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Heavyweight human highlight reel Francis Ngannou still has beasts to slay to become champion

MMA: UFC Fight Night-Minneapolis-Ngannou vs Dos Santos
Francis Ngannou
David Berding-USA TODAY Sports

In the short history of mixed martial arts, the sport has seen few punchers with the pure power of Francis Ngannou. In his last seven wins, the Cameroonian has never needed more than two minutes to batter his opponent into submission. There was the step-back shovel uppercut against Andrei Arlovski, the rocket-shot left against Alistair Overeem, the temple-masher against Curtis Blaydes. Last night, he added a new work to his oeuvre, the running-man right against Junior dos Santos.

His last three fights, against former champs Cain Velasquez and dos Santos, and No. 4 contender Curtis Blaydes, have taken less than three minutes combined. His is a career lived in GIFs.

Ngannou is MMA’s human highlight reel. That is close to a fact, and something hardly in dispute. Yes, there are other auteurs. Chan Sung Jung makes magic. Robbie Lawler creates unmatched intensity. Donald Cerrone and Tony Ferguson are certified wild men. But Ngannou carries terror to the cage. He is able to seek and destroy from any angle, the more unexpected the better.

The knockdown punch against dos Santos doesn’t look like much, and doesn’t seem like an angle from which he could generate real power. Ngannou’s feet weren’t planted and he was chasing. But that’s the thing about him — he is most dangerous when it seems like you are out of danger.

Ngannou is sudden, like an exclamation point. Yet for all the excitement he brings, even he must wonder if he can summon the same type of dynamism to a fight with the division’s only men standing ahead of him.

Daniel Cormier and Stipe Miocic are set to meet in August, in a rematch of their 2018 fight, and Ngannou is well lined-up to fight the winner. He obviously has a history with Miocic, and demons to slay when it comes to a possible rematch.

Miocic dominated Ngannou the first time around, thoroughly and completely. It wasn’t so much that Ngannou was out-fought than he was outclassed. Miocic mixed up his striking and takedowns, and the challenger spent most of the fight either swinging at air or struggling to get up off his back.

It was the type of loss that will shake confidence to the core, and Ngannou carried the aftershocks with him into this next bout, a lifeless decision loss to Derrick Lewis in which he managed to land only 11 strikes. To his credit, he faced the problem head-on, publicly acknowledging that he carried his fear from the Miocic loss with him.

Ngannou’s bounce back since has been brilliant, a fact that cannot be understated. It’s difficult to imagine having your confidence so sweepingly shattered, and then knowing that only more behemoths stand before you, lying in wait. Yet he did it.

Still, he has a final step to take before decisively proving he played the beast. Ngannou may have regained his mojo, but moxie doesn’t stop takedowns. Miocic can be relentless. He used 14 attempts his first time around, and the recipe worked so well, there’s no question he will try it again if they rematch. Cormier, meanwhile, is equipped to follow a similar blueprint, a lifelong wrestler with the versatility to mix things up as it suits the situation. A true tactician, the current UFC heavyweight champion would present the greater challenge to Ngannou due to his skill and adaptability. It wouldn’t be a fight where Ngannou could plant his feet and throw; he would be forced to use footwork and caution. That is not the winning formula to which he is accustomed.

And yet, is there any other heavyweight title matchup you would rather see? Sure, Ngannou-Miocic 2 brings with it the possibilities of both redemption and revenge, but Ngannou-Cormier seems somehow more … seismic. Cormier is an all-time great, and Ngannou is an all-time great striker, and it could result in either 25 minutes of school time, or a few seconds of electric delight. And either seems perfectly possible!

The last three Ngannou fights have shown us that he is capable of a psychological rebound, but have shown us only glimpses of what improvements he’s made to his wrestling game.

Blaydes tried two takedowns against him, but one was half-hearted and the other was made in desperation. Velasquez also started an entry against him but was quickly under-hooked away.

The early returns are positive, but they are also, yes, early. It doesn’t tell us anything about how he would respond to chain attempts, or if he would have the energy to continually sprawl and pummel out if either Cormier or Miocic survives the first round and Ngannou’s energy levels deplete.

Getting to a championship fight can be based on highlight reels, but winning it often requires you to dig deep and summon a gear of technical execution and sheer will you never quite knew you had. For Ngannou to go from highlight reel to champion, he’ll have to slay beasts both external and within. Whether he does it or not, the man has our attention.

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