Francis Ngannou was poised to take the world by storm. UFC president Dana White was smitten with “The Predator.” He openly gushed to the media and claimed the Cameroonian would be a star not only in Africa but “globally” after UFC 218 back in 2017. And who could blame him after what had gone down earlier that night?
Ngannou was coming fresh off of one of the most vicious knockout victories ever seen. He had launched an uppercut from the depths of Hades that landed dead on Alistair Overeem’s chin, separating him from consciousness. Even the most seasoned fans of combat sports were left aghast at the spectacle.
The win at UFC 218 marked his sixth with the promotion and the sixth one to come via stoppage. At the same press conference, Dana White exclaimed that he’d be next for then-champion Stipe Miocic.
White couldn’t wait to build on the hype Ngannou had garnered and rushed his budding new star into the title shot eight weeks later at UFC 220. Those eight weeks were filled with a social media blitz from the promotion. We saw Ngannou everywhere. It was clear the UFC was looking towards the future in Ngannou, and past Miocic.
Come fight night, Miocic showed that he wasn’t there to put anyone over. The champion took control of the fight in the first round. Ngannou would land some of those devastating shots but Miocic didn’t fall. He instead mixed up his striking with his underrated Division 1 wrestling and took Ngannou to task for 25 minutes.
After failing to catch the title, the buzz around Ngannou subsided a bit. He had been thoroughly dismantled by the champion. Some said Ngannou was too green for a veteran like Miocic. Others claimed he was a failed project on the UFC’s part and we’d likely never see him in contention again.
The loss was definitely a rough one, but Ngannou, still relatively young for a heavyweight, had time to bounce back. UFC brass would give him the perfect opportunity to do so when they booked him against fellow slugger, Derrick Lewis.
Lewis was a destroyer-of-men. He had earned 16 of his 19 victories via KO/TKO. Pitting him against Ngannou all but guaranteed an exciting affair for as long as it would last. The fans were salivating at the prospect heading into UFC 226 last year.
This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper
Lewis and Ngannou would fight to a decision. Not just a decision, but they’d have the second lowest strike output in the history of a UFC three-round fight with only 31 strikes landed between the two. The meeting was panned by fans and media alike. One of the most anticipated fights of the year had so incredibly little action, that those in attendance spent the entirety of the 15 minutes booing. Lewis blamed his poor performance on a lingering back injury. Ngannou had no excuse.
The armchair spectators claimed that Miocic had broken him mentally. That he’d never be the terror who once left bodies strewn across the Octagon. Dana White claimed Ngannou’s out of control ego had gotten the best of him. That his meteoric rise (perpetuated by White) had been his downfall. The hype train had run out of steam.
After two uninspired performances, Ngannou would take a final fight in 2018. A rematch against Curtis Blaydes, a man he had beaten two years before, would headline UFC Fight Night 141 in China. The event would begin at 3:00 am in the United States and be featured only on the UFC’s paid streaming service. Dana White has never been good at hiding his contempt.
Blaydes opened as the favorite over the former title challenger. He was on a five-fight win streak and ready to step into title consideration. He just had to get past Ngannou. It was no secret that he planned to use his collegiate wrestling—hopefully to the effect that Miocic had—in the bout. But as the old adage goes, “all fights start on the feet.”
Ngannou knocked his 260-pound opponent through the air with the first right hand that he landed. Blaydes landed face down and quickly tried to jump back up but he was in a swarm. Ngannou kept landing until the referee stopped the fight 45 seconds into the first round.
The performance was exactly what Ngannou needed to prove to himself and those watching around the world that he was still elite. He had smoked a young potential contender in under a minute. But how would he fair against a grizzled veteran that many considered the best heavyweight the UFC had ever known?
We’d find out in just 26 seconds.
You see, that’s all Francis Ngannou needed to leave Cain Valesquez laying on the ground, face covered, eating shots until the referee saved him. This was the scene last Sunday at UFC Phoenix. Sure, Velasquez was coming off of a long layoff. And sure, his knee buckled badly as he dropped like a Jenga tower. But it was the short uppercut of Ngannou that had sent him tumbling down. It was the pressure and aggression from the opening bell that Ngannnou had once again displayed. It was the raw power, the speed, the ferocity that had captivated fans and left Dana White smitten a year and some months ago.
Ngannou—for now, at least—has gotten over the hill he was stuck on just seven months ago. Fans still remember those performances but are likely to be a bit more forgiving going forward. What the future holds for Ngannou is impossible to know. He’s likely next in line or a win away from another title shot. UFC heavyweight champion, Daniel Cormier, is a good friend and training partner of Velasquez. The redemption angle would sell nicely. Maybe the UFC will match him against the winner of Junior dos Santos and Derek Lewis, who meet in a few weeks.
Ngannou went from being on the cusp of greatness to toiling in the depths. Now, he’s clawing his way back one big right hand at a time. This is just the story of the last 14 months. For the 32-year-old with only five years of training under his belt, it’s very possible we have yet to see how high he can ascend.