Mixed martial arts can provide a fighter with their life’s highest highs, and their lowest lows. Perhaps no fighter is more acquainted with this phenomenon than Francis “The Predator” Ngannou.
Ngannou rose to near-mythical status in the sports world by compiling a resume of spectacular knockouts (with a win via a submission that he “learned backstage”), leading many to believe they were witnessing the rise of MMA’s next legend. This perception was swiftly shattered by the then-champion Stipe Miocic, who was able to highlight elementary flaws in Ngannou’s skill set, particularly with regards to his wrestling.
Following his title shot loss, Ngannou clearly lost all confidence in himself as he lost a decision to Derrick Lewis in what UFC commentator Joe Rogan called “the worst heavyweight fight of all time.”
However, “The Predator” might be on a resurgence. Since his two-fight losing streak, Francis Ngannou scored two first-round KO’s of Curtis Blaydes and Cain Velasquez that were reminiscent of his pre-title shot era.
Ngannou’s bout against Junior Dos Santos at UFC Fight Night: Dos Santos vs. Ngannou will indicate whether Ngannou is returning to the apex status that was once attributed to him, or if he will be remembered as another over-hyped marketing asset that wasn’t able to compete in the upper echelons of the sport. We are all hoping that Ngannou will return to captivating our endearment with spectacular knockouts and a backstory fit for the silver screen, but in order to do so, he will have to remedy some serious deficiencies in his game.
The Double-Edged Sword
No stranger to the highlight reel, Francis Ngannou generated nearly unparalleled hype for his name through his ability to render men unconscious in some of the most violent knockouts the UFC has ever seen.
Through the use of basic boxing combinations combined with breathtaking power, Ngannou’s pre-title shot run fostered the impression that he might be the most vicious KO artist of all time. But as evidenced by his bouts against Miocic and Lewis, just because he was able to rack up KO’s against the lower levels of the division does not mean he will be able to replicate that success against better opponents.
Sheer power aside, Francis Ngannou’s striking is not overly technical; it is fair to say that because he can render opponents unconscious with cumbersome punches, he has never had to develop the intricate striking game that less-powerful fighters have to. What Ngannou does do very well is coral his opponents into his primary weapon, his right hand. Here we see Ngannou double jab against Alistair Overeem as he circles to his left. This forces Overeem to move towards Ngannou’s powerful right, exactly where he Ngannou wants him.
This is the essence of Francis Ngannou’s striking: force the opponent onto the right hand, and rely on his god-like power to put them away, ideally in the first few minutes of the fight. In his KO of Curtis Blaydes, we see a slightly different tactic stemming from the same school of thought. Instead of getting Blaydes to circle, Ngannou throws a jab to lure out Blayde’s counter, which he slips. The right hand is already en route to Blayde’s temple, sending him to the canvas. The fight would be stopped after a few more shots on the ground.
While Ngannou’s right hand is perhaps one of the most feared weapons in MMA, it is a double-edged sword. The taste of landing a full power punch on an opponent has led Ngannou to throw every single punch with the intention of being the finishing blow. While this is Dana White’s dream (if it works), if he doesn’t get the KO, Ngannou has allowed his opponents to gauge his timing to an exact degree. After a mere few minutes in the cage with Ngannou, Stipe Miocic had Ngannou’s timing down pat, allowing him to evade and counter his punches. Here we see Ngannou trap Miocic against the fence, but instead of attempting to keep him pinned there and rack up damage, he throws every punch with killing intention, allowing the then-champion to escape.
Similarly, Miocic was able to use Ngannou’s predictable punch speed to land his counters, inflicting significant damage in the process.
Stipe Miocic’s victory over Francis Ngannou showed the heavyweight division that Ngannou’s striking was not the be-all-end-all it was believed to be. If Ngannou is able to hit you, you’re going to sleep. But, if you can survive the first two to three minutes, his refusal to throw anything less than full-bore will allow you to hone in on his timing, providing you with the ability to counterattack effectively. Junior Dos Santos is not going to be afraid of Ngannou’s reputation and is likely to be willing to stand and exchange with the Cameroonian-Frenchman. If Ngannou continues to throw every punch at full power, he is likely to be easily countered by a man who has long been regarded as one of the best boxers in heavyweight MMA.
