Bloody Elbow’s Connor Ruebusch examines what little he knows for sure about the style of Francis Ngannou. Has a fighter so visceral ever left so much to the imagination?
Six fights into his UFC career, the average fighter has answered most of the questions regarding his potential, or—in the case of questions like, “how good is his chin?”—had them answered for him.
Francis Ngannou is not your average fighter. You know this from the moment you first look at him. At six-foot-four, the Cameroonian expat is strapped all over with thick bands of muscle. He generates serpentine speed and frightening knockout power with that frame, and has the instincts to bring his power to bear against opponents with more than four times his experience. See the way he slides into range, angles away when they overcommit, and sends them to oblivion—often with a single blow. Now, remember that Francis Ngannou has hardly been at this sport for more than four years.
Ngannou is so profoundly above-average that he has forged his way to a title shot without having even been tested. We have seen faint glimmers of his limitations, true, but we have also seen massive leaps in both ability and belief from one bout to the next. Like Mike Tyson in the early 80s, Ngannou’s effortless and immediate rise has imbued him with an aura that does almost as much damage to his opponents’ psyches as his fists do to their skulls.
Unlike Iron Mike, Ngannou has never even faced the prospect of his own mortality. He has had no James Tillis or Bonecrusher Smith take him the distance, leaving us totally ignorant of whether he can win a fight by stepping down into third or second gear. Frankly, we don’t even know if Francis Ngannou has any gear but the one.
Now, Ngannou is within reach of the UFC title. That he has earned the opportunity is unquestionable. Whether he is ready for it is anything but. Can Ngannou take the lead? If so, how well does he hold up down the stretch? Can he take a beating and keep on coming?
Heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic answered these questions long ago, and he has spent the duration of Ngannou’s climb at the top of the division, continuing to find new ways of answering doubts, often with violent results. If there are answers to the many questions surrounding Francis Ngannou, have no doubt that Stipe Miocic is capable of finding them.
CAN NGANNOU LEAD?
Ngannou’s incredible athleticism makes it easy to depict him as a man without limitations. There is evidence to back this feeling up, like when Ngannou submitted titanic heavyweight Anthony Hamilton with a move that he had apparently just learned.
The truth is that every fighter has limitations. If they are not physical, they are mental. Often, these reveal themselves through style—how a fighter chooses to approach his opponents, even when those opponents are totally incapable of forcing him to do otherwise, speaks volumes about when and where he is comfortable in the cage.
Thus, I do not hesitate in labeling Ngannou a counter puncher. When opponents throw, Ngannou fires back as if by second nature. When they do not throw, he waits for them to do so. In his most recent fights, Ngannou can be seen pressuring to draw out those leads, using feints and pawing jabs to provoke a panicked reaction. In his most recent, Ngannou even countered in layers, drawing a right hand out of Alistair Overeem, readjusting as the strike fell short, and then finally landing the fight-ending counter as Overeem tried to follow up with a left.
Such flashes of brilliance, always backed by Ngannou’s terrifying power, suggest that there is real depth to his counter punching game. Of all the bits of ice showing through the dark water’s surface, this one feels most decidedly like an iceberg.
No one, however, has had the patience or skill to deny Ngannou his fight. We can say that counter punching is his comfort zone, but is Ngannou aware? If so, what happens if he is dragged out of it?
There might appear to be little in common between Ngannou and a fighter like Roy Nelson (and that’s being polite), but Nelson’s punch is almost as famous as his paunch. When he fought Miocic in 2013, his plan was to pressure him into throwing, at which point he would attempt to counter. Stipe made things difficult. He spent the duration of the first round moving away from Nelson’s notorious right hand. At intervals he stabbed Nelson with his jab, slipping it like a dagger between Roy’s wild bombs. Feints kept Nelson’s finger hesitant on the trigger, and footwork ran him into ramrod straight punches.
Ngannou would be wise to stick to his guns, but the boxing of Miocic could bemuse him, or simply change his mind. Whether Ngannou can maintain his standard of excellence going forward remains to be seen, but even if he does, we must ask . . .
HOW GOOD IS NGANNOU’S STAMINA?
Francis Ngannou has been to the second round five times, including in his first two UFC bouts. On both of those occasions, Ngannou could be seen to slow down after the close of the first round. On both occasions, Ngannou threw more strikes in the second than in the first, defying his sagging arms and leaden feet. On both occasions, that was enough to get the knockout, technical or otherwise.
