The truest thing Dana White has ever said about mixed martial arts is that it’s a sport of moments. Specifically, about “Holy sh*t!” moments that propel you out of your chair, all slack-jawed and loopy with delirium. In 2017, the holiest of those moments was authored by an individual with just over four years of sports — not professional athletics, just sports — under his belt.
Francis Ngannou's story itself is intrinsically incredible, a poor Cameroonian seemingly destined to a lifetime of back-breaking work at the local sand quarries before leaving in his mid-20s to chase a seemingly impossible dream of boxing greatness. Boxing would not be in the cards for Ngannou, but his road less traveled took him toward an MMA gym, and within four years, he was pounding on the door of the UFC heavyweight king.
To get there, he had to go through Alistair Overeem, one of the most decorated fighters in combat sports history. To be sure, by the time they met at UFC 218, Overeem’s chin had been compromised by a lifetime of battles, but offensively, he was easily the most dangerous and crafty opponent Ngannou had been matched up with.
It hardly mattered. The man who had seemingly overnight become the most dangerous man in MMA needed just over 100 seconds to set the fight world afire with a shot that snapped Overeem’s head back so viciously it was a wonder it stayed on.
The knockout punch itself has already become something of an Ngannou trademark, a sort of bolo uppercut that comes from an angle 45 degrees removed from his body with ferocious speed and power. It’s the same one he got Andrei Arlovski with in January 2017. But for Overeem, he busted out a mirror image, changing his dealing hand from his right to his left as the finish of a three-piece combo.
The execution of the strike should be appreciated on several levels. For one, there was the visceral thrill of seeing a heavyweight destroyer unleashing his firepower. But from a technical level, Ngannou’s hook coming as the tail end of a combination, after leaning off a bit to the left to dissipate some of the power of Overeem’s own left hook — it was a sight to behold. Unless you were ‘Reem, that is. He never saw it coming. He was also out before he hit the canvas, a testament to the one-shot prowess Ngannou is becoming known for. Then there was the setting behind it all. Prior to the fight, ‘Reem had called tales of Ngannou’s power “fake news,” only to receive first-hand confirmation in the most painful (and karmic) way. Later, Overeem corrected his mistake, calling it the “uppercut from hell.”
Circling back around to Ngannou’s origin tale, he had dreamed of boxing after growing up watching Mike Tyson, and his knockout of Overeem continued the narrative that he might be MMA’s closest version. As proof, check the reactions to the finish, which bordered on hysteria, even from experienced professionals. UFC light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier tweeted “Good lord,” followed by five exclamation points. Ian McCall tweeted “God help the heavyweights.” Sean O’Connell said what many were thinking by tweeting, “Shoutout for Overeem for not dying from that.”
If the knockout didn’t herald Ngannou’s ascension to the very top of the heavyweight division, it sent the loudest possible warning message that he was closing quickly, and that champion Stipe Miocic better bring his best version to their upcoming pairing.
In 2016, Miocic won MMA Fighting’s KO of the Year, so at UFC 220, the two most recent “Knockout of the Year” winners will meet with the sport’s biggest prize on the line. Who will win? That’s one prediction we’re not prepared to make. But here’s a prediction we can offer right now: At some point in the fight, you’ll probably leap to your feet with your head shaking and an expletive or two filling the room.
Devastating KOs happened all throughout 2017. What was your favorite KO of the year? Vote below ⤵️ pic.twitter.com/4OnxKZAxCk— UFC (@ufc) January 3, 2018
2. Paul Daley KOs Brennan Ward with a flying knee
When Paul Daley was matched against Brennan Ward at Bellator 170 in January, it just felt right. Both welterweights are the “go-out-on-their-sword” types who prefer firefights and prize knockout finishes. Ward, though, often likes to first slow down his opponent with some grappling, and so it was that midway through the first round of their matchup when the two broke free from a clinch against the cage.
In the instant they separated, Daley threw a spinning elbow that just missed its mark, and Ward took a step back. Daley then came forward and leaped at Ward, who looked to duck whatever was coming his way. In mid-air, Daley switched knees from right to left, the latter landing with a crack against the left side of Ward’s chin and putting him out cold.
As a technique, it was graceful. In practice, it was savage.
3. Marlin Moraes stops Aljamain Sterling
MMA can be so cold, with months of preparation undone by micro-seconds in the cage. That’s what Aljamain Sterling experienced at UFC Fresno, when he accepted a short-notice pairing against former World Series of Fighting champ Marlon Moraes.
Just over a minute into the fight, Sterling reached for a takedown but Moraes beat him to the spot, firing off a kick attempt he modified into a knee to the head as he intercepted Sterling’s misguided attempt.
If Sterling had been just two-tenths of a second faster, he would have been in on Moraes’ hips. Instead, he was crushed, the instant burst causing him to topple in slow motion, stiffened as he scarily crashed to the mat. And in short order, Moraes was seen as a credible contender in an increasingly crowded division.
4. Edson Barboza puts Beneil Dariush’s lights out
For years, Edson Barboza has consistently been one of MMA’s most innovative and electrifying strikers with an array of spinning and gliding kicks and knees that borders on artistic. Facing Beneil Dariush in March though, Barboza was in some trouble.
He had lost the first round of their matchup, and was having trouble stopping Dariush’s constant forward pressure when inspiration struck him. As Dariush came forward yet again with thoughts of another flurry, he dipped into a possible takedown attempt, and Barboza launched himself airborne with a flying knee that landed clean on the chin. In a flash, the charge was over and the fight was over.
5. Mike Perry crushes Jake Ellenberger with a one-shot elbow
One-shot knockouts out of the clinch are scarce creatures. Even more rare are one-shot knockouts out of the clinch while backpedaling. Mike Perry managed to pull off the trick at UFC Nashville against one of the division’s most experienced competitors.
Moments after dropping Ellenberger with a left hook, the two were engaged in a clinch. Perry, clearly looking to extricate himself in order to let his hands fly, began attempting to back his way free, but Ellenberger followed him.
In a blink, Perry steadied himself, freed his right hand, and scored a walkoff KO with an over-the-top elbow that sent Ellenberger crashing backward and on to the list of the year’s biggest knockouts.
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- Jon Jones vs. Daniel Cormier
- Darren Elkins vs. Mirsad Bektic