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In a UFC year where superstars vanished and champs sat on the shelf, Francis Ngannou is a treasure

Alistair Overeem vs Francis Ngannou
Francis Ngannou scored one of the year’s best knockouts against Alistair Overeem.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Toiling in a sand quarry in his economically depressed home country of Cameroon, Francis Ngannou felt he was destined for more, for something beyond the imagination of his friends and neighbors, for something that the world would glare at in awe. It was an audacious dream, yet one he has scratched out moment by moment, from an emigration journey so traumatic that he declines to detail it, to homelessness on the streets of France, to trying out a sport he had no intention of following.

From those humble beginnings, he has become the most terrifying man in mixed martial arts, a finely tuned machine of violence that sends bodies crashing and leaves jaws hanging. Alistair Overeem was his latest victim at Saturday’s UFC 218, in a knockout so viscerally savage, it left the fight world simultaneously buzzing on a high yet uneasy at what it had just witnessed.

At the point of impact of a shovel left hook, Overeem’s head was knocked backward with a whiplash effect that briefly had him resembling a human Pez dispenser before he crashed to the mat unconscious. It was one punch and out, a ballistic missile of a shot that would have laid waste to any fighter in the division, and likely made a few rethink their chosen vocation. It was that stunning; it was that pulverizing.

With only four years of experience in MMA, this is what Ngannou is now, MMA’s bogeyman, who speaks softly with threats of pulling you into the shadow realm. No, really, this is what he does.

A few days ago, he stood in a faceoff with Overeem, and whispered to him, “You go to sleep Saturday night.” The hint of a smile broke through Overeem’s stare, and Ngannou doubled down, saying, “You will sleep.”

‘Reem did. Ngannou correctly called his shot, a sixth straight stoppage to start his UFC career, joining Ronda Rousey, Anderson Silva and Rich Franklin as the only fighters to do that in the modern UFC era. You may notice that all of those fighters went on to capture UFC championships. Ngannou’s turn is coming now, that was confirmed by UFC president Dana White following the event.

White does not generally like to make fights in the immediate aftermath of an event, for fear of making an emotional pairing. But this was a no-brainer, and when he was asked if Ngannou had done enough to earn a date with Stipe Miocic, White could not get a “yes” out of his mouth fast enough.

“He’s a big, scary monster,” White said at one point. Later, he added, “I think he’s going to be a rock star globally.”

Ngannou feels like a present dropped from the sky, the right man at the right time. Regardless of White’s proclamation that 2017 has been the “biggest year in UFC history,” it has been mostly dark days for the fans of the world’s biggest fight promotion.

Conor McGregor abandoned the UFC for the year, Jon Jones self-immolated again, and many champions are flexing their leverage while seeking better deals or more lucrative fights, keeping them out of the cage all the while. Many cards have been stale.

The heavyweight division has been a huge source of frustration in 2017, with Miocic holding out for a renegotiated contract, and no one emerging as a new or exciting challenger. But that has all changed in a matter of months.

Ngannou’s ability to close the gap between himself and world-class heavyweights in this brief window of time is pretty much unprecedented. This is a man who did not play any organized sports at all growing up. Not boxing, not soccer, nothing. He was too poor. And just over four years after stepping into an MMA gym for the first time, he may well walk into a championship match against Miocic as the favorite.

Overeem, who is now 37 years old, is certainly at the tail end of a decorated yet controversial martial arts career, yet his experience is beyond reproach. He won championships in MMA (with Strikeforce and DREAM) and kickboxing (with K-1). He was a decorated grappler. This fight against Ngannou was his 60th professional MMA bout, and even though he’s aging, that kind of experience chasm is often insurmountable when paired against a relative MMA newbie. It should be.

“That is the past, man,” Ngannou (11-1) said in the post-fight press conference. “We’re talking about now. And now, it’s me. I’m the present.”

The UFC really seems to have a gem on their hands with this one. Despite his ferocious competitive streak, Ngannou is soft-spoken and gentle, notably taking a few moments in his post-fight interview with Joe Rogan to rail against the slave trade that was recently uncovered in Libya. He’s also setting up a boxing gym in his native Batie to offer hope, a commodity that is in short supply there.

His humanitarian side is something to be admired, and serves as a nice counterbalance to what we see of him in the cage, where he seems to have no regard for human life.

Dare I say he is the most intriguing heavyweight fighter since the original arrival of Brock Lesnar? He is quickly gaining that same kind of aura. The fight world has been fast to compare him to Mike Tyson and others, but truth be known, there are still plenty of questions it’s OK to have about him.

If Miocic, an excellent wrestler, gets him to the ground, what happens then? Does he have the endurance to go five rounds? Would it be more fair to match him up with two heavyweights at a time?

I’m joking about that last one (sort of), but it’s OK to hold a degree of skepticism about where Ngannou is going. Plenty of others stories like this have flamed out, but something about him seems right. Everything does, from his look and story to his skills and coaching staff — the likes of Jerome LeBanner, Dewey Cooper and Vinny Magalhaes, among others. This is no fly-by-night success story. It’s a journey of blood and sweat. It survived a trip through a zone of desperation. It defeated the laws of probability.

And he assures us there is more on the way. More wins, more action, more everything. Good, he couldn’t have come at a better time. Dropped seemingly from the sky, Ngannou is in no mood to revel in what he’s already done. Asked how he would celebrate the biggest win of his career, he corrected the questioner.

“No,” he said, “the biggest win of my career is coming.”

In that moment, a smile crossed his face, and anyone watching could be excused for feeling the same way.

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