Francis Ngannou has gone from an unstoppable force, to an overrated hype job, to a gun-shy flop, and back to an unstoppable force in the space of three fights. Those who stayed up into the early hours of Saturday morning were treated to a vintage Ngannou performance in Beijing, as he starched Curtis Blaydes in under a minute. The truth is that every one of those descriptions of Francis Ngannou has some truth. When Stipe Miocic fought Ngannou it became abundantly clear that there are holes in Ngannou’s game that just cannot be hidden from a rounded opponent of Miocic’s level. When Ngannou fought Derrick Lewis and refused to pull the trigger for fifteen minutes, it was obvious that something in him had been shaken up. But Curtis Blaydes isn’t Derrick Lewis: he’s a better fighter in some regards but there is zero need for anyone to be scared of his hands. And Blaydes is most certainly not Miocic.
Miocic jabbed, feinted, low kicked, and made Francis Ngannou swing at air. He drew Ngannou out through minutes and didn’t try to jump on him in the opening seconds. Miocic uncorked his booming right hand and ducked in on Ngannou’s hips between these attempts. If you saw the Ngannou—Miocic fight and thought "wrestling is the answer," you missed all of the stuff happening in between the takedowns. That is the stuff that Curtis Blaydes just doesn’t have. In a world where everyone wants to ascertain what is the "most important skill" in MMA (and the answer is almost always wrestling), it is important to remember that at the absolute highest levels, even with the best wrestling in the game, you are going to be stumped if you can’t comfortably throw hands for at least a minute or two.
For his part, Ngannou looked sharp. He bounced, light on his feet, and flicked out the jab to draw Blaydes in. As Blaydes followed in off the jab, Ngannou looked to check hook and when Blaydes attempted his first takedown, Ngannou’s underhook was already there. An Ngannou right hand just whiffed Blaydes on the break and Curtis was out at striking range again.
The first Ngannou—Blaydes meeting demonstrated nicely the trouble Ngannou had with jabs. Ngannou was considerably more plodding then, but he got hit with almost every jab Blaydes threw. For Blaydes's part, the jabs were good but he stood completely still after every one and ate right hands over and over. The jab and the right hand over the top were the story of that fight as Ngannou was able to stuff or stand from every takedown attempt.
On Saturday, the first jab Blaydes threw was met with the right hand across the top just the same, and that was his night over and done with.
Francis Ngannou is still an exciting prospect. His boxing has always been more "banging" than boxing, but the improvement in him since he arrived in the UFC has been remarkable. In May, Ngannou moved to Syndicate MMA in Las Vegas, and the training footage coming out of there has been encouraging as they seem to be drilling into him the need to hit while on the retreat and to stay mobile. Ngannou already has the hard part sorted: he is difficult to take down, so learning to conserve his energy without going into full on passivity is the next order of business.
Curtis Blaydes may be in a similar situation to Bellator’s light heavyweight champion, Ryan Bader. Bader is a fighter who is pretty competent on the feet, and amazing on the ground, but as soon as he is matched against someone who he feels is better than him on the feet, he freezes up and goes into wrestling-only mode. Against Anthony Johnson—one of MMA’s most thunderous hitters—Bader abandoned all of his kickboxing chops and immediately chased the slowest, most telegraphed single leg attempt he had ever made. Another victim of his own mind is Alistair Overeem: who can come out looking like the perfect fighter against Mark Hunt but then looks timid and tries to throw punches while sprinting in the opposite direction against Ben Rothwell and Francis Ngannou. In many regards it would be better to see a wrestler with sloppy hands but the comfort to throw against the best—like Khabib Nurmagomedov—than to see a fighter accumulate a great striking skill set which immediately locks down when he is a little concerned about his opponent.
Overeem actually co-headlined this Beijing card in an obvious tune up fight. Just as Junior dos Santos was thrown the softball of Blagoy Ivanov earlier this year, Overeem met the largely unproven Sergey Pavlovich and did everything that was expected of him. There was an awkward amount of simply covering up, as opposed to the more mobile, evasive style Overeem has been using over recent years. If Pavlovich had thrown effectively in combination on these occasions he might have caused The Reem some serious trouble. But on the whole Overeem looked sharp with knees to the body from the clinch and used his strikes to enter on double collar ties. Things hit the skids for Pavlovich as Overeem struck into a double collar tie, Pavlovich raised a knee to shield his body from further knees, and Overeem tripped him to the canvas.
Overeem hit an easy throw-by pass on Pavlovich, who appeared to have no real guard, and began dropping elbows and hammerfists for the TKO.
