"…there were a lot of things that I questioned myself about back then. There were a lot of things I wasn’t even aware of and to be honest I wasn’t prepared and I wasn’t ready to face that level of Combat."
Francis Ngannou reflects on his loss to Stipe Miocic
One of the beautiful things about Mixed Martial Arts is that for a sport that is interpreted through violence, there is never a dearth of feel good stories. Stories like Micheal Bisping becoming the champion and getting a spot in the hall of fame. Stories like Dustin Poirier getting his win back over McGregor six years later. Stories like Francis Ngannou winning the heavyw… let me slow down. There is something else that is beautiful about MMA. It is when two genuinely nice guys stand across from one another in a title fight, ready to punch one another in the face… and we as fans are happy with whoever wins because it is simply competition. Like when Reyes stood across from Blachowicz; like when Khabib stood across from Poirier. Like when Miocic will stand in front of Ngannou. At UFC 260, one of two things can happen (three if you consider the draw) and they both will leave us clapping for the Victor. One competitor has answered every question asked of him (so now we’re asking him a question he has already answered once). The other has failed before, but has promised he is coming with the right answer this time.
For three years, Cormier and Miocic have defined the heavyweight division. After three consecutive title defenses Stipe Miocic was heralded as the Greatest Heavyweight in UFC history. It made sense to call him that. No one before him had been able to hang on for so long. And when the word of a superfight with the light-heavyweight champion reached him, he accepted it. In his words, stipe Miocic was doing the UFC a favour by putting his title on the line against Daniel Cormier. People have called it a ‘once in a lifetime shot’. Some have called it ‘post Francis Ngannou knockout disorder’. And some simply term it ‘a well planned hook’. Whatever the preferred name, it put Miocic down and the heavyweight title up in the hands of Daniel Cormier. And thus began the merry-go-round.
Stipe wanted a rematch. Daniel wanted to fight Brock Lesnar. The UFC wanted to do Daniel Cormier a favour. As fate would have it, Brock Lesnar refused to return. And so Daniel defended against Dereck Lewis (in probably the most forgettable event in recent memory). Then Daniel Cormier wanted Stipe to fight someone else. Stipe however, refused anything but his rematch for the title. His case was simple. He was a dominant champion. He did the Company a favour. He was owed one back. And so it was. The rematch took longer than the first. It was going bad for Stipe, and then he threw a sweet left hook to the liver of Daniel Cormier in the fourth round. He saw the champion squint. Thirteen more and the belt returned to the Firefighter from Cleveland. Of course they had to have a rubber match. They did. It was calculated. It was a prime heavyweight bout; a good advert for the sport; they touched gloves to start every round. And Stipe won again in what on replay, was a one-sided fight. Stipe Miocic had finished that chapter. It took three years and four fights, but there was clarity for the champion. There was also clarity for his next challenger.
"…I am not proud of my last performance. I have carried my fear from the last fight to this one. I completely understand the frustration and anger that it has caused to my fans, coaches, teammates, family and friends and I am truly sorry for that."
Francis Ngannou apologizes for his performance against Dereck Lewis
After his fight with Stipe Miocic, Francis Ngannou was facing the realization that many challengers face- that champions have more than one reason they’re on top. Ngannou was given a match against the black beast to get him back on track. There are few words to describe the fight. It was a bore. And quite rightly, the Cameroonian took most of the blame. He accepted it. And did what many wanted to see him do- he went on a tear.
Curtis Blaydes was brought in to face Francis. A wrestler that could test whether he was truly learning. They had fought before and Francis shut one of the razor’s eyes so the doctor had it stopped. This time, Francis ended every stuffed takedown with a swing of his hand. One grazed Blaydes and put him down for what was the first of three knockdowns in less than thirty seconds. The referee called it. Then Junior Dos Santos came to try his luck against Francis. It was not a good idea for the Brazilian. He was chased down with his back to winging fists from the African powerhouse. Another stoppage. Cain Velazquez. The Cain Velasquez. The man who had the ability to fight at heavyweight with the same pace and threats as a lightweight. Takedowns, pressure and ground and pound. That was the sell. That was not the match. Francis again stuffed the takedown, this time with so much power Cain’s knee gave out and left him open to scary lands. Three knockouts in a row. And none of them had gone past the second minute.
