It took longer than many predicted, but Francis Ngannou is finally the UFC heavyweight champion of the world.
At UFC 260 on Saturday night, Ngannou got revenge for his 2018 loss to Stipe Miocic, obliterating Miocic in the second round to become the first African-born UFC heavyweight champion. It was the best performance of Ngannou’s career and one that should put the rest of the world on notice: this is not the same Francis Ngannou you’re used to, this is a whole different animal.
When Ngannou made his UFC debut back in 2015, he did so to little fanfare, with the commentary team even incorrectly pronouncing his last name as “Ga-No”. That changed quickly though when “The Predator” lived up to his namesake, finishing his first six opponents in spectacular fashion, including the 2017 Knockout of the Year over Alistair Overeem. That streak earned Ngannou a title shot against Miocic at UFC 220, and despite Miocic’s own run of dominance through the division, many viewed the bout as a formality, the coronation of MMA’s next great heavyweight. Those people were wrong. Miocic upset Ngannou, winning a unanimous decision on the back of a great game plan and superior cardio and wrestling.
In hindsight, it’s easy to see how Miocic did it. Though Ngannou had wins over some of the biggest names in the sport at the time, he was still less than five years into his career and very much a work in progress. Ngannou rose to prominence, in some respects, by being the world’s most dangerous brawler. The plan for Ngannou was usually to force exchanges which he then won by having preternaturally brilliant timing and landing with the power to level a small building. It’s a good plan and one that will work on a lot of people, but when he faced Miocic the first time it failed. Miocic was too tough and too smart to get drawn into exchanges with Ngannou and so the challenger punched himself out chasing a finish that wouldn’t come. But on Saturday, those gaps were no longer there for Miocic to exploit. The Predator had some new weapons to work with.
Almost immediately in the fight, Joe Rogan noted that we were “already seeing a more patient Francis Ngannou” and Rogan was right. Instead of barreling across the cage to clobber Miocic, Ngannou was relaxed, cutting off the cage, throwing the occasional shot and waiting for his opportunities to come to him. He didn’t try to force Miocic into brawling with him and the one time Miocic shot, Ngannou defended the takedown beautifully and then took the back and hammered Miocic with punches. When you can not only defend takedowns but punish your opponent for shooting them, that’s the way you keep people from shooting on you moving forward and Miocic didn’t try to wrestle again. In fact, Miocic didn’t do much of anything for the rest of the fight. The now-former champion threw only eight strikes in the first round.
Aside from winning him the first round, Ngannou’s new look also played well with his established skills. Between rounds Miocic’s corner told their fighter he needed to get his own offense going and so to start the second, Miocic was more willing to stay in exchanging range. He ate a counter left hook that snapped his head around and then, moments later, the stepping shovel punch that dropped him. Once he was hurt, then Miocic ended up engaging in the sort of brawl where Ngannou thrives and that ultimately led to the check left hook that put away the champion. Ngannou’s new skills set up his best ones and won him the title.
It’s hard to overstate just how impressive this performance was. Ngannou has always had “a puncher’s chance” in any fight he was in but this was not that. The new champion did not just avenge a loss emphatically, he did it in paradigm-shifting fashion. Ngannou didn’t “land a lucky punch,” he dictated the terms of engagement entirely and created a scenario where by far the most likely outcome was exactly what happened.
In his post-fight interview with Rogan, the new champion talked about his first fight with Miocic and said that though he lost, he felt like he won because of all the experience he gained from that fight. Looking at their rematch, it’s hard to disagree. Following that loss, Ngannou changed camps, broadened his skill set, and now his strategic acumen has caught up to his physical gifts, and that is very, very bad news for anyone coming for the heavyweight title. An Ngannou who can either pick you apart at range or trade shot for shot with you inside and won’t gas himself out doing so? That’s going to take someone special to beat him.
There’s a new king in town. Long may he reign.
UFC 260 Quotes
“Personally, no, I don’t feel I need (to fight Stipe again). He said I won’t be a champion until he’s retired so maybe he’ll retire but if not, I’ll still be down to fight him. I have a loss against him and his time as the greatest heavyweight of all time. He makes sense for me to fight if needed.” - Francis Ngannou on a trilogy with Stipe Miocic.
“If Jon Jones really wants the fight, Jon Jones knows he can get the fight. All he’s got to do is call and do it. It’s easy to say you want the fight, but if you really want the fight, Francis Ngannou is the heavyweight champion of the world right now. All he’s got to do is pick up the phone and call ... and we can get the deal done.” - Dana White on Jon Jones challenging for the title.
