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Alistair Overeem vs Francis Ngannou

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MMA Fighting’s 2017 Breakthrough Fighter of the Year: Francis Ngannou

Alistair Overeem vs Francis Ngannou
| Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Really, when you look back at the way Francis Ngannou closed out 2016, the clues were all in place to understand that he was A) preternaturally strong, B) insanely poised, and C) about to become the proverbial bull in the china shop at heavyweight in 2017.

On Dec. 9, Ngannou was in Albany facing Anthony Hamilton, a strong man intent on uglifying the fight to his advantage via the use of brute force. Silly idea. During a single sequence in the first round, Ngannou — already wearing the lightning rod in his hair — grabbed Hamilton’s wrist in the clinch. He began to physically pry that wrist off his body — not like a man attempting a kimura, but more like Superman bending prison bars. Sure enough, Hamilton’s arm began to move against every ounce of his will, as if in slow motion. The look he had? The look of disbelieving horror. The kind that accompanies helplessness.

Seconds later, Hamilton was on his back, and Ngannou was still torquing the living hell out of his arm. As Ngannou placed a knee on Hamilton’s stomach for leverage, the taps came. It was deliberate. It was sudden. It was over. That’s when we should have yelled, “Gangway! Beast coming through!”

So what has Ngannou done this year to follow that performance up? He’s only treated two of the heavyweight division’s brand name stalwarts like marathon ribbon — as in, he went right through Andrei Arlovski and Alistair Overeem. Both of the knockouts were emphatic, forceful and portentous, the kind of cold wind that gets the hair up on your arms. The Mike Tyson references came out in full voice when he blasted Arlovski in Denver. When he did the same thing to Overeem in Detroit — this time with arguably the most brutal, clean-landing uppercut in UFC history — well, it was as if one could hear Bolero playing behind his slow crumble to the ground.

It was just that kind of profound.

Not only did that one power shot confirm to the last handful of doubters that the French-Cameroonian fighter was legit, it made the whole division quake with anticipation for his UFC 220 title bout with Stipe Miocic on Jan. 20. Never has there been this kind of tension before a heavyweight title fight. The closest we’ve ever come was when Junior dos Santos made his way towards Cain Velasquez to kick off the UFC’s FOX deal. That fight had a big sense of crossroads to it; this one has the more titillating sense of outright collision. Miocic, a marauder in his own right who finishes people, trying for the heavyweight record for title defenses (three); against Ngannou, the strongest, fiercest, most exacting frightmonger the heavyweight division has ever known.

Those superlatives were earned over time, of course, but they lost any sense of hyperbole in 2017. That’s why Francis Ngannou is MMA’s breakthrough fighter of the year. He broke into fight fan consciousness over the last year like the Kool-Aid man used to break through walls, and he was equally refreshing.

2. Volkan Oezdemir

Heading into this year, there’s a good chance you’d never heard the name Volkan Oezdemir — nor even conceived that somebody out in Switzerland would have had the good sense to name their son “Volkan” back in the late-1980s. Oezdemir made his UFC debut against Ovince Saint Preux in February, and raised some eyebrows by beating the ranked fighter narrowly by split decision.

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Pretty good, right? Good enough that the UFC booked him into a showcase gig against Misha Cirkunov, the Canadian intrigue who was being pegged the future of the UFC’s light heavyweight division. In the minds of many, Oezdemir was supposed to play the role of stepping stone in this fight, but instead melted Cirkunov with a punch 28 seconds into the bout. Boom-bam-disco, gotdamb MMA is fun.

Similar to Ngannou’s uppercut that flattened Overeem, this was a punch loaded with promise, plot lines, future stocks, intention, a family back in Zurich — all of it.

It would have all gone for naught if he had dropped his own showcase fight with Jimi Manuwa at UFC 214, in what was vaguely a No. 1 contender’s bout in Anaheim. But he didn’t. He dropped Manuwa. This time needing only 42 seconds to get the job done. Given the fallout of the Jon Jones situation, and that rediscovered champion Daniel Cormier needed an opponent, Oezdemir went from anonymous UFC debutante in February to flash knockout artist/contender by year’s end.

Not bad, Volkan. Not bad.

