Considering his current trajectory, Ngannou’s near-irrelevancy just two fights ago seems absurd; while his astonishingly tepid performance against Derrick Lewis seemed to turn “The Predator” into an also-ran, giving up on a monstrous puncher at a division like heavyweight was (in retrospect) questionable.
Closing as an underdog in his last two fights (one against an opponent he had already beaten), Ngannou had something to prove, and he proved it; Curtis Blaydes was overwhelmed in under a minute, and the legendary Cain Velasquez was floored in less than thirty seconds. Now on the brink of a title shot again, Ngannou faces another staple of 265, and the winner is in position to face the champion at the end of UFC 241.
Ngannou’s opponent in Minneapolis, Junior dos Santos, has also undergone a relatively recent career revival. While a 35-year old with a 13-year career thriving at heavyweight isn’t exactly rare, the trilogy with Cain Velasquez seemed to take a lot out of the Brazilian; after a historic streak through heavyweight to win the belt, the losses to Velasquez started a period where JDS couldn’t win more than one in a row from 2012 to 2018.
Dos Santos entered each of his last three fights as a favorite, but given what seemed to be a decline, it was pleasantly surprising to see him win all three; dos Santos finds himself one fight away from a title crack, and an emphatic win over Ngannou would prove that the veteran still has credible title hopes.
Since entering the heavyweight elite picture in 2017 with a thunderous finish of Alistair Overeem, public opinion of Francis Ngannou has varied wildly; while his skillset has remained mostly the same, Ngannou went from being a favorite against the best heavyweight ever to an underdog against a man he’d already beaten.
Ngannou sustained a catastrophic loss at the hands of Stipe Miocic at UFC 220, and the impact of being genuinely outclassed seemed to carry over to his next bout against Derrick Lewis; as his next fight rolled around, the former future of the division was fighting for relevance as the promotion seemed to want to cash out on their promotional investment in him.
Smoking Curtis Blaydes and Cain Velasquez in under a minute each told the story of a different fighter than the one who stood inertly in front of Lewis for 15 minutes; Ngannou has proven to be back as a top contender, and while he doesn’t have the aura he used to, he seems more poised to become the champion than ever before.
Ngannou is at his best as a counterpuncher who forces swings out of his opponents that he can punish. While he isn’t a particularly polished one, he’s definitely capable in that role; Ngannou is a gigantic heavyweight who can pressure decently, and that means that his opponent is often forced into firing just to back him off. Ngannou’s counters are fairly bizarre, but his handspeed and his absurd power make shovel-hooking a consistently viable tool (against Arlovski and Overeem), and when Blaydes put a jab in his face, Ngannou was able to land counters over the top fairly consistently.
Ngannou’s ability to put power into counters in the shortest spaces and with minimal loading (for example, an insanely short uppercut as Velasquez closed into the clinch) is a fairly new development; while his pre-Miocic showings saw his finishes come from comically-loaded uppercuts and shovel-hooks, Ngannou has found the ability to land shorter and subtler counters despite his boxing still not being particularly well-schooled.
Ngannou’s competition has largely been unable to take advantage of the lack of refinement in his game, mostly because heavyweights generally don’t come with great striking defense; Ngannou’s power and unorthodoxy have proven enough to put most heavyweights away quickly, even if they had offensive ideas in mind. That said, Ngannou has shown his share of flaws; while still dangerous, Ngannou is extremely wild on the lead, his wide swings leave him open to being countered (especially since he doesn’t have many tools to draw counters or modify the rhythm of his combinations, throwing everything with full power), and while he’s powerful in the clinch, Miocic was able to take him down reactively and control him with relative ease.
It’s worth remembering that Ngannou’s only been fighting for about six years, and yet his rare attributes have already carried him to the top of his division; despite his fairly raw skillset, Ngannou is still one to watch in the coming years.
Junior dos Santos has been one of the heavyweights upon which the entire division has been built; among the low-skill slogs that have characterized the weight class since its inception, “Cigano” was one of the best examples of a heavyweight could be truly technically skilled. Dos Santos was able to build a nine-fight win streak in the division, knocking out seven of them, winning and defending the heavyweight belt in the process, and he looked a level above everyone he faced all the way until he ran into the rematch against Cain Velasquez.
Even after a few bad losses, dos Santos is an all-time great heavyweight, and while his wars against Velasquez and Miocic should have shortened his prime, they don’t seem to have done that; 13 years into his pro career, dos Santos is on a three-fight win streak, and one more win could give him a chance to get the title again.
Dos Santos is one of the stronger boxers in the division, and excluding Stipe Miocic, probably the most process-driven; while his mechanics alone give him a great chance against the worse-schooled strikers in the division (such as Derrick Lewis in his last one), he also has a few crafty setups for his favorite shots that put him in good position as a fight goes on. The most useful one is the body jab, using the level change to set up bigger shots to the head. That was a big part of his win over Cain Velasquez; not only did he jab to the body to set up a right hand twenty seconds in, he also threw his right hand to the body to keep Velasquez keyed on attrition as he whipped the overhand over the top.
Dos Santos can play the jab off the left hook, use the straight to the body as an entry for the left hook (which was how he knocked out Gilbert Yvel), or use that left hook as a throwaway to land the uppercut up the center (as he did to wipe out Fabricio Werdum). Dos Santos is at his best when fights are most thoughtful, and while he isn’t inept on the counter, he’s more effective when drawing reactions from his opponents than when he’s reacting to them.
Where dos Santos struggles the most is when he isn’t given the space to be thoughtful, because he’s not at all good at creating that space; while dos Santos is an extremely effective boxer in the open, he doesn’t have the means to keep from hitting the fence if he’s pushed back (he doesn’t have much of a pivot, and he barely even tries to move offline until he’s perilously close to the boundary). This leads to big issues for a fighter who relies so much on his mechanical soundness; pushing dos Santos back to the fence means that his stance will be shortened or completely squared, and this leaves his boxing unusable.
In general, committing to moving forward gives dos Santos serious trouble, even if his opponent isn’t technically near his level otherwise; even an opponent as unrefined as Tai Tuivasa was able to land shots on dos Santos as he was squared up against the cage, to say nothing of a truly elite pressure-boxer in Stipe Miocic devastating him in their rematch with the same concept.
Conclusions and Capping
A great deal has been made of Ngannou growing more patient since his loss to Miocic (in which exhaustion was a definite factor), but any sort of improvement in that sense would likely hurt him against dos Santos. Miocic showed that Ngannou can be stymied by a good jab to draw out and punish his counters, but Miocic also had to show excellent defensive boxing and ring awareness to keep from being hurt early, and those are things that dos Santos has never shown (particularly ring awareness, which is historically a big liability for dos Santos).
For Ngannou, the key is fairly simple and something that he’s done throughout his career; if he can commit to pushing dos Santos back, dos Santos doesn’t have the tools to re-establish space, and he hasn’t historically shown the pocket defense not to get cracked at some point (especially if he’s squared up) regardless of Ngannou’s wildness on the lead.
It would take baffling strategic failure on the part of Ngannou for dos Santos to be able to get into his sort of fight, and that isn’t particularly likely.
Prediction: Ngannou via KO1. This writer caps Ngannou at -200.