“You guys get so impressed by the guy with the knockout power. I’ve been proven for over a decade that punching hard means shit. I’ll let all you fans be super hyped, I’ll stick to what I know. Pay me and let me go to work.” - Jon Jones on Ngannou.
Francis Ngannou: The new baddest man on the planet looked the best he ever has and is now on the cusp of becoming a transcendent superstar.
Vicente Luque: Luque didn’t exactly show anything new in his fight with Woodley but he did get the biggest win of his career and did so in style, becoming the first man to ever submit the former champion.
Sean O’Malley: O’Malley was supposed to win and he did. Setting aside the first-round snafu where he tried to walk-off Almeida, O’Malley showed a diverse and dangerous set of skills. He’s getting a ranked opponent next.
Miranda Maverick: Flyweight is starved for talent and the 23-year-old prospect showed a lot to get excited about against Gillian Robertson. She will be ranked come Tuesday and on her way to bigger things.
Stipe Miocic: Miocic showed he can take a hell of a shot still but ultimately that wasn’t enough. Now Stipe may well find himself third in line for a title shot behind Jon Jones and Derrick Lewis. It’s a big fall from grace for the UFC heavyweight GOAT.
Tyron Woodley: That’s now four fights and 16 rounds in a row that Woodley has lost and you have to wonder if the former champion keeps coming back.
Fabio Cherant: I’m not sure how high the stock was on Cherant coming into UFC 260 but missing weight and then getting submitted with a Von Flue choke in under two minutes is nobody’s idea of a good showing.
Fights to Make
Francis Ngannou vs. Jon Jones: This is the fight everyone wants to see and the only reason it wouldn’t happen at this point is money. Here’s to hoping that won’t stop it.
Stipe Miocic vs. Curtis Blaydes: There are plenty of top heavyweights that Miocic hasn’t fought yet but should the former champion choose not to retire, Blaydes is the one I’m most interested in. That has always been a fascinating matchup between two of the most well-rounded heavyweights.
Vicente Luque vs. Michael Chiesa: Both men deserve a top-ranked opponent but neither man is likely to get one given the texture of the top of the welterweight rankings right now. This is about the best we can do.
Sean O’Malley vs. Jimmie Rivera: The UFC clearly wants to push O’Malley and Rivera presents the perfect blend of competitive but beatable for The Sugar Show.
Miranda Maverick vs. Alexa Grasso: Grasso is coming off of upsetting the flyweight division’s most outspoken prospect. This would be a good test for Maverick and give Grasso a chance to establish herself as The Prospect Killer.
Ten Takeaways, Thoughts, and Reflections
- Ngannou’s life story is the stuff of films and now it has the perfect ending. My vote is for Idris Elba to portray him in the movie.
- The UFC has three African-born champions. That is awesome and Ngannou is absolutely right, UFC Africa should be on the agenda in 2022.
- Ngannou has now knocked out four former UFC heavyweight champions, in case anyone was keeping track.
- Ngannou has a chance to become a Conor McGregor-esque star. Perhaps not quite as large but close. He’s got all the intangibles for it and he’s a heavyweight. It’s on the table.
- Miocic should have retired after the DC trilogy bout. Had he beaten Ngannou, it wouldn’t have added that much to his legacy and this loss might end up tainting it, especially if Ngannou puts together a few defenses.
- That being said, major props to Stipe for surviving some of those shots. His chin held up really well considering the fire it took.
- Jon Jones is not afraid of Francis Ngannou and anyone who believes that is a moron. Dana White has done this same song and dance hundreds of times to depress fighter value. Please, stop believing it.
- Even though Woodley looked better than he has in years on Saturday, it’s time for him to hang them up. He’s the fifth-best welterweight ever and a future Hall of Famer. He has nothing to prove to anyone and even if he did, he probably cannot prove it at this point. Hell of a career but it’s time to move on.
- Love him or hate him, Sean O’Malley has a ton of skills and he’s going to hang around the bantamweight top-10 for a while.
- Miranda Maverick looks like she’s going to be the prospect everyone thought Maycee Barber was going to be.
BONUS: Someone pointed this out on Twitter (sorry, don’t remember who did it first) but Aljamain Sterling is the only American-born current UFC champion (assuming you don’t recognize the right honorable Dustin Poirier). That’s pretty insane.