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If 2018 was supposed to be Francis Ngannou’s dream year, he now has one chance to save it

Alistair Overeem vs Francis Ngannou
Alistair Overeem vs Francis Ngannou
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Few UFC ascents have been as fast and dizzying as that of Francis Ngannou, whose uppercut of doom and freakish power meant sure disaster for opponents around the heavyweight division, at least until everything fell apart. His unraveling was as swift as his rise.

First, he was dismantled by then-UFC champion Stipe Miocic in a technical and methodical mauling. Then, and perhaps more troubling, he melted down in a loss to Derrick Lewis, landing only 11 mostly meaningless strikes during a three-round fight in which he went long stretches with little activity. It was a perplexing performance, a gunslinger holstering his battle weapon of choice in dread of the chaos it might unleash.

To his credit, Ngannou quickly self-diagnosed his problem, saying, “I have carried my fear from the last fight to this one,” before vowing never to let it happen again.

To some observers, the damage has been done. Ngannou has shown both defensive weaknesses and psychological scars, both of which can be slow in healing, especially in a sport that demands their exploitation.

While Ngannou was once a UFC darling, the promotion hasn’t done him any favors in his return match, pairing him off with the rugged and fast-improving Curtis Blaydes, who on the strength of a five-fight win streak has leapfrogged Ngannou in the rankings. In addition to the challenging matchup, the UFC sent Ngannou off to China to headline UFC Beijing, a show that will not exactly offer a bright spotlight on him; the event will air on UFC Fight Pass, with the main card beginning at 6:30 a.m. ET. (That’s 3:30 a.m. in the time zone of UFC headquarters, if you don’t feel like doing the math.)

Still, perhaps a bit less attention may serve him well. The expectations on Ngannou grew so far, so fast that their weight had to burden even his broad shoulders. That said, the current apprehensions about his shortcomings must carry a similar load. He went from the masses predicting greatness to expressing contempt in just a few calendar pages, and that kind of wild swing is never easy to absorb. You can imagine then that the lingering doubt Ngannou felt against Lewis will still live within him against Blaydes, at least to some degree.

Ngannou at least has one psychological factor in his favor — he already owns a victory over Blaydes. Back in April 2016, the two met at another foreign outpost, this time in Croatia. While the method of victor — a doctor stoppage due to Blaydes’ swollen right eye — was controversial, Ngannou was clearly handling Blaydes prior to the end. Fighting out of a southpaw stance — something he’s done very little of in the time since — Ngannou hurt Blaydes multiple times and defended well against takedowns, stopping four of six attempts. When he was wrestled down, he was able to return to his feet quickly. At the time, the win could clearly be viewed as a statement victory.

Two years isn’t long in the larger scope of things, yet the two have flip-flopped positions in the pecking order to the point that Blaydes, now ranked No. 3 among UFC heavyweights, is largely viewed as both the more promising prospect as well as the favorite in the rematch between them. His aforementioned win streak has showcased an expanded skillset, and he doesn’t come with baggage. His progression has been solid, steady, dependable. While he lacks the standup power of Ngannou, he has illustrated an ability to embrace a grinding style and gut out a hard-fought win.

Those are things the fourth-ranked Ngannou must still prove. The first time he faced meaningful adversity in the UFC cage, he struggled terribly against Miocic and found few moments of success. Against Lewis, his failure was with himself, never truly getting past the reluctance to lead offensively (and thereby open himself to counters).

This goes against the grain of Ngannou’s personal history. This is a man who grew up in the poverty of Cameroonian sand quarries, who labored for years loading and unloading 200-pound buckets on to trucks, who left to chase the impossible dream of becoming a professional athlete despite little experience at the advanced age of 26. A man who lived on the street of Paris while chasing it down. He has not only stared sure failure in the face, he has routed it. Make no mistake: whatever his outcome against Blaydes, Ngannou has already achieved success far past what would be expected of such humble beginnings.

And that is why Ngannou cannot be counted out, not against Blaydes, and not in the future. If Ngannou can get past the mental block that formed while suffering at the hands and elbows and shins of Miocic, his physical tools will again come to the forefront, and he has already proven what those can do.

As 2018 nears a close, Ngannou has a chance to reclaim some of the momentum he took with him into the start of the year. It will be a battle against himself and against a worthy adversary, the kind of gut check that will either draw an empathic close on his once-rapid rise or launch a thrilling sequel.

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