Pre-Fight Thoughts: Stipe Miocic -vs- Francis Ngannou
Much like the co-main event of UFC 220, this bout sees a champion facing an opponent who violently carved a path through the rankings to challenge for their respective division's belt with very minimal UFC experience. In this case, heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic looks to break the record for consecutive defences of the heavyweight title, while Francis Ngannou looks to prove he is the next big thing in MMA — literally and figuratively. Both fighters bring very interesting personal stories into this bout, with Miocic — who fights fires when he's not in a cage, smashing people — and Ngannou having used MMA as a way to escape a life of poverty and homelessness after fleeing the sand mines of Cameroon. There isn't really a villain here, just one you prefer over the other.
Heavyweight fights are always difficult to predict, as the division is prone to much higher variance than any other. Francis Ngannou is the best example of the kind of raw, destructive power possessed by heavyweight fighters, although he exists on the upper-end of the spectrum. It's not an exaggeration to say that anyone in the heavyweight division has one-punch KO power, but Francis Ngannou has otherwordly power in his strikes, most recently uppercutting Alistair Overeem off of his feet and crumpling him into a stiff, motionless heap for several minutes. Stipe Miocic has a solid record of KOs to his credit, but none as violent and horrifying as the sorts of finishes Ngannou has produced — the challenger has cartoonish power that has to be seen to be believed.
Much like the co-main event, the challenger seems to pose a terrifying challenge to the defending champions in both bouts. Both challengers also have fairly minimal UFC experience, which does count for a lot in the sport of MMA. By virtue of winning such brief, one-sided fights, it is difficult to assess fighters like Volkan Oezdemir or, even more so, Francis Ngannou. It is certainly possible that Ngannou just walks to the centre of the cage and flattens Miocic within a minute, but what if the champ secures a takedown? What if the fight goes into the later rounds and features a lot of grinding, draining clinch work? Without seeing Ngannou do anything but hit people really hard and make them fall down, I am left to assume that because he seems to have excellent all-around athleticism, that surely he has defensive wrestling and clinch skills.
Stipe Miocic is a very understated champion, a true working class warrior — he shows up, does his job, and goes home. While his personality doesn't lend itself to super stardom, so far it hasn't held Miocic back either. The promotional material for this fight seems to heavily favour Ngannou, and the UFC does seem to be looking to strap a rock to the young contender's back. It's hard not to see why; heavyweight has been a waning division for years and Ngannou is an exciting new prospect. The expectation with heavyweights is that fights are going to feature behemoths who produce tremendously violent fights. Both men have lived up to said expectations, and there seems only a small chance this fight goes all 25 minutes.
Everything hinges on what Francis Ngannou's full skillset entails; if the challenger is just a big guy with unfair physical proportions and hard punches, that's much less of a problem than if he really is a 6'4" prodigy just entering his physical prime. While I do lean towards Stipe Miocic retaining his title, there is a underlying feeling that Francis Ngannou might be the real deal — that we are about to see a new superstar staking a violent claim to the heavyweight belt. Miocic needs to bring his absolute best to this fight, and assume that Ngannou is as good as the hype claims. Miocic is far from being a small heavyweight, but Ngannou has a clear size advantage; this looks to be a battle of veteran savy versus terrifying raw power and ability; the first mistake is likely to lead to a quick, brutal end.
I expect this fight to take a little while to get going, as neither are going to charge out and leave themselves open to being countered. Ngannou will likely pace himself, looking to measure and land one big power shot. I expect Miocic to maintain good defensive boxing, and use footwork to get in close, clinch and work for takedowns. Miocic would be wise to just avoid giving Ngannou any opportunity to strike and land his devastating punches. I wouldn't discount the champ's boxing either, no matter how tempting it is when contrasted with the highlight reel of knockouts Ngannou has amassed. This fight is a test for both men, and I don't see any clear favourite here; I have to stick with the champ, given his history of reliable performances, well-rounded skillset and greater MMA experience.
Regardless, Francis Ngannou is a phenom and win, lose, or draw, I think he is destined for greatness — whether he wins the heavyweight title is a matter of 'when' not 'if.' This is a very good main event; we will either see Stipe Miocic put his name in the record books with the most heavyweight title defences, or we will see ascension of a new superstar before out very eyes. Either way, I cannot wait for this fight. I am picking Stipe Miocic to retain his title, via decision.
Published: January 20th, 2018.