There seems to be a sense of destiny surrounding Francis Ngannou. His incredible story, his distinctive look, his fearsome power, it’s all the stuff of legend, to the point that many have anointed him as the heir to the UFC heavyweight throne.
This is not a new narrative in MMA, a sport in which three or four consecutive rock-star showings can catapult a newcomer into the limelight. And while some of those fighters have gone on to become champions, others stumbled before they could ever wear the gold.
Since his arrival, Ngannou has run roughshod over the division, but his meteoric rise will only get its storybook ending if he can get past Stipe Miocic at UFC 220 on Jan. 20. Much of the world expects him to do so; the odds opened in his favor and have only widened.
To be blunt, that is based on equal parts performance and excitement.
First, the good. Ngannou’s improvements have come in leaps and bounds. Once a wild striker, he has tightened his technique while retaining the flair and creativity that creates such danger for opponents. In his last four fights, he hasn’t needed more than two minutes a single time in order to lay out his foe. And as his opponent level has risen, he has soared to meet the challenge. He smashed Andrei Arlovski with a right bolo uppercut last January, then short-circuited Alistair Overeem with a mirror image left in December. At this point, his power is pretty well proven.
Ngannou’s comfort level in the cage has clearly grown as he has progressed. He had fast hands even at the outset of his UFC run, when his striking was green. But now he has added technique to the mix, sprinkling in combinations that change both pace and targeting. His footwork has also improved greatly. He bounces smoothly in and out of range, and with his 83-inch reach, he has illustrated a natural inclination to counter-striking.
He’s also strategic. Even in the very short fight with Overeem, he flicked out a left jab not as a strike meant to land, but seemingly intentionally wide of its target in order to funnel Overeem toward his powerful right. He’s designed his jab in that way; it serves as more of a distraction or a setup than as an actual strike. And often, the straight right or an overhand comes directly behind it. That’s a basic setup and one that most opponents haven’t had major trouble avoiding. The wrinkle is the stuff that comes behind it. If opponents don’t back away, Ngannou will string together combinations, with the third and fourth strikes coming from awkward angles that make them difficult to escape. A stationary target against Ngannou will find trouble.
There’s much to like in that kind of attack. And yet on the other hand, there is much we don’t know about Ngannou, plenty to question about him, making a pick of the challenger a bit of a gamble, albeit an understandable one.
For one, how might he do under the top game of an elite and experienced talent? It’s a situation he’s never faced in his career. While he has been taken down, it’s been against the likes of Luis Henrique and a young Curtis Blaydes (then in only his sixth pro fight).
How will his stamina hold up over the course of a lengthy championship fight? The longest fight of his UFC career thus far is only 10 minutes, and while he did fine—defeating Blaydes by doctor stoppage—he may be forced to keep up Miocic’s strong pace, and have to survive the possible adrenaline dump of a championship fight to boot.
These are real and considerable concerns, and to pick Ngannou (11-1) with them hovering over him is to prize his power over all of what Miocic does well.
The heavyweight champion has a chance to do something that’s never been done in UFC history if he can defend his division’s belt for the third time. The heavyweight title has historically been a hot potato, and until Ngannou stormed on to the scene, many figured Miocic was finally bringing some stability.
Like Ngannou, Miocic has dominated his opposition recently, finishing each of his last four opponents inside the first round. That group includes three former UFC champs (Junior dos Santos, Fabricio Werdum and Arlovski) as well as the former Strikeforce champ Overeem. It’s an impressive resume, one that has gotten overlooked as Ngannou has captured headlines and spotlight.
But in the matchup between them, Miocic (17-2) has some built-in advantages. For one, his wrestling prowess. While it’s not always the featured part of his game plan, in every fight where he’s attempted at least one takedown, he’s put his opponent on his back at some point. Even if Miocic keeps his strategy close to the vest, you have to assume he’ll try to wear out Ngannou with clinches and takedowns, and at some point, he’s likely to get the fight to the ground.
Miocic’s other key advantage is his excellent conditioning. He averages 5.15 significant strikes landed per minute, according to FightMetric, and broke the single-fight divisional record when he landed 361 strikes against Mark Hunt in their May 2015 bout. Few heavyweights can deal with that kind of lung-busting pace and volume.
Miocic’s footwork and striking has improved as he’s settled into his reign. Fighting out of his orthodox stance, he is proficient at cutting off the cage and backing his foes into corners. He’ll lead with the jab (or a swiping hook) before opening up with the straight right. He’ll flurry against a retreating opponent. He wants to pressure without overextending himself. And that’s the key piece of his game. He’s always looking to engage, and that pace (and the threat of his wrestling) have forced most of his opponents to retreat into fighting off their back foot.
When he feels his foe fatigued or in retreat mode, he pours it on with the pacing, using mostly short and controlled strikes to set up his heat-seekers, or potentially to change levels into a takedown.
His multi-threat arsenal is unlike anything Ngannou has experienced before and that is what makes the fight so difficult to predict. If Miocic were primarily a striker, we would have a much better ideal of how things might go. Miocic has been dropped before, by Overeem and dos Santos, and while he tends to recover well, no one has yet to stand up to Ngannou’s power.
But it seems unlikely he will willingly stay one-dimensional against an opponent who has yet to prove what he can do on the ground, nor should he.
Expect Miocoic to go heavy on the clinch and to look for the takedown if it’s there. Any kind of ground battle will shift the bout heavily in Miocic’s favor. So will a fight that goes long.
Because of these question marks, it becomes difficult to pull the trigger on Ngannou. Perhaps he is a once-in-a-generation phenom worthy of his hype, but we haven’t seen everything we need to see to make that determination. After Saturday, we’ll know. And in the face of so much doubt, we’ll pick the champion to retain the belt by wearing down Ngannou en route to a late stoppage.