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Fighter on Fighter: Breaking down UFC on ESPN 1’s Francis Ngannou

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Perhaps the sport’s heaviest hitter, Francis Ngannou, will face off with former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Heavyweight champ, Cain Velasquez, this Sunday (Feb. 17, 2019) at UFC on ESPN 1 from inside Talking Stick Resort Arena in Phoenix, Arizona.

There were a lot of questions surrounding Ngannou ahead of his last fight. Prior to his two losses that started 2018, the Cameroon-native was unbeaten inside the Octagon and looked nothing less than a future star. A loss to the champion is understandable, but the staring contest opposite Derrick Lewis was straight up bizarre. For better or worse, Ngannou’s rematch with Curtis Blaydes only lasted 45 seconds; “The Predator” flattened him with a single massive right hand. It didn’t answer every question about the knockout artist, but it did prove that Ngannou was here to stay and could still shut out the lights quickly.

Let’s take a closer look at his skill set:

Striking

For a man of monstrous power, patience has been a major weapon for Ngannou. He’s rarely forced to do all that much, as a single clean connection often means the end of the fight. There are clear examples of too much patience (Lewis) and too little (Miocic) in his pair of losses, but on the whole Ngannou has not been reckless like many other gifted punchers.

Patience and power rarely go together. It’s so common, particularly at Heavyweight, for hard-hitting fighters to rush things in the hopes of heading home early. Ngannou is 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. Against high-level opponents, this has proven to be a problem. While Ngannou had no problems occasionally letting loose and hammering opponents that could scarcely match his athleticism (GIF), his two losses have shown that Ngannou is not able to throw a crisp jab or cross from the outside without falling forward.

Again, there was hope Ngannou would show improvement in this area opposite Blaydes, but he didn’t need to. Instead, Ngannou feinted towards the wrestler, forced the jab everyone knew Blaydes would throw, and then smacked him upside the head with a gigantic right hand (GIF).

It was more effective offense than he threw in the entire Lewis fight, so I’ll take it as a step in the right direction.

Often, 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 or the Southpaw cross, 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. Plus, his opponent is often lunging forward head-first, 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). A lot of fighters try to duck off after lunging, which is why Ngannou connects with his uppercut counter so often.

In another situation, Ngannou used the right uppercut at distance to deter Blaydes from level changing in their first fight. Generally, that’s a terrible strategy that leaves the uppercut-thrower vulnerable to counters or a takedown after the punch, 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.

Ngannou should definitely kick more. When the Cameroon-native kicks, he generally does so after a combination, and is there any doubt that Ngannou kicks freakishly hard? Every time he punctuates a combination with a angled, chopping low kick, the question must be asked why he doesn’t do that more often.

For whatever it’s worth, Ngannou did open the Blaydes’ rematch with a hard low kick, and I hope to see more of it — though perhaps not against Velasquez and his incredible wrestling.

Wrestling

Ngannou has never even attempted a takedown in the Octagon, but at least his defense is pretty solid.

“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.

Ngannou has fought two great wrestlers in Blaydes and Miocic, and though the end results were different, Ngannou showed similar traits. On the whole, Ngannou has excellent hips, uses the whizzer very well, and is quick to scramble up the instant he’s taken down. Against Blaydes, this was enough to keep the fight standing most of the time.

Had Ngannou not fought like an absolute wild man, it may have been enough against Miocic as well. Instead, Ngannou abandoned his patience and swung recklessly from the first bell, giving Miocic easy access to his hips repeatedly. Early on, Ngannou was still able to defend or stand quickly, but that type of takedown defense is exhausting. Over time, Ngannou’s ability to defend the shot dropped off completely.

Given Velasquez’s notorious conditioning, Ngannou risks a similar — but more violent — fate if he does not manage his output carefully.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

Ngannou actually entered 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 seen version of a mounted shoulder crank. Frankly, I don’t know if it would work without Heavyweight-type strength. Either way, I explained the mechanics of the position in the below technique highlight, and you can also check out a video of Ngannou pulling it off.

Several fights later, Ngannou pulled off another rare submission, though not nearly as weird as that armbar. 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. This 10-finger guillotine is quite painful and only made worse by what is surely extreme crushing power.

Inside the Octagon, Ngannou does have a kimura finish over Anthony Hamilton. The kimura is always an available counter to the single leg takedown, but it’s mostly used to reverse, as finishing the submission is difficult considering you do not start with any control over the body or legs. That was no problem for Ngannou, however, as the big man spun Hamilton to the mat with easy and wrenched on his arm (GIF).

Conclusion

Ngannou seems to be developing skill as a fighter, but it’s still nearly impossible to figure out how quickly based on recent fights. At the same time, Velasquez is hardly the opponent to give Ngannou the space to show off new technique. Velasquez is immediately going to get in Ngannou’s face and try to hurt him, which will prove an interesting challenge both to Ngannou’s takedown defense and ability to kickbox should that perfect uppercut not land early.


Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt, is a professional fighter 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.