Evolution of the Predator: Examining Francis Ngannou before UFC 270
Francis Ngannou belongs to a group long garnering the interest of fans over the history of combat sports. Athletes like Sonny Liston, Mike Tyson, Deontay Wilder come into their sport seemingly unbeatable due to an unfair natural physical ability and even more so power. None of Francis Ngannou’s first twelve opponents, with the exception of his one loss, were able to reach the final bell, and it was not only that he knocked out each of these opponents but it was how. The impact of a Francis Ngannou knockout is something rarely seen. In 2017 he even recorded the record for the world’s hardest punch at 129,161 units, a feat unmatched by a wealth of combat sports athletes and strongmen alike.
Yet, for all the talent in the world, Ngannou’s origins are rather humble. Growing up in his native Cameroon, Francis engaged in hard physical labor by age 10, working in a sand quarry to help feed his family and pay for school-appropriate clothes. Knowing his life was on track to endure this same poverty for years, a 26-year-old Ngannou trekked to Paris, France, to pursue boxing, spending two months in jail in Spain for illegal border crossing on his way. In France, with no money or prospects, Ngannou’s luck changed when he met Fernand Lopez of the MMA factory who convinced Ngannou to pursue MMA instead of Boxing. Lopez also allowed Ngannou to sleep and train in the gym for free, in order to start up his career.
Ngannou added the first four numbers to his professional record under an organization called 100% Fight where he would go 3-1 with two submissions and a knockout. It only took him two more wins, one being the finals of a KHK national tryout to land him a UFC contract. At just 5-1, Francis Ngannou made his UFC debut on FOX on December 19, 2015. His opponent Luis Henrique lasted two minutes and fifty-three seconds into the second round before succumbing to a hard left uppercut through the guard.
The following two years consisted of Ngannou running through opponents like a mac truck, including KOs over budding contender Curtis Blaydes and legendary veterans Andrei Arlovski and Alistair Overeem. The latter of those earned him a shot at then-champion Stipe Miocic, by far the most skilled opponent to date and in his championship prime. However to those watching, it was unlikely that even the champion could withstand the onslaught of the predator, and Miocic entered the fight as a +140 underdog. The unstoppable force would meet an object it was unable to move, however, and Miocic secured the victory by dragging Ngannou into deep water and depleting the power and explosiveness from the challenger.
Ngannou would have to wait to avenge his loss, Miocic lost to Daniel Cormier in the following title fight, Cormier defended his belt against Derrick Lewis, who had recently spoiled Ngannou’s return with a lackluster decision, and in the rematch, with Miocic the fight had played out competitive enough that the two men had to fight a third time to settle the score. In the summer of 2020, Daniel Cormier and Stipe Miocic finished their trilogy in a Miocic victory putting a stamp on their rivalry and finally reopening the rivalry with Ngannou who had been quietly picking of contenders for the last three years including wins knockouts of Curtis Blaydes, Junior Dos Santos, and Cain Valesquez. Finally, Ngannou had earned a second shot at Miocic and the belt, and he delivered above all expectations, but the way in which he did this far from the raw aggressive brawler showed an immense evolution of the Cameroonian as a fighter.
Ngannou’s Fighting Evolution
For the first portion of his career, Ngannou was able to lean on his power in essentially every fight. He was big, he was explosive and he knew that it took only one shot to secure the win. He also knew that his fighting prowess came from his initial love for boxing and with power in his hands, it was essentially all he needed. His game plan at this point was to come out hard and aggressive every time, he threw from odd and wide angles and his speed and physicality allowed him to dominate the center of the cage early on and use the fence to cut off his opponents retreat as he went in for the kill.
Against Miocic, this strategy finally faltered because suddenly a combination of head movement and pacing forced Ngannou to tread into deeper territory and exposed the dangers of being an over-aggressive and explosive fighter. Even though Ngannou was able to put Stipe against the cage, his affinity to throw full power allowed Miocic to anticipate his combinations, slip and roll his way off-side, and circle off the fence. By doing so, it allowed Micoc to cruise into the second and third rounds where the now exhausted Nganou was unable to defend Miocic’s wrestling initiations.
However, Ngannou has made leaps and bounds in his technical and tactical skill that have characterized the new fighter in his fights since. First and foremost, Ngannou’s temperament improved. He comes into his fights now much more patient than he once did, where he crashed forward he now sits in a more narrow stance, plodding his way in behind a calculated jab and feints. He also uses a heavy low kick off the rear leg to fill space, specifically, it’s the combination of this attack and the jab feints that allow Ngannou to secure a target more safely. Due to his power boxing threat, his opponents really have no choice but to put weight onto their front leg in order to work their head movement when he engages. This was Miocioc’s primary means to succeed in their first fight as well. However, when Ngannou senses this he now throws the leg kick onto the heavy lead. When his opponent looks to go light to avoid the kick or lean away, Ngannou can then double down on his power without as much fear of a reactionary counter or takedown.
His takedown defense is also one of the larger improvements made in the past few years, it’s evident that Nganou has put a lot of emphasis on working the correct sequence of defenses into muscle memory. Once upon a time, Ngannou’s defense consisted of stopping the final push through and battering his opponent as they tried to finish the shot, he now goes as quick as anyone into a frame and gets his hips away allowing him to find the underhook or counter uppercut.
While Ngannou’s tactical way of fighting has improved and he has added the additional kick to his arsenal, his usual combinations stay his favorite, however they land much easier now that he has improved his strategy and setup. Often Ngannou will look to counter the right straight of his opponents by giving space and coming over the punch with his own left hook, if they are able to move out of the way by going with the hook, Ngannou’s right uppercut is there to catch them on the exit. He also uses a wide left hook to force his opponents to evade back onto the fence and then he catches them with the right overhand, although he now does this with a triple jab high-low variation as well.
What’s next for Francis Ngannou?
Francis Ngannou is set to defend his belt for the first time against the interim champion Ciryl Gane at UFC 270 this Saturday night. The two, once training partners, will battle out some bad blood, as Ngannou exited Gane’s team and became head coach for Extreme Couture prior to the second Miocic fight. This exodus has left a bad taste in the mouth of Lopez, the man to once house Ngannou in his gym in France, but regardless it will be settled in the cage this weekend.