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Francis Ngannou’s resurgence is no fluke

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

For a few minutes on Sunday night, a few seconds of footage that comprised the UFC Phoenix main event functioned as a Rorschach test of sorts for MMA observers. Upon a single viewing or multiple replays, different conclusions were drawn on whether it was Francis Ngannou’s ungodly power that put Cain Velasquez down, or it was Velasquez’s own knee that betrayed him.

The debate says as much about the reverence for the heavyweight great Velasquez as it does about the doubt that infected Ngannou’s bandwagon after his back-to-back losses in 2018. Ngannou, some suggested then, might be irrevocably broken. The thing was, at the time, you couldn’t blame fans who felt that way. While his title fight loss to Stipe Miocic could be reasoned away due to inexperience, his subsequent defeat to Derrick Lewis could not. Ngannou’s unwillingness to engage was absolutely perplexing. He either refused to or couldn’t uncork his lethal hands, and afterwards, admitted he had been psychologically scarred by the Miocic loss, a defeat that made him finally appear human. Miocic took him down good and plenty, and absolutely worked him over for five rounds, landing an incredible 82 percent of his strikes. Ngannou was genuinely dominated, and took the burden with him.

“I have carried my fear from the last fight to this one,” he said after losing to Lewis. It was a blunt self-assessment with an edge so serrated, it sounded like a confession. Fear? Few admit fear in the fight game unless it’s in the abstract. Never in regards to a specific fight, let alone a key moment. It was candid, vulnerable, memorable. As it result, it stuck to Ngannou, even though during the same statement, he vowed, “I won’t let everyone down again.”

That part was either ignored in the moment or completely discounted, but it seems that Ngannou is a man of his word. In his two fights since, he has knocked out both opponents in a combined 71 seconds.

And make no mistake, his win over Velasquez was indeed a knockout. A true examination of the clip shows Velasquez’s head snap to the right as Ngannou connects on a short uppercut. It is in that moment that Velasquez’s body drops, and his left knee gives out.

It was the kind of win that pushes us to reframe the winner and reconsider his potential ceiling. It is abundantly clear now that on any given night, Ngannou is capable of starching any man standing in front of him. Ngannou slings clubs from both hands and from any angle. He put Andrei Arlovski down with a step-back right hook, stopped Alistair Overeem with a left uppercut, and defeated Curtis Blaydes with an overhand right, even though it was partially deflected. He has the most raw power of anyone on the UFC roster.

Power is a great base element, and it pairs nicely with the confidence that must now be back in abundant supply. Velasquez, after all, walked into the fight with a reputation as arguably the top heavyweight in MMA history. At worst, he is in the top three, alongside Fedor Emelianenko and Stipe Miocic. Taking him out in 26 seconds may be the kind of momentum-booster that pushes Ngannou to the moon.

It’s still mind-blowing how far and how fast he’s gotten here, an against-the-odds story that seemingly only needs its final (golden) conclusion to merit some consideration for a big-screen adaptation. When Ngannou was nearing the age of 27, he was a poor laborer in a sand quarry in his home country of Cameroon. He had barely begun to train in any kind of athletics, let alone to chase his fighting dreams. At that exact time on the other side of the world, Velasquez was already into his second UFC heavyweight title reign.

Ngannou somehow navigated that steep learning curve, even while suffering a setback or two along the way, a stunning development that emphasizes continued possibilities.

Ngannou said shortly after the fight that he wants another crack at the belt, which is now possessed by Velasquez’s longtime pal and training partner Daniel Cormier.

Cormier would prefer to wait for former UFC champ Brock Lesnar to return back into the fold for a big-money fight, but as of now, no one knows when or if that will actually happen. There is certainly no guarantee. No one begrudges Cormier a chance to make a huge payday on his way out the door, but while that may be his top choice, Ngannou will be around, waiting to cash in his second chance.

Think of him like a repackaged product — still big, strong and powerful, but now with new and improved mental toughness!

A year ago, it would have been so easy for him to retreat into nothing. Great fighters have done it before him. Instead, Ngannou’s surged back toward the front of the heavyweight pack. Any fighter who sees this resurgence as a fluke does so at his own peril. Ngannou isn’t just back; he’s better.