Along with the exploiting the flaws in his striking game, Stipe Miocic repeatedly took down “The Predator” at will, almost to the point that it was reminiscent of a wrestler-versus-boxer matchup from the early days of the UFC. When attempting to take down a fighter the size of Francis Ngannou, his opponents would be wise to replicate Miocic’s strategy and employ frequent use of the Single Leg Takedown.
Although the Double Leg does have it’s time and place, the Single Leg will provide the attacker advantages of incalculable value against a man as massive as Ngannou. First, it forces Ngannou to balance on one leg where he is carrying his own weight, as opposed to a Double Leg where he could sprawl his weight down on the attacker. Here we see Miocic use the Single, forcing Ngannou onto one leg. Because Ngannou is focusing on staying upright, Miocic has no problem reaching for the far leg to finish the takedown.
The Single Leg also allows Ngannou’s opponents to run him to the fence, where he can be pinned. Here we see Ngannou frantically attempting to keep his balance, so Miocic has relative ease running him to the fence.
Once on the fence, another advantage of the Single Leg appears. It is vastly easier to come up from the Single Leg with an underhook than it is from the Double Leg; again, because Ngannou is unable to drop his weight down. Miocic repeatedly used this mechanic to pin Ngannou against the cage, where he was able to drag the exhausted Cameroonian-Frenchman to the mat.
This mini-study on the Single Leg Takedown pertains to our breakdown of Francis Ngannou because it has the potential to be his kryptonite. He will likely be able to use his sheer mass to stop the majority of Double Leg Takedowns (if he is not exhausted), but the Single Leg has the intrinsic ability to provide his opponent with several advantages, such as forcing him onto one leg, sapping his balance and his marginal cardio. From there, Ngannou can easily be dumped on the mat or run into the fence. As we saw during the Miocic fight, Ngannou has no answer to these tactics.
So has Ngannou improved his wrestling since losing his title shot against Stipe Miocic? In short, we don’t know. He made numerous elementary errors against the at-the-time-champion, such as in this clip (seen above) where he allows Miocic to circle him into a mirror stance. Notice how Miocic walks to his right until Ngannou steps forward with his right foot. This creates the “mirror stance” scenario (both fighters have the same side forward foot) that makes the Single Leg effortlessly obtainable. This is an easily avoidable mistake that freshmen wrestlers are taught to avoid, yet Ngannou seemed oblivious to it.
This isn’t to say that Ngannou hasn’t improved his wrestling since the Miocic bout, just that we haven’t seen it. Barring the dreadful snooze-fest against Derrick Lewis, Ngannou’s knockouts of Curtis Blaydes and Cain Velasquez have both come in under a minute, providing little insight into his wrestling game. We did see slight glimpses of takedown defense against Blaydes, as Ngannou showed good down-blocking (getting his arms in front of the attacker’s shoulders) and circling to the middle of the cage (which prevents him from being run onto the fence) when he was shot on.
Hopefully, this one snippet is an indication that Francis Ngannou has spent his time in the gym developing coherent takedown defense, so we can be treated to more of the highlight reel KO’s that made the sports world simultaneously love and fear the name Francis Ngannou.
A Crucial Test
The ballad of Francis Ngannou has provided fans with some of the most exciting and boring fights they are likely to ever see. His knockout of Alistar Overeem will be remembered as one of the greatest finishes in the sport’s history, while his loss to Derrick Lewis will be regarded as one of the least-enjoyable fifteen minutes in mixed martial arts.
As some consider his knockout of Cain Velasquez an unfortunate fluke, Ngannou’s bout against Junior Dos Santos is going to be a major data point in “The Predator’s” career. Based on the outcome, we will be able to determine whether the excitement that Francis Ngannou once generated was warranted, or if we were all too eager to be led astray by the UFC’s marketing department.