Talent, to paraphrase a Justice of the Supreme Court’s aphorism on the topic of pornography, is something you know when you see. It leaps off the page and jumps through a TV screen or off a stage. It’s something felt; the wonder of truly special genuine talent should rock even the most jaded observer.
Francis Ngannou, who fights Stipe Miocic for the UFC heavyweight title this weekend at UFC 220, has that kind of talent. He stands an enormous and extravagantly ripped 6-foot-4 and 260 pounds. His speed and balance are preternatural, of the kind more commonly found in elite defensive linemen than heavyweight fighters. The timing and sense of rhythm on his shots is outstanding.
Most of all, though, Ngannou has thudding, crushing, life-changing power. I’ve been watching combat sports for more than a decade, and I can confidently say I’ve never seen anyone plant his fists on another human being with more force than Ngannou. His knockout of Alistair Overeem last month was one of the scariest I’ve ever seen. The uppercut nearly lifted Overeem off his feet and left him stiff on the canvas for minutes afterward. Seriously, do yourself a favor and watch this:
Any analysis aside, it is terrifying that one human being is capable of doing this to another. I’ve watched this clip a hundred times. I know the motionless Overeem eventually wakes up. Yet every time I watch it, I still feel a twinge of fear that maybe this time he won’t, that a punch that hard might somehow reach backward through time and make the knockout a bit more permanent. That’s the kind of power Ngannou has.
Ngannou’s gifts go beyond the physical. The patience and calm with which he operates are less immediately obvious than his power and speed, but just as important. There are plenty of physically talented athletes in the world; the NFL combine makes temporary stars, and occasionally millionaires, of them every year. Those sorts of physical geniuses are present in MMA as well, albeit less frequently. What’s far less common is a fighter blessed with both striking physical gifts and the mental fortitude to maximize them. Ngannou owns that rare combination.
Patience is Ngannou’s defining attribute. He’s a counterpuncher by preference, which is rare in MMA; the sport has always valued aggression as a virtue in itself. That sort of patience stands out even more when it’s coming from an extremely inexperienced fighter with Ngannou’s physicality. Lots of physically gifted fighters eventually turn into skilled counterpunchers as they age—Jose Aldo and Anderson Silva are the quintessential examples—but it’s rare to see one who is so at ease with counterpunching so early in his career. You can even see it in Ngannou’s second pro fight, his only loss. Most young fighters with Ngannou’s combination of size, speed, and lack of experience and polish seek simply overpower their opponents. If you’re that much more talented than your opposition, why not simply play the steamroller?
That could be Ngannou, but it’s not. His nickname, “The Predator,” is apt. Like the eponymous alien in Predator, he lets his opponents unload their shots, gauges their tendencies of timing, distance, and rhythm, and then chooses and executes his responses with surgical precision. The lead uppercut with which he finished Overeem was a counter to a cuffing left hook. So was the left hook-right uppercut combination he used to clobber Andrei Arlovski:
Ngannou’s mechanics aren’t always perfect. He’s not a purveyor of fancy kicks or spinning strikes. What stands out is his ability to read his opponent and pick and choose the right shots at the right time, without ever overreaching or forcing the action. That sort of computation isn’t something he’s been taught, not at this stage of his career; it’s every bit as much a manifestation of his innate talent as his shocking speed and power. Getting into the cage to fight another human being who’s pretty good at fighting is something that rightly terrifies most people, but Ngannou’s response to that fear is a palpable calmness and a willingness to let his opponent show him exactly what he’s got. That’s a rare trait.
This is all impressive enough, but there’s one final piece that makes Ngannou stand out: the quickness with which he picks up new skills. In each and every fight, Ngannou shows off something new. It might be the ability to work from the southpaw stance or a smooth jab. The impossibly vicious kimura with which he submitted Anthony Hamilton? Ngannou had apparently learned that backstage, just before walking out. The ability to absorb information and immediately put it to effective use under incredible pressure is an impossibly rare gift in any field. Ngannou has that one, too.
