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UFC 220 Aftermath: Don’t write off Francis Ngannou just yet

Stipe Miocic and Francis Ngannou Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

BOSTON -- The cheap and easy hot take is right there, ready for the taking: The one that says Francis Ngannou was all hype.

The only thing we enjoy better than building people up in this culture is tearing them down. So after Ngannou lost to Stipe Miocic on across-the-board, 50-44 scores in the main event of UFC 220 at TD Garden, it would be simple to say Ngannou is just the latest hype job in what’s undeniably been a string of them during the WME era.

Forget the freezing-cold takes this time. Don’t write this guy off just yet.

True, Ngannou didn’t come close to taking Miocic’s heavyweight title Saturday night. But for someone who has only been in this sport for four years, and who moved from Cameroon to Paris to become a boxer, not a mixed martial artist, to going 25 minutes with a champion who just might have cemented his position as the heavyweight GOAT demonstrates just how far he’s come in such a short period.

The fight’s opening round was as breathtaking a five-minute period as you’ll ever experience in this game, the atmosphere at TD Garden was electric. Miocic and Ngannou traded the heaviest of shots, with Ngannou leaving Miocic with a swollen left eye as a fight souvenir.

From there, the experience gap between the participants took hold. It felt like every time Ngannou landed a clean hit, Miocic responded by immediately taking him to the mat, where the challenger had no answer. Ngannou showed heart in lasting the distance against a fighter who has been taking out the best in the world, one after another, in the opening round.

After the fight, the competitor who had never been put in this situation before showed remarkable poise, and an innate understanding of what he needed to learn going forward.

First off, he showed up for the post-fight press conference, which can’t be said for every fighter who suffered a one-sided defeat in the main event. Ngannou said he learned a lesson about emptying your gas tank too soon. He accepted the biggest and most obvious conclusion, that he needed to improve his wrestling. All in all, Ngannou believed he learned more Saturday night than over the previous four years combined.

“I’ve been doing this sport only four years and I know that I will keep learning and improving,” Ngannou said. “What happened tonight was, I think, the last step for me learning about this sport.”

These are tough lessons to learn with the whole world watching. But the fact Ngannou faced the music after the bout, and the fact he was so honest in his self-assessment, coupled with the mere fact he got as far as he in this sport as fast as he did, all seems to add up to the notion that when all is said and done, Ngannou will get another crack at the gold somewhere down the line.

And at that point, the result might very well be different.

“I’m not done yet,” Ngannou said. “I think I’m just starting.”

UFC 220 Quotes

“I beat the guy that everyone thought I couldn’t beat, so it made it that much sweeter. ‘This guy’s a phenom, he’s one-in-a-million, blah, blah, blah.’ Well guess what? He lost. He lost to a Midwest boy that’s 40 pounds lighter than him. And I’m the greatest heavyweight. I defended it three times. No one’s ever done that. — Miocic, reveling in the win after being a betting underdog.

Do you want to get hit by him? Exactly. It sucked. Look at my eye. — Miocic, sporting a grotesquely swollen left eye, when asked how hard Ngannou hit.

”It’s (Miocic) and Cain, and then everybody else. The biggest heavyweight fight we’ll ever have is when those two fight each other. I’ll never say he’s better than Cain Velasquez, but he’s good. He’s just as good. They’re even.” — Cormier, deflecting talk of a superfight with Stipe Miocic in deference to teammate Cain Velasquez.

Stock report

Up: Stipe Miocic the UFC’s heavyweight title lineage traces back to the Superfight belt, first contested in 1995. No fighter in more than 22 years was able to defend it more than twice. Until Saturday night. The pride of Cleveland hasn’t had anything handed to him along the way. The UFC’s never made anything easy for him. He had to go to Brazil and face 40,000 people screaming for his head when he knocked out Fabricio Werdum. He had a tough challenge from Alistair Overeem. He was facing the pre-anointed Next One last night. Miocic has handled every challenge with aplomb. He’s plainly disinterested in the hype aspect of the sport. But quite frankly, watching the fighter who is laying his claim as the heavyweight GOAT ply his trade in the cage should be enough reason to plunk down the price of a pay-per-view in and of itself.

Up: Daniel Cormier It’s understandable why Cormier didn’t want to be considered the true light heavyweight champ going into Saturday night, given what went down with he and Jon Jones at UFC 214. But he’s just as correct in feeling like he deserves to be called the king after Saturday night. Cormier, who is going on 39, has maybe lost a half-step. But we’re in a window where he’s showing off his status as one of the smartest and craftiest players in the game. Cormier’s win over Oezdemir was a classic show of veteran guile, and it will be interesting to see how many more such performances the champ has left in his system as his career begins to wind down.

Daniel Cormier and Volkan Oezdemir
Daniel Cormier’s form was flawless as he finished Volkan Oezdemir.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Hold: Volkan Oezdemir Sure, Oezedmir looked out of his league against Cormier. But it was obvious why Oezdemir was getting this shot in the first place: There’s a glaring lack of depth in the light heavyweight division, the public wasn’t ready to see Alexander Gustafsson challenge for the belt yet again, and Oezdemir was on a hot streak, with back-to-back knockouts in under a minute apiece. Oezdemir went hunting for the fast finish, but when didn’t get it, Cormier went to work. Oezdemir is just 28 years old in a division that’s top-heavy with aging names. If he takes the right lessons out of this fight, then it could end up being a learning experience which helps eventually mold him into a champion.

Up: Calvin Kattar. Kattar came into the scene over the summer as a late replacement, where he scored an upset win over Andre Fili at UFC 214. He returned to action in front of his hometown crowd Saturday night and showed poise in a victory over Shane Burgos. Kattar came out strong in the first, weathered the storm of a resurgent Burgos in the second, and finished the job with a wicked flurry in the opening minute of the third. At 18-2, Kattar looks ready for an increased level of competition in the featherweight division.

Up: Abdul Razak Alhassan Alhassan, a Ghana native now based in Ft. Worth, left no doubt who was the better man in his rematch with Sabah Homasi. Alhassan took a controversial victory via first-round stoppage when the duo met at UFC 218, then accepted when Homasi asked for a rematch. This time, Alhassan knocked Homasi stiff with a wicked right uppercut for a first-round KO. That makes Alhassan 9-for-9 on finishing his wins via strikes and puts the young welterweight in position for a step up in competition.

Interesting stuff

We are in quite a remarkable run, here. It’s been long enough since there’s been a robbery of a scoreline in a major fight, or a grievous referee error in a main event, so let’s enjoy this while it lasts. If we do have to find something the nitpick, we’ll assume that the judge who gave Francimar Barroso a 29-28 card when the other two judges gave Gian Villante 30-27s was smoking some of that stuff that’s newly legalized in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts right before he went to judge the fight.

Fight I’d like to see next

So this isn’t an easy night to piece together. Both title fights were put together because there was really no one else hot or sellable in a title-fight spot. Gustaffson, who has fought just once in the past 16 months, could end up with a third crack at the belt since there’s really no one else better to go to at this point. Miocic has beaten everyone in his division of note except for Cain Velasquez. But Velasquez doesn’t have a return fight set yet, much less jumping right into a title fight after being out since UFC 200. This could open the door for Fabricio Werdum, who is 3-1 since losing the title to Miocic, to get the shot. This is probably why Dana White was trying to push for Miocic vs. Cormier, a bout which doesn’t seem very likely.

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