Ever since Francis Ngannou nearly put a 250-plus pound man into orbit with the power of his machine-record-shattering right, the push for MMA’s first Mike Tyson to be anointed its heavyweight champion started with no reservations.
The story behind the promotion of UFC 220 was about Ngannou. The champion, Stipe Miocic, was very much portrayed as the minor obstacle in the way of the inevitable next superstar of the business, the man who will carry the company while Conor McGregor is counting his money, Georges St-Pierre is trying to regain his health, and Ronda Rousey is playing celebrity headliner at WrestleMania.
Instead, we got a story we’ve seen before in generation after generation. It was the Tyson story, but it was Tyson vs. Evander Holyfield, or George Foreman vs. Muhammad Ali, or years before that, the pre-Ali Cassius Clay vs. Sonny Liston.
Time after time, the monstrous heavyweight knockout artist who devastates people as soon as he hits them will mow through competition in the early stages of his career and appear unbeatable. But the day comes when they face the superior fighter, and suddenly, that aura is gone.
Instead of the Overeem memory, the now current and most up-to-date memory of Ngannou is an exhausted man, gasping for air, controlled on the ground, confused that what he envisioned happening was nothing close to happening. And even when a round would end and he’d be back standing, all he could do was throw slow, poorly set up haymakers that were missing their target badly.
Ngannou talked about coming back for this. Given how far he’s come in such a short period of time, that is certainly possible. But history has shown that when the powerhouse monster suddenly is shown to be a human being, who gets tired just like everyone else, and falls victim to someone of superior skill, it often messes with their head. Foreman, Liston, and Tyson all mentally collapsed and were never the same. And unlike Ngannou, all had already won championships in devastating fashion before their generation’s Miocic slayed the beast.
Saturday instead was about veteran champions who are likely to be far more highly-regarded historically after they’re gone than they are in their prime.
Miocic is a throwback blue-collar brawler from a working-class city, who still works a regular job. He has to be considered the greatest heavyweight in UFC history as far as being able to dominate the title for a long period of time, which multi-time champion Randy Couture couldn’t do.
Daniel Cormier, the other star of Saturday night’s show in Boston, has a more confusing legacy for a career that he readily admits is ticking away. Had Jon Jones never existed, Cormier may be considered one of the greatest fighters in history.
But the confusing legacy of Jones will always be intertwined with Cormier. There were suspicious readings but no admittable evidence of cheating in Jones’ drug tests before their first fight, which Jones won. At the second fight, there was no question that Jones was enhanced, with the only question being did he knowingly cheat, or did he reap the PED edge accidentally.
If, years from now, the public believes the latter, then Cormier will be the talented second-best light heavyweight of his era, like his teammate Jon Fitch was during the GSP era or like Chad Mendes in his prime was to Jose Aldo. If they believe Jones knowingly cheated, Cormier will be the victim, the guy who should have been the best, but wasn’t due to unfair circumstances.
People watching saw both champions look impressive in being more well-rounded and dominating very dangerous challengers. The key was they incorporated the ‘mixed’ part of the term mixed martial arts. Instead of just standing and trading, they utilized the wrestling both had done much of their lives.
For the UFC, it has to be happy that the cushion of rising sports rights fees allows them to have a situation where someone that was hoped to be the next big draw didn’t pan out, at least at first. Miocic seems destined to be Larry Holmes, an excellent boxer in hindsight who never got his due because he couldn’t capture the public’s imagination coming after Ali or before Tyson.
Cormier has worked hard his entire career to be that guy who not only can fight at championship level, but talk at championship level. But for whatever reason, the package never fully clicked with the public. Unless he was against Jones, he was never a big draw. Even as champion when defending his title, his biggest battle was in convincing the public that he deserved the title ‘best in the world’ in his division.
The public catching on to Cormier’s human side, and all of the cheers he got in Boston, has come at the twilight of his career. Perhaps Cormier on television trying to be a trash-talker like the wrestlers he grew up on wasn’t always the best fit. His reality was being a man who lived through tragedy after tragedy, and endured hardship after hardship. He moved weight classes and turned down a huge fight opportunity to be a good teammate and friend. An after winning what he says will be among his last fights, he talked openly of wanting to be the father who flies home to mow his front lawn, the real person that his television persona often hid.
For the UFC, it should embrace the fact it has some of the best champions of any era, even if the wait for the next Mike Tyson may be longer than they hoped.
Let’s look at how Fortunes changed for five stars of UFC 220.
STIPE MIOCIC — The big heavyweight title fight now is Miocic (18-2) against Cain Velasquez (14-2). But there’s a reality check. Between injuries and taking time off because his wife gave birth, Velasquez is a 35-year-old who hasn’t fought in almost 19 months. For all the intrigue of Miocic facing someone who is at, or ahead, of his level in wrestling, more versatile in striking, faster and can match or exceed him in conditioning, ring rust is still real. And one can’t ignore the fear of a Velasquez injury after the fight is announced. But Miocic has beaten every other heavyweight that could viably be put against him.
The only other possibility for Miocic’s next fight would be Fabricio Werdum (23-7-1) if the idea is that Velasquez should fight a tune-up first.
FRANCIS NGANNOU — Ngannou (11-2) is probably best-served to work on his weaknesses. The grappling hole in his game was evident, but the key reason he lost was emptying the gas tank early going for the quick knockout. The other problem is that it’s unclear if someone of his size and musculature would be able to hang in a five-round fight, and when you get to the championship levels, one has to be able to do that.
A good next opponent could be Mark Hunt (13-11-1), provided Hunt beats Curtis Blaydes on the Feb. 11 show in Perth, Australia. If Hunt doesn’t win, there’s always former champion Junior dos Santos (18-5).
DANIEL CORMIER — Since Cormier nixed the idea of a Miocic fight, and with Jon Jones still suspended, the clear next contender should be Alexander Gustafsson (18-5). Cormier beat Gustafsson on Oct. 3, 2015 via split decision. The fight was one of the best light heavyweight title fights in history. Since that fight, Cormier has gone from 36 to almost 39, while Gustafsson has gone from 28 to 31. And Gustafsson never looked better than in his last fight, a win over Glover Teixeira.
VOLKAN OEZDEMIR — To get back into contention, Oezdemir (15-2) should next face Teixeira (27-6). A win by Teixeira in that situation should get him a title fight. A win by Oezdemir could get him a title fight as long as Cormier isn’t champion. The Cormier loss was so one-sided, he’ll need a few wins before that can be rematched.
ROB FONT — Font (15-3), scored his biggest career win on Saturday over Thomas Almeida. A good next opponent for him would be Aljamain Sterling (14-3). He would be Font’s biggest fight to date and a name that, with another win, would put Font strongly on the map as a bantamweight title contender.