What does this suggest? Does Ngannou embrace exhaustion, deriving mental strength from physical weakness? Or, can he break through that wall, and find a second wind after the second round? Or, in growing tired, does he also grow desperate? Does he pick up the pace in hopes of spending fleeting fuel before it drains away for good?
No guesswork is required when it comes to Stipe’s stamina. The heavyweight champion throws an average of 10.3 significant strikes per minute, compared to Ngannou’s 7.26. Having seen him in the third round five times in the UFC, and the fifth round twice, we can say that Miocic tends to slow down over the course of a fight. This is a trait he shares with every man his size not named Cain Velasquez—yet Velasquez is the only top-ten heavyweight whose output exceeds the champion’s.
Miocic will look to test Ngannou’s gas tank if the opportunity arises, that is, if neither man is knocked out in the first round. Finding the distance in which to do so may be difficult. Miocic will have but a slice of range to work with, inside the arc of Ngannou’s punches, with space yet to fire his own. Still, the question was, “how good is Ngannou’s stamina?” and if the answer is anything short of “adequate,” then every passing minute will lessen the threat of Ngannou’s punch.
We have seen superheavyweights before, the sort of freakish titans who cut weight to make 265 pounds. Shane Carwin and Brock Lesnar both come to mind, as does the more recently active Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva. Carwin feasted on naught but first-round knockouts until the day of his first defeat, which was quickly followed by a second. In the end, the speed of Junior Dos Santos proved far too much for him. Brock Lesnar fell to the aforementioned Cain Velasquez, who scrambled free of his early takedowns and quickly established a pace that the behemoth Brock couldn’t match. Likewise, Velasquez twice outpaced (and smashed the face of) Bigfoot Silva, as did his teammate Daniel Cormier, now the light heavyweight champ. Until last year, it seemed that the giants had come and gone, leaving sleeker models like Stipe Miocic to rule in their place.
But we have never before seen a superheavyweight like Francis Ngannou. In speed and agility, Francis compares more favorably to Junior Dos Santos than he does Shane Carwin or Bigfoot Silva. He moves with a grace that belies his 262-pound frame, while still managing to leverage every ounce into his strikes. Does his superior speed come packaged with a deeper gas tank, or will those explosive movements tax him the way they do every other man his size?
CAN NGANNOU FIGHT THROUGH ADVERSITY?
The heavyweight division is a strange place. As one goes up in weight, the power of the strikes increases. In general, the drop off may fall well below 265, but weight adds oomph, so big men hit harder, as a rule. Durability does not correlate the same way. From flyweight to lightweight, you might expect chins to improve at the same rate as power. Lightweights obviously hit harder than 125-pounders, and yet UFC lightweights only knock one another out about 25 percent of the time, compared to flyweight’s 21 percent.
At welterweight, the knockout rate rises above 30 percent, but that is no comparison to heavyweight, where a full 50 percent of UFC fights end via knockout. The big guys hit much, much harder—without the benefit of much, much harder chins.
Thus, a man like Francis Ngannou can make it to the very top of the division without having ever been pushed. He can rise quickly through the ranks, improving at such a rate that there is no discernible difference in difficulty between the number-two contender and a washed-up journeyman. At heavyweight, all chins are human.
Stipe Miocic may have the chin for it—he’s certainly better suited than the likes of Alistair Overeem (11 losses by KO) and Andrei Arlovski (10 losses by KO). He may have the skill, and the strategy. These are things we cannot know before watching the fight.
What we can say for certain, is that Stipe Miocic has the heart of a champion. Twice Alistair Overeem hurt Miocic in the first minutes of their UFC 203 title fight; Miocic knocked him out by the end of the first round. Junior Dos Santos dropped Miocic with a crushing left hook in their first meeting, but could not keep him down. Despite the grueling pace, Miocic managed to finish strong, throwing more punches in the fifth round than in any other of the bout. And for all of Francis Ngannou’s leveling, there is little to distinguish Miocic’s title-winning knockout over Fabricio Werdum from the one he scored on Phil De Fries back in 2012. As Miocic’s level of competition has risen, he has risen along with it.
Experiences like these cannot be bypassed without loss. There is simply no way that Francis Ngannou’s career has prepared him for wars like the ones Miocic has seen. In surviving those bloody battles, Miocic gained a sense of invulnerability totally different to that which surrounds Ngannou. Where Francis’ confidence (and fans’ confidence in him) is built on a sort of naivete, Stipe’s is built on knowledge. The champion has been there, and knows he can do so again.
But this brings us full circle, and this is the terrifying thing about Francis Ngannou. We can question the quality of his chin, or his mind, or his will—but each and every query comes attached to another: will it even matter?