mma / Columns

Francis Ngannou is Back

July 1, 2019 | Posted by Dan Plunkett

The hype train whistled intensely for Francis Ngannou. It was an impressive train. As powerful as a Ford Escort, some would say. It gained steam as it chugged along, but then Stipe Miocic coolly side stepped it, and the train seemed to lose its way. Could the world’s most dangerous heavyweight have been only raw, undisciplined hype, destined falter against the very best on route to a disappointing career?

One year ago, Ngannou’s train slowed to a quiet halt. He met Derrick Lewis in what figured to be an exciting match of heavy-hitters, but came in unwilling to engage. Unfortunately for Ngnanou, fights are not scored based on passiveness, and he lost a decision.

This was a crossroads for Ngannou, who would turn 32 before his next fight. Was he going to be another fighter that built a fearsome reputation on quick knockouts, only to crumble against the division’s best? Or would he buckle down, figure things out, and become the force he was once billed as?

Ngannou became the force. Heavyweights beware.

On Saturday, Ngannou another first-round knockout to his record. This time the victim was former UFC heavyweight champion Junior dos Santos. Before that, he knocked out Cain Velasquez, who twice battered dos Santos to entrench himself as the best heavyweight in the world. Couple those with a win over Alistair Overeem, and we know Ngannou is the best heavyweight of 2012. At least one outstanding test remains before we can call him the best heavyweight of 2019.

The 71 second stoppage over dos Santos puts Ngannou in an excellent position. He is the clear next contender for the heavyweight title, and there are only a few things that could take that opportunity from him. To understand what those are, we have to understand the heavyweight title match on tap for August 17.

One year on, Daniel Cormier and Stipe Miocic are running it back. Last July, Cormier produced perhaps the most unexpected result that fight could have produced: a first-round knockout in his favor. Back then, it was a close matchup that leaned slightly toward Miocic. This time the matchup seems even murkier. Cormier is a 40-year-old that threw his back out by sneezing last November. Miocic will be two days from his 37th birthday and returning from a thirteen-month break. This is a fight that could be decided by age and wear and tear.

Let’s say Cormier retains his heavyweight championship on August 17. At this point, he is a fighter looking for big money fights or legacy fights. Brock Lesnar, the money fight, is out of the picture. Jon Jones is the perfect mix of the money fight and the legacy fight, but puts Cormier’s happy ending and this piece of his career that he has carved for himself outside of Jones at tremendous risk. Cormier beating Miocic and then going for Jones might be the most competitively motivated move the sport has ever seen.

Compare that to a potential matchup with Ngannou. Ngannou is not nearly as technically refined as Jones, but there’s a big chance Ngannou would knock Cormier out. Even if the fight goes another possible way—Cormier schools Ngannou and wins decisively—it’s easy to imagine a world where that fight becomes an indictment on Ngannou’s skill rather than a testament to Cormier’s. What makes it easy to imagine is it’s essentially what happened when Miocic dominated Ngannou. In terms of business I think Cormier vs. Ngannou would be roughly at the level of Cormier vs. Miocic, which is to say, not terrible, but not big.

For all of these reasons, if Daniel Cormier beats Stipe Miocic on August 17, I think he’s looking at either Jon Jones or retirement. Which option Cormier would go with and the details of it matter significantly to Ngannou. Obviously with retirement, Ngannou would fight for the vacant title. With the Jones option, it depends whether it would take place at heavyweight or at light heavyweight, and if at light heavyweight whether Cormier would vacate his heavyweight title beforehand.

On one hand, a vacant title would get Ngannou in a title fight faster. On the other, if Cormier fights Jones at heavyweight and Jones wins, it delays Ngannou’s title shot and maybe he’ll have to take a fight in the meantime, but it could set him up for the biggest fight of his career against Jones.

Then there is the flipside—Stipe Miocic beats Daniel Cormier on August 17. Once again, the details matter here. An emphatic or clear win for Miocic likely puts Cormier in the rearview mirror and sets up a Miocic vs. Ngannou rematch. I write likely because Miocic is getting a rematch after an emphatic loss so anything is possible, but it will be tough to sell a third fight between Miocic and Cormier in such a short period without some sort of controversy propelling it.

If there is controversy, whether it be a close decision or a bad stoppage going in Miocic’s favor, I think there’s a strong chance Cormier would get an immediate rematch. The UFC respects Cormier and he is a bigger star than Ngannou, so it would be hard to picture Ngannou getting the shot over Cormier in these circumstances.

Certainly, Ngannou is a danger to either Cormier or Miocic, but only specific outcomes of their upcoming title match will be favorable for Ngannou.

Dan Plunkett has covered MMA for 411Mania since 2008. You can reach him by email at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @Dan_Plunkett.

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Francis Ngannou, Dan Plunkett