Last December, mere moments after Francis Ngannou scored a hellacious stoppage of Alistair Overeem — which would, in time, be hailed as the 2017 Knockout of the Year — the terrifying new threat in the UFC’s heavyweight division put the rest of the weight class on notice. Speaking backstage at UFC 218, Ngannou proclaimed Stipe Miocic to be the interim champion of the heavyweights, and thanked Miocic for keeping the belt warm so the real champion could finally arrive.
Strong words from a strong man, but Ngannou’s performance was a thunderous one, the type of win that ensured a collision course with Miocic was an inevitability.
And now that UFC 220 has nearly arrived, nothing has changed.
While Miocic may be on the precipice of making history for the most consecutive defenses of a UFC heavyweight title, Ngannou stands firmly by his interim champion words, and “The Predator” is confident the real heavyweight king will reveal himself on Jan. 20 at the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts.
“I’m the real champion for this division. I’m the guy who’s going to change the heavyweight division,” Ngannou announced on a recent UFC 220 conference call. “I’ll start by beating Stipe on Jan. 20 and bringing more excitement to the heavyweight division, which was, for a long time, almost forgotten.”
Ngannou’s confidence is deserved.
Within a span of just five years, the Cameroon native has risen from an MMA neophyte to a ferocious force atop the sport’s most volatile weight class.
Despite still being a relative newbie to the game, Ngannou has terrorized the UFC heavyweight division to the tune of a 6-0 record, with each of those victories coming by way of vicious stoppages. And while Ngannou may be celebrated mostly for his prodigious punching power, the 31-year-old is confident there is much more to his skill set than people realize.
“The matter is this: I know what Stipe is able to do. Almost everyone knows what Stipe is able to do,” Ngannou said. “But the scary thing is this: No one knows, really, what I am able to do. They just see that I go [in the cage] for, like, one minute and then I win the fight, but they really don’t have an idea of what I can do. So that’s why I feel confident. I’m confident because I can see the limit of Stipe, but no one can tell my limit. They’ll always say, ‘Yes, can Ngannou do this? Can Ngannou do that? Can Ngannou be beat?’ But when they’re going to see something different from Ngannou, they going to be like, ‘Wow.’ I have a lot of stuff to bring some more wow.”
In that regard, Ngannou is looking forward to the challenge Miocic presents.
With a background as a Golden Gloves boxer and NCAA Division 1 wrestler, the reigning UFC champion is by far the most well-rounded opponent Ngannou has faced — a fact which Miocic has reiterated numerous times in the lead-up to UFC 220.
Many within the sport have questioned whether Ngannou’s punching power will be enough to overcome the advantages Miocic is assumed to possess in various other disciplines of the game, but Ngannou is positive things are closer than they appear.
“In the beginning, I had doubt about my wrestling, my conditioning; but today, I’ve been training with the best wrestlers and training my conditioning and (have) kept improving, and today I know that I am improved in all aspects,” Ngannou said. “So I’m also a well-rounded and complete MMA fighter too. I’m not just focused about the knockout power or something like that. For this fight, I [want] to be a complete MMA fighter, and that’s why I’m going to be the champ. You’re not going to [beat] someone like Stipe, who’s a good wrestler, just because you have knockout power. No, you see a lot of people who fought maybe Stipe or some guy, who had the knockout power, but lost the fight because knockout power is not enough to win the fight.
“I saw the fight against Stipe and Mark Hunt, and Mark Hunt has great knockout power, but the way that Stipe brought him into deep water, he wasn’t able to go back from that. So that is the kind of style that I’ve been training for and trying to going to avoid, and I’m able to do it.
“It doesn’t matter what people think,” Ngannou added. “I’m an opportunity guy, that is what I’m saying. I’m always looking forward to taking the first opportunity that my opponent gives me. So I’m not there to do a demonstration, to show how I can grapple, how I can wrestle. I’m there to win the fight. And it doesn’t matter where the fight goes, I’m going to win.
“The day that I’m going to need to use my grappling game, they’re going to see it. The day that I’m going to need to use my wrestling, they’re going to see it. But as long as I keep winning like this, I’m okay with that.”
Aside from skill set concerns, Ngannou also brushed off questions regarding his inexperience fighting in the championship rounds.
Every single one of Ngannou’s 12 professional fights have ended in either a first- or second-round stoppage, but Ngannou is confident that he is prepared for a war of attrition at UFC 220 — even if he doesn’t believe Miocic is the man to bring it out of him.
“I’ve never been in that level, but I always train for that level,” Ngannou said. “When I go to my training camp, I train in my training camp, my conditioning, everything, I prepare for [five rounds]. So even the fight against Alistair Overeem, I was already prepared for a five-round fight, because I knew that I was going to have Stipe after that. So, that is the problem, because people always want to believe what they see. I think it’s going to be a long time before they really see that, because on Jan. 20, I don’t see myself going into the third round, fourth round. No, I’m not going to do that. I’m just going to finish Stipe [in the early rounds].”