Aside from his obvious talent, Ngannou’s life story makes him even more compelling. He was born in Cameroon, the son of a notorious street fighter with a terrible reputation who deserted the family when Ngannou was young. At age 12, he went to work in the sand mines, and moved to Paris in his 20s without any money, contacts, or plan aside from knowing that he wanted to be a fighter. At 31, and with just over four years of professional experience, he’s on the cusp of stardom. The UFC has done an excellent job of telling his story and matching him up with the right kinds of challenges on his way up the ladder, maximizing exposure without overwhelming an untested fighter with opponents for whom he wasn’t ready. The promo that the UFC put together for the UFC 220 fight is some of their best work in years.
Stars are rare in MMA, and the UFC desperately needs one. Ngannou certainly has all the right ingredients: the raw talent, the performances to back it up, and a biography as compelling as his knockouts. The UFC obviously believes in him. Heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic is the only thing standing in the way.
The heavyweight division, the promotion’s supposed marquee attraction, has been wandering the wilderness since megastar Brock Lesnar fell to Cain Velasquez all the way back in October 2010. Velasquez was supposed to be the next big thing, a Mexican-American champion to carry the sport to a highly sought-after new demographic, but it took Junior dos Santos just 64 seconds to knock his block off in front of 8.8 million people on Fox. Velasquez later reclaimed the title, but defended it only twice in two and a half years before falling to Fabricio Werdum in a huge upset.
Miocic took the title from Werdum and has held it for almost two years, knocking out both Alistair Overeem and dos Santos in his two defenses. With a win over Ngannou, Miocic would set the record for heavyweight title defenses in the UFC. The Ohio native, a likable and entertaining fireman, should be a star in his own right. That hasn’t happened, though, and despite his accomplishments, the Ohioan has always felt like he’s ruling a division that has no momentum or sense of destiny. Ngannou, at last, seems capable of restoring an appropriately epic dimension to a division that has gone too long without it.
Will he seize the opportunity? It’s an exceptional matchup. Miocic is a crisp boxer, with big power in his right hand and a ton of flexibility in his approach. He can stick and move behind his jab, counter in the pocket, and aggressively pressure in equal measure, depending on the nature of his opponent. If the opportunity presents itself, Miocic won’t hesitate to fall back on his strong takedown game.
That flexibility presents Miocic with a couple of different ways of approaching Ngannou. The champion might choose to get after him, moving forward behind the jab and then capitalizing with combinations and takedowns if he can force Ngannou to the fence. Few inexperienced fighters have the depth of skill necessary to deal with that kind of pressure. That sort of aggression and pace would play right into Ngannou’s counter game, though.
The champion might be better off if he refuses to lead, forcing Ngannou to throw first and thereby creating opportunities for Miocic’s own excellent counterpunches. This would also lengthen the fight and give Miocic a chance to expose any weaknesses or holes in Ngannou’s game. That said, playing at distance would make it difficult for Miocic to impose his takedowns if he wants to. His best option, perhaps, is a combination of the two: cautious pressure and a peppering jab that draws out Ngannou’s counters, which Miocic can then counter in turn. The champion needs to turn this into a fight where his depth of skill plays the deciding role. Ngannou’s talent is real, and he has shown flashes of startling tactical and strategic brilliance, but at this point in his career we have no earthly idea how deep his bag of tricks really goes. To give himself the best shot at winning the fight, Miocic needs to test that depth and pray he has enough answers.
The fundamental problem with that approach is that Miocic isn’t difficult to hit. He’s an offense-first fighter who buries his opponents in volume and power, and he’s willing to take a shot to give one back. Against a puncher as powerful and accurate as Ngannou, that could be disastrous. The challenger will throw his counters, and if one lands cleanly, Miocic will hit the canvas. The oddsmakers agree: They’ve pegged Ngannou as the favorite in the -170 range.
If they’re right, and I think they are, the UFC will have a new heavyweight champion on Saturday night. Ngannou’s talent is off the charts. More broadly, he offers a breath of fresh life into a stagnant division. His life story is the stuff of inspirational movies. He would be the UFC’s first champion from Africa, a gateway to a whole new continent of fans. This is no knock on Miocic, of course. He’s a great fighter who has been criminally under-appreciated by both fans and the UFC. But Ngannou is something truly special. All he has to do now is claim the mantle.