The Rapid Rise of Francis Ngannou

By The Way - Weekly Columns

ByTheMinMMA

In the formative years of mixed martial arts, some very questionable things were attempted to try and make the sport click. We’d occasionally see a 140 pound speedster face a sumo wrestler in a fight that more closely resembled a Mythbusters experiment rather than a legitimate athletic contest. Thankfully weight classes became a thing to curb (mostly) such nonsense practices. This is also why the heavyweight champion of the world is always king. The pound for pound rankings are necessary both for debate aswell as ranking overall skill, but in almost every circumstance, the heavyweight champion would destroy every other champion in the promotion, with the 205 champ the only viable discussion. Because of this, heavyweight prize fighting always has the easiest path to becoming the biggest deal in combat sports. While that 150-160 pound range tends to create the best depth of skill in both MMA and boxing, everyone loves to see a larger than life big guy smash everything in front of him. Despite doing just that over the past couple of years, Stipe Miocic hasn’t really caught on with the public for whatever reason. Miocic hasn’t seen a second round in nearly three years and has been putting away some of the best heavyweights in the world in impressive and quick fashion. It hasn’t always been straight forward either, which should add to some sort of intrigue. Fabricio Werdum hurt him and smelt blood as he chased him down, before Miocic slept him with a right on the back foot to take the title. Werdum’s first title defence saw him knocked down and almost guillotined by Alistair Overeem before making a big comeback. Despite the excellent action a Miocic fight almost always guarantees, he’s never felt like a big star to the fanbase. Perhaps it’s the fact that he’s a nice down to earth relatable guy in a world of larger than life personalities. Perhaps it’s been a bit of poor promotion by the UFC who’ve focused on a small handful of stars. Perhaps it’s been a lack of fresh up and coming challengers. Though that last point is about to change imminently. What Francis Ngannou has done to get to this point is nothing short of astonishing. Or in many ways, it’s what he hasn’t done. We’re now in an era where people have been training in various martial arts all their life to claw their way into a professional contract. Many dedicate their life to being the best fighter they can possibly be. Ngannou is not that man. That’s not to say there’s a lack of dedication or desire to be the best. He’s just a late starter. So late in fact, that he didn’t even know what mixed martial arts was five years ago. Yet he stands on the edge of glory, and enters the Octagon this Saturday not only as a legitimate title challenger, but the bookies favourite. Ngannou is a documentary just waiting to happen. Born and raised in Cameroon, he moved to France at the age of 26 to train in professional boxing. He arrived in Paris with nothing and slept on the streets initially. He began training in August 2013 at the MMA Factory in Paris, and the rest as they say is history. Having initially pursued boxing, his coach convinced him MMA was the better path, and within three months, he had won his first pro bout. Ngannou did lose his second fight via decision, but then began his current run. What may surprised some is he had the same amount of submission wins (two) as he had KO/TKO wins on the regional circuit in Europe, before the UFC came calling with his record at 5-1. We’ve seen many a prospect run through local competition, then get to the big show and get found out. With Ngannou only barely two years into his MMA journey, the UFC simply had to handle him with kid gloves you’d assume. Instead they matched him up with Luis Henrique, another highly touted prospect. Ngannou knocked him out in Round 2. Next it was Curtis Blaydes, who didn’t exit his corner for the third round due to a doctor’s stoppage. Blaydes is 3-0 since then, and did win a fourth bout, which was overturned for a marijuana failure. Ngannou remains the only blemish on Blaydes’ record, who has turned into an excellent prospect in his own right. First round wins over Bojan Mihajlovic and Anthony Hamilton rounded out 2016. While the level of competition perhaps regressed a little (which is no bad thing at such an early stage) the manner of victory really made the top brass sit up and take notice. A 94 second TKO win over Mihajlovic was impressive, and the kimura victory over Hamilton was incredible. While it wasn’t Ngannou’s first submission win, no-one really expected him to be tapping guys in the UFC. Ngannou, with his back against the cage, neutralised the left arm, and just started cranking. Using it not only as an escape, he’d turn Hamilton around and put him on his back, never releasing the hold. Ngannou got knee on belly, and just twisted. Not the most technical submission I’d ever seen, but one you couldn’t ignore. In a quick turnaround to open 2017, Ngannou was handed perhaps the perfect opponent in Andrei Arlovski. Arlovski is a heavyweight clearly on the downslide, but it gave him a name opponent on a main card to create a showcase for the UFC’s new next big thing. A short counter right hook from Ngannou sent The Pitbull flying and the referee stepped in just 92 seconds into the bout to save Arlovski from the beating that was on it’s way. Despite the whole MMA world talking about Ngannou, he now needed that big win against a current true contender. Arlovski was a former champion, but clearly a few years past his prime. Junior dos Santos was booked to be his next opponent, but JDS failed a USADA test, and he was eventually booked to face former champ Alistair Overeem at UFC 218. Overeem was himself a former champ, and recent title contender. It felt like a de facto #1 contender bout. Before the bout, Ngannou set a world record. Tyrone Spong, best known as a kickboxer (though recently ran his pro boxing record to 10-0) had set the world record for hardest punch recorded at around 114,000 units. At the UFC performance institute, they recorded an Ngannou overhand right at 129,161 units, completely obliterating the previous mark, and further adding to the mystique. When Ngannou faced Overeem, we saw one of the scariest knockouts in a long time, and the almost unanimous choice for knockout of the year, Overeem got himself a little off balance with a wild swing, and Ngannou hit a counter uppercut from the depths of hell. Overeem was flat on his back with his toes curled. Joe Rogan was visibly and audibly concerned cage side. It was one of those KO’s where it was a real relief to see Overeem back on his feet. In that moment however, the next challenger for Miocic was in zero doubt. This weekend at UFC 220, Miocic is the underdog, as he takes on a phenom. Whatever the result this Saturday night, the fans will be the winners. This is the biggest heavyweight title fight in years, and in a division where no-one has ever recorded three straight successful title defences, Miocic is on the verge of history. But if Ngannou does to Miocic what he’s done to everyone else, it does make you wonder who can stop him. 2017’s PPV schedule starts with a bang this Saturday, and we’ll have live coverage on the website from 11:30pm on Saturday night. You don’t want to miss this.

Alistair Sargent

Ngannou scares me! But when you go up against another big dude you're only ever one punch away from disaster. That is the beauty of heavyweight combat. I still don't give the other bloke a prayer