UFC 220: Heavyweight Francis Ngannou's shot at stardom has arrived

Combat columnist
Yahoo Sports

There have always – always – been guys like Francis Ngannou throughout combat sports history. Mixed martial arts and boxing have thrived as a result of big, intimidating knockout artists.

But Ngannou may be a different case altogether.

He’s got the size thing down: He’s 6 feet 5, and around 260-some pounds of tightly packed muscle. He’s got the intimidating knockout-artist part down, too. Just witness his decimation of Alistair Overeem at UFC 218 last month in Detroit.

He’ll fight for the heavyweight title Saturday, challenging Stipe Miocic, one of the most complete big men in the sport’s history, in the main event of UFC 220 at TD Garden in Boston.

Power is a wonderful asset for a fighter because no matter how a fight is going, one punch could change everything.

The match is a dream for a promoter who wants to sell tickets and pay-per-views. The winner is going to be massive, not just literally but figuratively as well.

If Ngannou does to Miocic, ranked seventh in the UFC’s pound-for-pound ratings, what he’s done to Overeem and Andrei Arlovski, the most prominent scalps on his belt, he’ll become an absurdly in-demand man.

It’s rare a guy with Ngannou’s height, and his reach, his ability to move effortlessly around the cage and his concussive power to come along. Beat a guy like Miocic, arguably the best athlete in the UFC, and Ngannou will be poised to hit the pedestal that only a precious few have climbed.

Francis Ngannou, left, flattens Alistair Overeem in December. (Getty)
Francis Ngannou, left, flattens Alistair Overeem in December. (Getty)

You may have heard of them: Chuck Liddell, Georges St-Pierre, Ronda Rousey and Conor McGregor. Great fighters, all, but massive pay-per-view draws, as well.

If Miocic can slay the fast-growing monster that Ngannou has become, much of the same will be conferred upon him.

Miocic has the wrestling background – he was a star in college at Cleveland State, ranked as high as No. 17 before bypassing his final two years – to neutralize Ngannou’s power.

The key for Ngannou, what he must do to prove he is not just another one-dimensional, power-punching big guy, is show he can compete on the ground. His power is worthless if Miocic can take him down and hold him there.

And that’s where Ngannou says he’s not just another big guy. The goal, he insists, is to be exactly what Miocic is praised for: A complete fighter comfortable wherever the match goes, albeit one who might be the hardest puncher in the history of the UFC.

“He’s well rounded, but I’m confident because from the beginning, I’ve thought about my wrestling and my conditioning,” Ngannou said. “I’ve been training with the best wrestlers and [working on] my conditioning and keep improving. And today, I know that I have improved in all those aspects. So, I’m also well-rounded and a complete MMA fighter. I’m not just focused about the knockout power.

“For this fight, I’ve tried to become the complete MMA fighter. That’s why I’m going to be the champ. You’re not going to beat someone like Stipe, who is a good wrestler, just because you have knockout power. No, we see a lot of people that have fought maybe Stipe, or some guy who had the knockout power, but lost the fight because knockout power is not enough to win the fight.”

It’s promising for him that he gets that. And it’s hard to doubt him, because he’s become almost a permanent fixture at the UFC Performance Institute in Las Vegas, where he lives.

“It’s like, the first person I’ll see in the morning when I get there is Francis and he’s also the last person I’ll see when I’m leaving at night,” UFC president Dana White said.

Ngannou’s checked all the boxes to this point, but there is one disturbing reality he faces. There are scarcely more legitimate contenders at heavyweight than there are at women’s featherweight, a division in which the champion is the only fighter to campaign full-time at the weight.

He’s never faced anyone remotely as gifted as Miocic. Miocic can look eye-to-eye with Ngannou without getting on tip-toes. He’s proven his punching power – remember, he won the belt by hitting Fabricio Werdum with a KO shot while backing away – and his athleticism is unquestioned.

He’s quick. He’s agile. He’s smart. And he has that wrestling ability that often turns the tide of a fight.

If Ngannou beats that guy, he deserves all the accolades he gets.

Knock out Miocic and Ngannou will be one of the rare heavily hyped fighters who actually lives up to the hype.

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