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UFC Phoenix, The Morning After: is Ngannou back, or is Cain done?

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What you may have missed from last night

Francis Ngannou, if you haven’t seen it, finished Cain in a matter of seconds last night. The question immediately became, what did this prove? Did he just win because Cain’s knee finally gave out after thousands of man-hours and foot-pounds of leg extensions destroyed his ligaments forever? Or did he win because he has the literal touch of death in his fists? I wasn’t sure at first; the camera angles the production team used left room for doubt. However, after seeing more slow-motion angles, I was able to reach a conclusion. Reading the comments on my quick recap last night, a refreshing number of you seem to agree that on close rewatch, it is pretty clear that Ngannou stunned Cain for a moment, he fell on his knee wrong, and from then it was just a matter of eating ferocious hammerfists until the referee mercifully covered him like a shroud.

Cain himself complicated this straightforward account, though, in the post-fight press conference. He said a few things, but what stands out is that he really thought he felt great, and couldn’t believe his knee gave out on him. He described himself as “100% happy, 100% healthy” going in, felt his knee pop taking a step, and it gave out on his next step. It is worth noting that there may be some self-delusion going on here. Cain’s knee pretty clearly buckled at the end of his pad session at the open workouts, which doesn’t look like “100% healthy” at all. He shouldn’t have been so shocked, then, that it happened in the fight. His knee popping also doesn’t explain why Ngannou had his cranium moving like a bobblehead as he went down. Perhaps it really was his knee giving out at the exact moment Ngannou connected with an uppercut. Perhaps it may be easier for Cain to conceptualize this loss as his body giving out on him, rather than anything his opponent did. Fighters often must maintain some level of self-delusion to maintain their own personal narrative.

Regardless of the state of Cain’s body at the time of Octagon death, there are still questions we just won’t get answers to until Ngannou’s opponent can take him past the opening minute of the fight. He’s managed to easily shuck off about one attempt each from Cain Velasquez and Curtis Blaydes, two of the division’s best wrestlers historically, but first-line take-down defense was never really his issue. What happens if a fighter can get hold of him and grind him down the way Stipe Miocic did? Is his gas tank better now that he’s walking around ten pounds lighter? Is he able to strike a round-winning balance between the insane aggression of the first round of the Miocic fight and the agonizing hesitancy of the Derrick Lewis snorefest?

One way to answer that would be a rematch with Stipe himself, who has sat out since his loss to Daniel Cormier advocating for an instant rematch he seems very unlikely to get. With two high-level knockouts in a row, Ngannou has propelled himself back to the front of the conversation. If Stipe wants his title rematch after a first-round loss, it’s only fair he face down the giant again.

As for Cain, it seems unlikely we will see him in the cage in the near future. He will have to get a damage assessment on his knee, but after years of injury and inactivity due to injury, topped off with a catastrophic in-cage injury, it is entirely possible the once-great heavyweight is done.