Nothing separates fight fans from their money quite as easily as the promise of a knockout. At UFC 220 fans witnessed perhaps the two most enigmatic and untested title challengers in the modern history of the company in Francis Ngannou and Volkan Oezdemir, and yet even among educated fans and media members there were men swearing up and down that one or both would pull the upset. The truth was that we didn't really know much about what Francis Ngannou and Volkan Oezdemir could do, and yet they were seen as bigger challenges than many of the proven men who got a shot at the belt before them.
When we examined Francis Ngannou’s chances against Stipe Miocic in our Tactical Guide last week we decided that it would be dishonest to focus on the minute details of the Arlovski and Overeem knockouts and project onto them boxing ability which Ngannou just had not shown. But in doing this we were forced to wrap up the preview frustratingly, with what seemed like half a page of questions about Ngannou’s ability to deal with feints and straight hitting, retain his form and movement over the rounds, and stop takedowns after the opening minutes—and the honest conclusion that while absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, there just isn’t a lot that we could say that Ngannou could do outside of lightning fast hitting in the opening round. Stipe Miocic took all of those questions straight to Ngannou and gave us convincing answers.
From the opening bell, Ngannou went on the lead and swung hard for Miocic. Leading with a left hook, which drifted out to his left side well in advance, Ngannou telegraphed his intentions and quickly found Miocic in on his hips. There has long been debate on "loading up" the left hook before throwing—some, like Bas Rutten, insist that you can do it too fast to be countered, but Ngannou’s Todd Duffee-esque load up well outside the line of his body clearly clued Miocic in on his intentions.
Miocic is a skilled boxer for an MMA fighter and especially for a heavyweight. He might seem meat-and-potatoes in that he rarely throws anything except straight punches but, as we examined in Stipe Miocic: King of the Heavyweights, Miocic has fought opponents of every skill, shape and style and always found a way to take away their best weapons and apply his own. He is a man who understands that the arc of each punch is just one part of boxing. Footwork, head movement, feints and anticipation: there are a plethora of things that separate the art of boxing from simply punching. So in the standing portions of the fight, Ngannou punched and Miocic boxed and most of the time Miocic came away better off and wasting less energy swinging hillbilly haymakers.
Miocic’s jab is one of the best you will see in MMA because his feints are so convincing and his jab is so effortless. Ngannou’s jab was a labored, full-body thrust and his feints were unconvincing paws of the lead hand. We stressed the importance of "convincing" feints in the Tactical Guide, and when Ngannou pawed with the jab, Miocic was not forced to do anything, instead waiting on the right hand that Ngannou was loading up behind his back.
When Ngannou began jabbing to hurt, Miocic could easily identify it—know that it wasn’t a feint or going to be staggered or followed by a second jab—and fire back with his counter right hand.
And when Miocic did land with good counters, Ngannou would be convinced that they were in a straight fist-fight and immediately forget about his feet and hips—allowing Miocic to change levels. Miocic stuck to single legs for the most part but when timed this well, with an opponent so on top of his own feet, a double leg can come with half the effort it would otherwise require.
Facing a mobile and conservative opponent, Ngannou’s footwork was thrust into the spotlight. We speculated on it beforehand, saying his maintenance of stance and balance had looked much improved against Arlovski and Overeem but that, again, those bouts were a minute long. As soon as he started breathing hard, Ngannou’s feet were under him as he leaned forward at the waist to swing right hands. It also became apparent that while Ngannou maintains his stance and hits well out of it when his opponent comes to him, he is not at all competent at covering ground with his strikes. Whenever Miocic retreated Ngannou would fall over himself throwing the overhand or run wildly, swinging straight-armed hooks.
This is where Ngannou’s remarkably short training time really showed up. When a fighter is exhausted, his discipline wanes and his form grows sloppy. It's the years of muscle memory, good conditioning, and hard-earned willpower which allow a fighter to maintain his form twenty minutes into a bout.
Ngannou’s power was still very much apparent as the couple of right uppercuts he landed during Miocic’s shots caused severe swelling around Miocic’s face, but it quickly became apparent that against an opponent who wasn’t throwing himself in chin first, and who made sure most of Ngannou’s force was landing on elbows, shoulders or air, that mythical 129,000 units was largely unimportant.
When the bout went to the mat, Ngannou was on his knees along the fence trying to stand up while Miocic held him down, delivering very little damage. While Miocic put on a great performance he irritated some fans by not looking for the finish particularly hard in the later rounds. While Ngannou was shown up don’t be sad for him just yet, he is only thirty-one—an infant in the heavyweight division—and with the UFC brass firmly behind him and so many in the heavyweight division who can’t deal with him even in this raw state, he is sure to continue to develop into a more versatile fighter.
Stand Out Performances
The two stand out performers of the event were Calvin Kattar and Rob Font, both of whom picked up brilliant knockouts amid crisp, technical showings.
In the bantamweight division Rob Font met Thomas Almeida. Almeida is a buzzsaw who takes two minutes to get up to speed, but after he gets punched in the face a few times Almeida’s offensive counter fighting and heavy kicking game have scored him many a knockout. Almeida is slick with the inside slip—taking his head off to the left and firing over his opponent’s jab with his right hand or even right elbow. Font was caught by a couple of counters in the first round but quickly adjusted, showing feints and moving his head after his legitimate jabs.
Keeping a track on Almeida’s head movement, Font caught Almeida leaning with his right hand early in the second round.
Then again a few minutes later, following up along the fence. As Almeida dipped deep to his left once again, Font used his missed right straight to push Almeida’s head in to the path of a right high kick.
It was one right out of the Peter Aerts playbook.
Meanwhile Calvin Kattar and Shane Burgos had a cracking clash of styles on the feet. Burgos was moving his head and looking to land hooks to the body—a classic short rhythm kind of fight. Kattar was working in a longer stance, bouncing in and out with straight blows—classical outfighting. Burgos showed a couple of nice "Larkin kicks," slamming the heel in on a step to the body. The end came suddenly as Kattar bounced in and landed his right hand as Burgos leaned back. The slick part came as Burgos immediately ducked in for his man’s hips—looking for a tie up as any experienced fighter will do when hurt—and Kattar bounced back and fired a retreating right uppercut. It was gorgeous and recalled the best uppercuts of Joe Louis.
While UFC 220 wasn’t the most exciting card in UFC history, and it wasn’t the Ngannou coronation that some seemed to be hoping for, it did serve as a reminder that whenever the promotion of a fight focuses entirely on one fighter’s power it is often because they haven’t shown much else.