night, with a couple tight decisions in close fights which could have been argued either way. Considering Colorado decided to stick with the old Unified Rules instead of the updated rules we’ve seen other states use so far this year, the night could have been a lot more chaotic, so we’ll take the night on a whole as a win.
Fight I’d like to see next Ngannou vs. someone consequential
First off, I suppose I should be going with Amanda Nunes vs. Shevchenko here. And I’m sure I’ll be ready for it by the time it actually comes around. But as of now, even acknowledging how far along Shevchenko has come, it’s a fight we already saw less than a year ago and I can only get so excited about the run-back.
So I’ll stick with Ngannou theme for now. As exciting as was his win over Arlovski, it’s still the first win over anyone who’s even sniffed the rankings. So let’s hold off on the Velasquez talk for now and continue letting him grow. Maybe the winner of next month’s Derrick Lewis-Travis Browne fight could be next. Or, hey, Ben Rothwell doesn’t have a dance partner. But either way, someone not quite in the Velasquez/Overeem/etc. group, but perhaps in the next level underneath them, seems the right call.