Francis Ngannou’s rose up the UFC heavyweight ranks with dizzying speed and came crashing down almost as quickly.
However, the one-time title contender put a hard stop to his descent with a thrilling 44-second TKO of Curtis Blaydes in the main event of UFC Beijing at Cadillac Arena on Friday. It was the second win that Ngannou can claim over Blaydes, one of the men that Ngannou defeated on his way to a title shot this past January.
At UFC 220, Ngannou was being pushed as the next big thing in the heavyweight division and it was believed that his spectacular finishing ability (Ngannou was riding a streak of four straight first-round finishes leading into the event) would allow him to knock off then-champion Stipe Miocic and become MMA’s next superstar. Instead, Miocic used his wrestling to control and pummel Ngannou for five rounds, seemingly putting Ngannou into a state of shell shock that he carried over to his next fight in July, a unanimous decision loss against Derrick Lewis.
A loss to Blaydes would have left Ngannou 0-3 on the year, but he now finds himself heading into 2019 with a renewed buzz about his prospects. Speaking at the UFC Beijing post-fight press conference, Ngannou explained that his early success may have fooled him into thinking that he was better than he was.
“Before I step in here tonight, I didn’t have a win like this the whole year. 2018, I didn’t have a win like this,” Ngannou said. “I think the motivation came off many things around. Yes, of course, this part of it, when you have some win like this, it’s good, but it kind of sometimes be tricky.
“You think this is very easy and then you get disappointed when you realize it’s not that easy. So it’s good, but I really know what I want and then I really keep my eye focused on my real motivation, so yes, it was good.”
Beyond wanting to enjoy himself again, Ngannou didn’t go into further detail about what his motivation will be going forward in his career. He could be one or two fights away from another shot at the title, though that situation is currently waiting on several moving pieces including current heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier, former champs Miocic and Brock Lesnar, and possibly even light heavyweight star Jon Jones.
Asked if he would prefer a matchup with Cormier or a rematch with Miocic, Ngannou leaned towards the latter.
“Right now, [Cormier] is the champ of the division and then for my last few fights, I didn’t do great, so I don’t think I’m gonna have that chance now,” Ngannou said. “So for these two fighters, I think the one that I can have would be Stipe.”
Ngannou’s win brought his UFC record to 7-2, though he sounded like a fighter that has become less concerned with the numbers next to his name. The UFC marketing team went all in promoting Ngannou and according to some observers — who may have also played a part in pumping Ngannou up — that level of attention went to Ngannou’s head.
Having had the chance to speak for himself on Saturday, Ngannou appeared to agree with some of that sentiment, and he attributes his winning performance to getting back to his roots.
“I come back tonight to have fun,” Ngannou said. “My last fight wasn’t that good just because I was too much concerned about what’s gonna happen. I put a lot of stuff in my mind. Then after that, I took the time and think about why I started this sport. Because at the beginning my dream was to become a world class boxer and then I step into MMA. Why did I step into MMA? It was to have fun.
“So I kind of remind myself what was the purpose, what was the goal, first of all have fun. Then I came here tonight having fun, so it happened really great, it was fun, which is good, I didn’t get no damage, so I’m ready to go. I’m going to go back home, take some time, feel good, enjoy the process.”