3. Darren Till

Is he a gorilla? Yeah, I mean, he’s kind of a gorilla. He’s a barge of a welterweight scouser, the kind of massive breakthrough fighter that makes beeping noises as he creeps up on the radar. By this time next year there’s a fair chance that Darren Till will either be a top contender at 170 pounds, the next challenger for a title shot, or — cover Tyron Woodley’s ears — even the champion. Too much? Maybe not. The 25-year-old Till says he believes he’s the best that ever was.

Getty Images

And his 2017 was definitely one for his portfolio.

Till dominated the European Fight Night circuit for the UFC’s calendar year, beginning with a decision over Jessin Ayari in Stockholm back in May. That did his fellow Liverpudlians proud. He quietly went about following that up with a second decision victory — this one over Bojan Velickovic in Rotterdam — and began to win the hearts of those outside the U.K. As a dauntingly-built welterweight with a ton of raw charisma (and an infectious belief system), the UFC booked Till into a main event against Donald Cerrone in Gdansk, Poland in October.

That was the big moment. Till got right after it, hammering the beloved “Cowboy” Cerrone from the opening horn. Before the first round could finish, he’d scored a TKO win. Just like that, Till had emerged as one of the welterweight division’s top guns, and a prime target to overthrow.

Good luck. Right now Till is new to the imagination, even for the guys who have ruled the upper half of the division for so long. If he gets that “Wonderboy” fight at some point, well, might need to bring the fire marshal.

4. Cynthia Calvillo

Similar to Oezdemir, not too many people outside of Team Alpha Male had heard of Calvillo heading into 2017, even though she kicked off the year by taking out Montana De La Rosa in LFA in January. She certainly hit the ground running in the UFC, submitting Amanda Cooper at UFC 209 in Vegas.

UFC 209 photos Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Since then? Dana White has assigned her the elusive “It” factor, that intangible star quality normally reserved for such transcendent people such as Ronda Rousey and Conor McGregor. White even let Calvillo take a ride on his private jet, which again, not everybody gets to do. Even though she dropped an end-of-the-year fight against Carla Esparza at UFC 219, Calvillo has more than lived up to the hype. She choked out Pearl Gonzalez a month after her UFC debut out in Buffalo, and then went to Scotland and beat Joanne Calderwood in front of her countrymen.

During her introductory period, she stole a good many moments on the microphone. All of that bodes well for Calvillo and it served her tremendously in 2017.

If she had defeated Esparza, she would have won more fights this past year than any other UFC fighter (with four). It didn’t happen for her, unfortunately, but the 30-year old Mexican-American fighter still broke through in a major way.

5. Brian Ortega

Four words: Breath of fresh air. That’s what Brian Ortega — better known as “T-City” to the LA glitterati — was in the grand scheme of things. Not only did he deal Renato Moicano his first professional loss at UFC 214, Ortega doubled down with a blistering performance in his first main event on Dec. 9 against Cub Swanson. For many, it was supposed to be Swanson’s moment to declare himself a worthy contender in the featherweight division, and force the UFC’s hand in drawing up a big contract.

UFC Fight Night: Swanson v Ortega Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

It didn’t play out to plan.

Ortega stormed the ball. He nearly tapped Swanson out in the first round with a choke, then midway through the second he did. He snatched Swanson’s neck and pulled at his head in one of the most memorable sequences of 2017. No sane man would ever hope to find themselves in the situation Swanson was in at that moment, as he fell into near panic trying to keep his head from popping off his shoulders.

Vicious? Very. And eye opening, too. But the after-fight interview sealed things for Ortega in the breakthrough sense. Instead of smiting his chest, he said he wanted to help out people in need with his winnings. That he wanted to give back. It was so genuine that it was surreal. When asked what was next for him, he politely pointed out that Frankie Edgar was next for champion Max Holloway, and therefore he would wait his turn.

A philanthropist contender who is actually a gentleman to boot? Do your thang in 2018, Mr. Ortega — rogues come in many forms.

Here is how the voting for MMA Fighting’s 2017 Fight of the Year played out.

Honorable Mentions

  • Robert Whittaker
  • Nicco Montano
  • Rose Namajunas
  • Colby Covington
  • Paulo Costa
  • Justin Gaethje
  • Kevin Lee
  • Ilima-lei MacFarlane
  • A.J. McKee
  • Mike Perry
  • Anthony Smith
  • Brian Kelleher
  • Zabit Magomedsharipov


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