A quick look at how the next heavyweight title challenger has adapted during rare moments of vulnerability in the cage.
On July 23rd, 2016, two largely unknown heavyweights stepped into the Octagon on the main card of the UFC’s 20th FOX show. In the opening seconds, Joe Rogan expressed a sentiment that would, in various forms, come to be the narrative which surrounds the career of Francis Ngannou.
”The grappling skill of Mihajlovic is what makes this fight interesting: judo blackbelt, very skilled in lutre livre, and jiu-jitsu, very good submissions and ground and pound, and a good striker as well. But Ngannou is a dangerous man.”
Not much more than a minute later, the referee was peeling Ngannou off of a helpless Bojan Mihajlovic.
And so it’s been for the Cameroonian. From his Octagon debut, opposite Luis Henrique, to his title shot-clinching knockout victory over Alistair Overeem, the story of the ‘Predator’ has been one of Herculean strength and singular physical ability. Only in select moments have fans seen him struggle. However, fortunately for this analysis, those moments of struggle have been repeated, often with different results.
In that first UFC bout – against Henrique – Ngannou’s dynamism didn’t seem to help him much in the early goings. Held on the floor effortlessly, repeatedly pinned against the fence for long stretches, and separated only by the mercy of a (perhaps trigger-happy) referee, Ngannou outlasted the smaller man, obliterating his fading opponent in the second round. Since his UFC debut, much has changed.
Here, Ngannou uses a shallow underhook to jockey for position, but Henrique dominates the battle of control. Realistically, Ngannou is relying on his right overhook for control here, but Henrique has him almost completely pinned with head and shoulder pressure.
By comparison, Ngannou’s recent reactions, against a clinch fighter far above Henrique’s level, are completely different.
Exercising better control, Ngannou hardly struggled to outmaneuver Overeem. While he did little with the position, the effortless clinch superiority shown over a clinch fighter of the Dutchman’s caliber is in stark contrast to the man who was pinned for several minutes by Luis Henrique two years prior.
While fans have not seen him on bottom often, Ngannou appeared to learn greatly from his prolonged time on the mat courtesy of Henrique. In that bout, he closed his guard and dug for an underhook, but was unable to do anything with it, including returning to his feet. When he faced Curtis Blaydes, Ngannou was able to largely shut down the wrestling threat. And even when he found himself in side control, he swiftly stood back up.
In the stand-up, his improvement has been somewhat more difficult to gauge. Ngannou hits things and they fall down. This was, is, and perhaps will always be the case. He seemed susceptible to the jab in his early UFC performances, biting on feints or eating jabs clean. Perhaps the hardest shot he has yet been hit with was a flush jab from Blaydes in the opening seconds of their bout. Overeem’s jab was nowhere to be seen, so whether this remains a vulnerability is likely to be answered by Stipe Miocic, who boasts perhaps the best jab in the division.
In an offensive sense, Ngannou has continued to improve at what he was always good at. His counter-punching has looked cleaner and better-timed with each subsequent outing. And a nasty habit of moving both feet at once has become less pronounced, allowing him to position himself more favorably.
All of these changes serve to further bolster the bread and butter of Ngannou’s game: slow leads, followed by aggressive counter-punching from unusual angles. That all four of his UFC knockouts have come from the same left-handed shovel punch (a punch somewhere between a hook and an uppercut) is a testament not just to the power in the Cameroonian’s lead hand, but to the preternatural sense with which he finds openings to land power shots.
With many expecting Ngannou to claim the heavyweight championship on Saturday night against Miocic – whose head is often a stationary target – it will be the depth of Ngannou’s auxiliary tools that the champion will want to test. On that front, there are subtle reasons to be optimistic that Ngannou will look better than ever before.