A final noteworthy moment from Beijing came from Li Jingliang. Li put in a typical slow-burning performance, and began to dial up the pressure through the rounds but surprised everyone when he hit his man with a sidekick to the gut for a body shot knockout.
Chuck vs Tito III
Fight fans have always had a toxic obsession with nostalgia but it reached its low point on Saturday night when Chuck Liddell, aged 48, was knocked out by the 43 year old Tito Ortiz. This marked Oscar De La Hoya’s first attempt at promoting in MMA but was the logical conclusion to the work Bellator and others have been doing to keep dragging out names from 2008, long past their sell by date.
It is pretty easy to understand why this kind of appeal to nostalgia works though. When tennis legend Roger Federer finally goes home to the mountain of watches and chocolate that he has accrued over his professional career, there will be some sadness but the world has had plenty of time to enjoy him. Federer has appeared in over 150 tournament finals, and has played thousands of professional matches. Until Saturday night, Chuck Liddell—one of the most famous fighters to ever compete in mixed martial arts—had fought only twenty-nine times as a professional despite competing well into his forties.
Fighting might be considered a "combat sport," but in most sports the wear and tear is a side effect of trying to stay at peak performance. The point of fighting is to hurt. Even the very best fighters get hit and every time they step into the cage or the ring they leave something of themselves on the mat. What is especially sad about Chuck’s case is that even eight years ago, when Dana White begged him to retire, most of him was already gone.
Liddell was a marvel to behold in his prime and the modern UFC has much to thank him for. He was the champ that MMA needed—for two and a half years Chuck took fight after fight on UFC pay-per-views and no one could go the distance with him. He was never picture perfect in technique but he still had some savvy. Simple gliding side steps allowed him to draw opponents onto his enormous power even if they thought they had him on the run. Men as gifted as Randy Couture could fight a perfect fight, but an errant punch could send them spiraling to the mat. Chuck had that numbing power that could only be understood through the “Oh shit” look on the face of the men who had just experienced it for the first time.
Hideous from a boxing perspective, but this also demonstrates just how well angling out worked when no one else was doing it in MMA.
The wheels came off the wagon when Chuck’s chin cracked. He fought with his hands low, but had neither the swift feet, nor the head movement needed to evade blows. When he was young, and terrifying, Liddell could absorb the hardest shots from the hardest men and immediately disregard them. As his reflexes slowed and his body aged, the blows began to cause reactions that made no sense to the viewer. Short hits began putting Chuck down, and it was never a slight loss of balance, Chuck had an off switch. Over his final three fights in the UFC, sickening knockout losses became a Liddell trademark.
From the moment that Chuck Vs. Tito III was announced, everyone knew what they were getting into. Ortiz is washed up too but he has at least stayed in great shape, has competed fairly regularly, and he could always take a shot. Liddell just looked old. Oscar De La Hoya should probably have done a better job of hiding Chuck’s near inability to walk at press events. Some fans clung to the old fighting adage that "power is the last thing to go," but when footage of Chuck hitting the pads emerged it was hard to keep the lie going.
No matter what he knew about generating power, Liddell’s body was clearly crocked: he couldn’t turn into his shots and his arm punches on the mitts left Ortiz and the Liddell-apologists scrambling to claim that Liddell was clearly hiding his best stuff to surprise Ortiz. Frank Mir desperately insisted on commentary for the event that Chuck was just one of those guys who never looked good on the pads. Rashad Evans went even further, insisting at various points in the night that the two men were in better shape now than when he had beaten them a decade earlier. Evans summed it all up when he said "this is actually a better fight than if it happened..." and simply trailed off on air.
As the fight began, the two men circled each other tentatively. Ortiz seemed to be questioning whether Liddell was trying to fool him. Meanwhile Liddell was busy trying to fool himself. When Chuck finally threw, he hit Ortiz square in his bulbous head and it did nothing. The question had been answered definitively: if power was the last thing to go there was nothing of Chuck left. Ortiz still managed to make a slog out of it, and both men fell over themselves throwing punches at various points in the round.
When Ortiz finally cracked Liddell clean, Liddell froze up. Another punch landed and Liddell’s eyes widened with a familiar look of "Oh dear." His legs collapsed underneath him and The Iceman found his familiar, heartbreaking position: face down and unresponsive. You can find the fight online, but if you ever enjoyed the work of Chuck or Tito, you’re probably better off just skipping it. The fact that it was even licensed is pretty goddamn disgusting.