In the co-main event of UFC 218, Francis Ngannou looks to position his hulking, GI Joe-like physique in line for a title shot. The Cameroon-born French fighter’s appeal is obvious: he’s all muscle and has some of the best punching power in MMA. Ngannou’s raw athleticism gives him an incredibly high ceiling in the sport, especially in a division that places a premium on physical tools.
Against Alistair Overeem, Ngannou will face, by a wide margin, his most dangerous opponent to date, both in terms of athleticism and skills. How did Ngannou, who’s only been training in MMA about four years, get to this point? It’s more than just his appearance (though I’m sure the UFC promotional department doesn’t mind it). What skills is he developing, and what skills could he be overlooking? And beyond just being an athlete, what is the basis of Ngannou’s game?
DEVELOPMENT WE CAN AND CANNOT SEE
We often assume that a prospect is growing by leaps and bounds between fights simply because he’s winning, even though he may not be showing any actual growth. On the other hand, a prospect can develop and hone skills in the gym that he doesn’t have the opportunity to showcase in fights, leading us to believe he’s one dimensional or limited. Francis Ngannou falls somewhere in the middle of these two extremes.
Despite only 22 minutes of UFC cage time across five fights, Ngannou has shown significant growth in his grappling over the course of his UFC tenure. Ngannou entered the UFC as a relatively raw, athletic talent with no background in any particular discipline. Athletic fighters lacking a deep well of skill aren’t hard to find, and the gameplan to defeat them is almost always the same: take the fight to the ground. If we’ve learned one thing since UFC 1, it’s that the ground is the great equalizer, where technique trumps athleticism. So of course, Ngannou’s early UFC opponents looked to test his grappling.
In his UFC debut, Ngannou faced Luis Henrique — himself a fellow blue-chip prospect at the time. Henrique was able to ground and control Ngannou for much of the first round, and was able to tie up Ngannou in the clinch for much of the second before Ngannou scored the knockout. Simply put, Ngannou looked lost on the ground and in the clinch. He seemed unsure of how to escape poor positions, much less turn them to his advantage. His grappling approach against was wholly defensive; the referee, not Ngannou, forced the fighters to disengage from grappling situations.
In his next bout, Ngannou faced a much better wrestler (and yet another blue-chip prospect), Curtis Blaydes. In just four months, Ngannou not only added improved takedown defense, but a full arsenal of techniques to avoid and escape grappling exchanges altogether. From the first exchange he worked to stay off the fence, dig for an underhook, and avoid the cage like it were fire. The new tools allowed Ngannou keep the fight on his terms — in open space.
Just eight months and two fights after avoiding the takedown against Blaydes, Ngannou faced another talented wrestler — Anthony Hamilton. This time, Ngannou didn’t just show the ability to avoid the takedown and clinch, but rather the skills to grapple offensively, using the kimura grip to reverse a clinch position and finish the fight on the mat by submission.
Ngannou’s progression in the grappling department is plain to see; we can witness him using skills in later fights that he could have used in earlier ones. That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement in other areas, though. Blaydes, for example, was able to find some success against Ngannou with a simple, pumping jab for which Ngannou had no answer. Has he addressed that deficiency? We don’t know. His last opponent, Andrei Arlovksi, certainly had the hand-speed to test Ngannou in that department, but he instead chose to load up on a double overhand right. Ngannou promptly countered Arlovski’s telegraphed attack with a blistering uppercut knockout.
So while we can certainly say that Ngannou is developing at a rapid rate in terms of his grappling, we can’t be so sure the same can be said of his striking. Is he still a technically limited striker that relies exclusively on his power and length, or is he developing the defensive nuance lacking in his performance against Blaydes? We won’t know until we see that skill legitimately tested.
The centerpiece of Ngannou’s game isn’t his imposing physique and sensational athleticism (though that certainly helps), it’s his remarkable patience. Patience alone isn’t a particularly impressive trait, but given his prodigious fight-ending abilities — namely, punching power — we wouldn’t expect Ngannou to show much patience. We expect him to zealously hunt the finish, to believe in the it-only-takes-one mentality that could carry him against lower level competition. With his level of physicality and power, would we blame Ngannou if he chased the finish with a swarming, relentless, and maybe even reckless attack? Of course not. But Ngannou is in no rush; he trusts his power and he trusts the openings to use it to be there.
Without his patience, Ngannou may be nothing more than a Shane Carwin reincarnation — a cautionary tale of the massive power puncher that doesn’t know how to react when an opponent doesn’t crumble under his power. But up to this point in his short career, Ngannou has shown no signs of the pitfalls associated with extreme punching power. He doesn’t chase the finish; he lets it happen. Even though many would, Ngannou doesn’t fight like his opponents would wilt under his power. Instead, he fights with a remarkable amount of calculation, waiting to pull the trigger on his punches for the most opportune time. Ngannou’s finish of Andrei Arlovski, for example, spectacular as it was, was an exercise in patience. Knowing that the former champ is relatively one-handed striker, Ngannou simply waited for Arlovski throw his favorite overhand right and countered with a glancing left hook and booming right uppercut. Ngannou didn’t force the counter; he waited for it to be there.
Ngannou even showed patience in his quick dismantling of the hopelessly outmatched Bojan Mihajlovic. There, Ngannou could have swarmed the much smaller, less powerful man from the opening bell on his way to an easy finish. But that gameplan would expose Ngannou to undue risk — either that he gasses or that he gets caught in an exchange. Instead, Ngannou’s modus operandi against Mihajlovic was to patiently pressure the smaller man, gauge his distance, cut off the cage and attack only when his positioning warranted an attack.
Interestingly, Ngannou now faces a man that has only developed such patience much later in his career. Either through training or his natural inclination after the deterioration of his chin, Alistair Overeem has morphed from the “Ubereem” that swarmed his opponents with a devastatingly physical clinch game to the current, patient, cautious, low-output Overeem. The horsemeat-enhanced Overeem of years past had little need for patience. That was, of course, until he ran into a string of big, durable heavyweights that refused to wilt under his attack (Antonio Silva, Travis Browne and Ben Rothwell). Overeem’s losses in 2013 and 2014 show the limitations of relying strictly on powerful offense in a division consisting of some of the most durable men on the planet.
Patience is what sets Ngannou apart from the countless other great athletes in MMA, and patience has carried Overeem through his late-career resurgence. When the two meet at UFC 218, I expect the fight to largely be an exercise in patience. Each man knows the other’s dangerous abilities, and each man is willing wait for an opportunity to present itself. So don’t be surprised if the contest is largely a staring contest… punctuated by moments of terrifying violence, of course.