The UFC seems to believe they have found their Mike Tyson and they would love it if you did too. Ahead of UFC 218, the company is insisting that rags-to-rankings heavyweight, Francis Ngannou recorded the hardest punch they had ever measured. It was on their own apparatus, using their own metric. Ngannou’s blows clocked in at a whopping 129,000 units. Units of what? No one knows. But the number is big, so you should watch him fight.
In his last fight, Ngannou was matched against old Andrei Arlovski and this weekend he meets Alistair Overeem. Between them Arlovski and Overeem hold a remarkable—and damning—twenty knockout losses. That should tell you exactly how much the brass want Ngannou to be seen as the UFC heavyweight division’s Destroyer. But for his part, Ngannou has always held up his end of the bargain. He dispatched Arlovski with the first meaningful strike he threw.
The UFC might well be putting the cart before the horse but since the moment that Ngannou arrived in the promotion, fans and pundits have been commenting on his potential. The fact that he had only been training for three years when he arrived was remarkable, and his improvement during his UFC tenure has been easy to see. In his first few fights in the UFC, Ngannou didn’t even have the rudiments of footwork down—his stance would fluctuate and he would abandon it altogether each time he wanted to move.
There is little advantage to this sort of movement. You will see top Nak Muay shorten their stance to raise the lead foot and come in behind it, but that is a means of moving in cautiously when kicks are a constant threat. In MMA, bringing your feet together simply takes you out of position to hit, evade, counter, or take a solid blow and remain on both feet. It doesn’t much help your wrestling having both your supports immediately below you either.
When the opponent stepped in on him, Ngannou would lean back and swing his hands, while completely undefended. And when he wanted to throw a kick he’d walk a bit, pause obviously for a second or so, then throw the kick and get his leg caught almost every time.
There was a lot missing but Ngannou clearly did have power and hand speed. Find a genuine 250 pound, six-footer and—spare the rare exception like Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira— they should be able to generate power pretty easily. Quick hands are scarcer than rooster teeth among the big lads though. At heavyweight even the partial punches can carry knockout power so a fighter who can rattle off four or five punches with some rhythm has five shots at stunning his man.
Flash forward to Ngannou’s last two fights, however, and his feet are looking a lot smoother and more disciplined. Against Arlovski he was bouncing out of range and shuffling in on his man—never standing upright with his feet together and always being in position to hit. When Arlovski stepped in, Ngannou was in position to counter—even if he dropped his guard completely to do so.
There is no doubt that Ngannou is improving fast, but the UFC is working him towards the title shot even more rapidly. There are still glaring shortcomings in the game of Ngannou, the question is just how much can he cover them up before another top heavyweight exploits them.
The Demolition Man
Alistair Overeem might be chinny, but he’s no joke. As a technician he is one of the best rounded heavyweights in the history of the sport and he has more than enough tools to test Ngannou. In recent years, Overeem has drifted towards an outfighting strategy where he will jog around the cage, stopping to throw in a good body kick or punch when he thinks his opponent is getting careless. It is a style which has drawn some ire and fans now playfully refer to Alistair as "Econoreem," but in this manner he was able to confuse and knock out Junior dos Santos—a man who was reckoned to have every advantage against Overeem in exchanges.
Overeem has always been one of those fighters who has all the skills in each area, and seemingly none of the understanding of how to best apply them against his opponents. Sometimes he will crowd fighters and shut them out completely, or dance around fighters and peck at them with longer weapons as they swing short. But other times he will look uncomfortable on the outside and sprint in punching with his head down, before turning and running away in a flap as he worries about his opponent’s hitting power. The Ben Rothwell fight saw Overeem's second guessing of himself at its absolute worst.
If you were building the ideal gameplan for Overeem in this fight it could be summed up in one phrase: all the way in, or all the way out. In the clinch, Overeem’s knee strikes are a unique weapon at heavyweight and can rapidly sap a man of his wind. His trips from the clinch are also a neat way of getting the fight to the mat while negating a strong sprawl. On the outside his kicking game is far superior to Ngannou’s and while Ngannou has an eighty-three inch reach he rarely shows much mastery of it. Punch and clutch is a method that Overeem has discovered in recent years, and it is a great way of both getting off a power punch and avoiding the return.
Finally, Overeem’s appreciation of body work could help him greatly in this bout. Nothing changes a fighter’s mind about fighting on quite like a few good digs to the midsection. Especially at heavyweight, a division in which mental fragility is commonplace and many fighters will emotionally check out when momentum turns against them.
If Alistair Overeem comes in awkwardly swinging with his head down and then attempting to run away in the aftermath, as he did against Rothwell and Sergei Kharitanov, there will be a lot of room for Ngannou’s usual counter right uppercut. If Overeem is showing a little more cunning, as he has in recent fights, Ngannou would do best not to simply follow Overeem, but to go with him to the fence. Ngannou showed one beautiful example of what cutting the cage can do in his fight against Bojan Mihajlovic.
There are plenty of important questions left to answer about Ngannou. For instance, what will he do when he meets a fighter with a decent jab? Curtis Blaydes lanced him up pretty good with a jab, but rarely feinted or played with timing, and never got out of the way after throwing—both things that put the champion, Stipe Miocic so far ahead of the pack.
Then there is the fact that Ngannou’s ground game seems to consist exclusively of holding closed guard and putting in grapevines with his legs until the referee breaks the action and restarts the men on their feet. Overeem has shown himself happy to hold opponents on their backs if they don’t have much to offer from the bottom, but again—ground and pound from the closed and half guard are something of a Miocic calling card.
If you are still holding off on being excited by Ngannou, you can relax. He has already arrived at the big show and the talent is so thin on the ground at heavyweight that he’s already comfortably inside the top ten. Whether he will grow into the world beater that so many want him to be remains to be seen, but a win over Alistair Overeem would be a decent feather in his cap and with Overeem’s position in the rankings there’s not many more shaky chins they can use to sell Ngannou without the fans asking questions.