Francis had become the number one contender at this point. He only had to wait for DC and Stipe to have their third match. While he waited, he was called out by another knockout artist. Jairzinho Rozenstruik wanted to fight the ‘…big and scary guy…’ It was a good pairing. Asides Curtis Blaydes, Rozenstruik was going to be another fight with a young contender. The fight was a throwback to the Francis that first fought for the title. Back then, Francis threw an uppercut that snapped Overeem’s head so far back that the Reem seemed to be out before his head was back in place. Against Jairzinho, Ngannou connected with a wild hook that literally put him to sleep before his hands fell back to his hips. It was impressive. It was entertaining. And again, it was less than a minute.
"…it happened the last time. Francis was totally outclassed by Stipe… Ngannou is again listed as the Favourite… how do you go and become the greatest of all time, and not be the favourite in your next match?"
Chael Sonnen concerned that the Champion is being disrespected
There has been a serious question surrounding Francis Ngannou. It was there the first time he fought Stipe Miocic. Ngannou failed to answer it. The problem is that now as they prepare to fight for the second time at UFC 260, the same question still hovers around the challenger like a cloud. In the first fight, Stipe ducked under shots, ate some that would normally put him down, wrestled Francis to the ground and made him roll for as long as it took. Ngannou was tired, he was challenged, he was outfoxed, out-smarted and out-championed. And as the fight went longer, the question started to rise from the narrative.
Daniel Cormier said that before the first fight with Stipe Miocic, Francis Ngannou was cutting weight to the championship limit of 265pounds. Stipe Miocic on the other hand was and has always been a moderate heavyweight; swaying from 230 – 245 pounds in and out of Camp. He is lean and poised for fights that don’t end after a few well placed shots. Miocic can fight at a reasonable pace for more than fifteen minutes. He had done it times before. Francis Ngannou had never had to. And the two times in the UFC that Francis has not been able to finish the fight before the bell, he has plodded to a loss. So the question… Is Francis Ngannou ready or not?
Is Francis Ngannou ready to fight a Stipe Miocic that knows that all he has to do is outlast Francis Ngannou for fifteen minutes? Is francis ready to stuff the takedowns from the champion and make him pay by replying the same way he did against Curtis Blaydes? Is francis ready to close the distance and risk his best shot with his chin in the air like against Rozenstruck? Is francis ready to face the kind of footwork that will not stand still long enough for a telegraphed winger to hit its target? Is Francis ready to be backed up against the cage and recover with the same concentration and energy reserves it takes to turn the tide against Stipe Miocic? Is francis Ngannou ready to be the UFC heavyweight Champion?
With no disrespect intended (but given as it is almost a tradition at this point to disrespect Stipe in the lead-up to a fight despite his accomplishments) this match is not about the Champion. This is about a challenger that has finally gone through the valley of the movie and is ready to reach the climax in the third act. But the educated MMA fan knows something. Every fighter that has been in the ring with Francis since his first loss to the Champion has a part of the Champion’s game; but is not the champion. In Stipe Miocic, we have a Title Holder that personifies what it is to sit at the mountaintop of the sport. The education to adapt, the strength to attack and the wisdom to defend… makes Stipe Miocic the most complete heavyweight Champion in the History of the Sport anywhere. When the cage doors close and Bruce Buffer is done with the main event introductions, will Francis Ngannou be ready to beat the caliber of athlete that is Stipe Miocic?
The African population that Dana White has earmarked as the next big territory for MMA will be watching intently. Nigeria already sits glued to fights involving Kamaru Usman and Israel Adesanya. When Ngannou takes to the Octagon, a hundred million people will walk in with him. But he will have to swing those fists alone. As one of that number, I will shed a tear should Francis get the win. And I will celebrate his remarkable story. However, should Stipe do what Stipe does, I will also shed a tear; in appreciation of a bonafide great. Roll on the pay-per-view.