The sport’s most hyped prospect, Francis Ngannou, will attempt to steal the strap from Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Heavyweight kingpin, Stipe Miocic, this Saturday (Jan. 20, 2017) at UFC 220 inside TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts.
Ngannou is one of the most interesting fighters to talk about, but one of the hardest to analyze. Despite having won six straight UFC fights, the Frenchman has competed for just about 25 total minutes inside the Octagon. That’s not a ton of footage already, but the waters become even murkier when you consider how quickly Ngannou grows technically between fights. All in all, his upcoming bout with Miocic is nearly impossible to predict as a result. We have more questions than answers regarding the knockout artist, but everything he has showed so far has been more than impressive.
Let’s take a closer look at his skill set:
Ngannou has stopped five of his six UFC opponents on the feet. He already has a reputation as a technical striker, which is only half true. Instead, Ngannou is on his way to being a truly technical kickboxer, but currently it’s his patience that has earned him that acclaim.
Patience and power rarely go together. Just last week, we saw two men in Doo Ho Choi and Jeremy Stephens that crack far harder than most of their division, but as a result have difficulty following a real game plan. Ngannou is so unique in that he’s quite possibly the hardest hitter on the entire roster, but he’s more than willing to wait for his moment.
Ngannou stalks opponents but rarely throws first. If his opponent lets Ngannou walk him into the fence or even just the pocket, the Cameroon-native will happily let his punches fly (GIF). However, no one actually wants to trade with Ngannou for obvious reasons, so most of his opponents try to maintain a long distance from those scary uppercuts.
The result is Ngannou stalking from the edge of his range. He’ll switch stances a bit and shoot out the jab with both hands — Ngannou has done nice work with a rangy Southpaw cross as well — but Ngannou is mostly waiting for his opponent to advance. Once that happens, Ngannou’s main plan comes into play.
Depending on the distance, Ngannou will take a slight step back and lean back or just lean. Either way, Ngannou’s reach advantage means that often his opponent will come up short. If not, Ngannou probably has the power edge, meaning that he’s willing to take a shot if necessary. Plus, his opponent is often lunging forward, leaving him in poor position to absorb the ensuing counter shots.
After leaning away, Ngannou returns fire immediately. Much of the time, it’s a pair of deadly uppercuts. It doesn’t matter if Ngannou throws left uppercut-right uppercut (GIF) or vice versa (GIF). Again, a lot of fighters try to duck off after lunging, which is why Ngannou connects with his uppercut counter so often.
Ngannou makes use of the uppercut more than anyone I can easily think of in MMA aside from perhaps Alexander Gustafsson. Opposite Curtis Blaydes, for example, Ngannou used the uppercut at distance to deter Blaydes from level changing. That doesn’t normally work all that well, but Ngannou’s reach and technique allowed him to shoot an uppercut up the middle that didn’t look much shorter than a cross.
Another common opening for the uppercut arises when Ngannou’s foe ducks away from his cross, which may not be as famous but still lands with huge power. As they dip their head away — usually in desperation rather than a slip or roll — Ngannou can easily follow up with his favorite strike (GIF).
Outside of the habits I’ve mentioned, it’s hard to pick much up from Ngannou. He kicks brilliantly hard and tends to set his kicks up well, but early on he did not want to kick against wrestlers and recently his fights have been too short to feature much kicking. Defensively, Blaydes did find some success by not charging forward and instead trying to poke at Ngannou with jabs and low kicks, but Ngannou still managed to counter those blows as well.
Heading into his championship bout, there’s still a lot of unknowns in Ngannou’s kickboxing.
Ngannou has yet to land — or to my knowledge, attempt — a takedown inside the Octagon, so that’s another complete mystery. Defensively, however, Ngannou has shown plenty of promise.
“The Predator” has immense physical strength in the clinch, that much is obvious. A pair of beefy Heavyweights with excellent clinch grappling in Blaydes and Alistair Overeem tried to jam Ngannou into the fence, but he reversed them instead. He also showed good head position in those fights, an important factor in his upcoming bout with a wrestler.
It’s been nearly two years since Ngannou was last taken down in the cage. Opposite Blaydes, Ngannou repeatedly showed great hips, using an overhook to yank up and spin his opponent. However, Blaydes is a decorated wrestler, and he did put Ngannou on his back a couple times, which brings us to Ngannou’s jiu-jitsu.
Ngannou actually entered the UFC with a trio of submission wins in his five professional victories. I found videos of two of them, and frankly, they’re fascinating.
In Ngannou’s debut, he made use of a rarely scene version of a straight arm bar. From the mount, Ngannou secured an overhook and stepped over his opponent’s face. Keeping his foe’s wrist pinned in his arm pit, Ngannou drove his wrist into his opponent’s elbow joint, causing it to hyper-extend and forcing the tap.
A couple fights later, Ngannou showed none of his signature patience and came out slugging. He dropped his opponent, who attempted to transition into a double leg. Instead, Ngannou captured him in an uncommon version of a guillotine. Instead of securing the neck under his arm pit, Ngannou trapped his foe’s head under his chest, allowing him to attack the windpipe by pulling his hands up straight into the throat.
In UFC, Ngannou used a kimura to counter the body lock/outside single of Anthony Hamilton. It was an excellent display of strength and technique, so we took a second look in this week’s technique highlight.
Aside from submissions, Ngannou has shown a smart bottom game. Whenever an opponent does manage to get in on his hips, Ngannou continues to pull on the overhook. As his opponent lands on him, Ngannou uses his foe’s momentum, the overhook, and a butterfly hook to elevate his foe and create lots of space, usually allowing him to immediately stand.
On paper, there’s no overwhelming reason to pick either man — we just don’t have all the information required. However, Ngannou has been developing his skills so quickly and flattening opponents with such devastation that it’s hard to pick against him. He’s a special fighter, and he could become a true star on Saturday.
Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt, is an amateur champion who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport’s most elite fighters.