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UFC 260 in-depth: Can Francis Ngannou learn from past mistakes?

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Looking passed the usual ranking implications, predictions and week-to-week momentum shifts.

UFC 220: Miocic v Ngannou Photo by Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

There’s really no one else that can compare to Francis Ngannou.

There have been plenty of big hitters in the past at Heavyweight, and while Ford Escort memes and punching power records make for fun memes, it’s hard to deny that Ngannou really is in a class of his own in terms of power-punching. Derrick Lewis, the man with the most knockouts in UFC history, is the best counter argument, but even then, Lewis typically scores his knockouts with a series of bombs after his opponent fatigues. The one-punch knockout is not impossible for “The Black Beast” — ask Curtis Blaydes — but nor is it his usual method of finish.

Ngannou is simply different. He routinely melts opponents in a single punch, and he often does so immediately. His last eight victories come in the first round, and his last four knockouts lasted a combined two minutes and 42 seconds.

As with most everything in MMA, there are pros and cons to Ngannou’s world-altering power. On one hand, Ngannou hardly ever takes punches even though his defense is not the best. He’s far less likely to fall off an athletic cliff as a result, so unless he decides to retire early, Ngannou will be able to compete at an elite level for another 10 years.

Mark my words: he’ll shatter that knockout record if he remains a UFC fighter.

The cons, however, are trickier. In Ngannou’s first bout with Stipe Miocic, his lack of cage time showed. The Cameroonian “Predator” does his best work on the counter, making use of his giant reach and timing opponents as they step to him. His power is remarkable on its own, but if his opponent is moving into the blow, well ... that’s how Alistair Overeem was nearly decapitated.

UFC 218: Overeem v Ngannou Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Opposite Miocic — a skilled boxer with a solid wrestling background — Ngannou executed perhaps the worst game plan possible. He charged his opponent immediately, swinging wildly. It still took some smarts and toughness to survive, but Miocic’s head movement looked so great, his wrestling so effective precisely because Ngannou was running straight at him.

The blame for the loss was largely placed on Ngannou’s wrestling, which could have been better, sure. However, it is nearly impossible to defend takedowns when the opponent starts in perfect position, arms wrapped below the butt. The hard part was already done, and Miocic capitalized.

Over two years later, has Ngannou learned his lesson. If you listen to interviews, that would seem to be the case. He’s spoken of rushing, the importance of remaining calm. Recruiting Kamaru Usman — a cerebral fighter and brilliant wrestler — to his corner is a smart move. Ngannou seems quite aware of his flaws.

There is little doubt that Ngannou and his coaches have worked extensively on avoiding a similar outcome for this rematch.

The problem, however, is that he’s had roughly zero time to implement those changes in the actual Octagon. The Derrick Lewis fight was nothing, a staring contest that helped little. The best (and it’s not amazing) analogue for Miocic on his current win streak is Curtis Blaydes, whom Ngannou knocked out a second time in November 2018. Ngannou was patient at distance, ripped some kicks, then landed the big bomb that put his foe down.

That’s all a good sign, but how much does 45 seconds of patience prove?

Ngannou was reasonably measured against Junior dos Santos and Cain Velasquez as well — promising! He did fall victim to his murderous desires against Jairzinho Rozenstruik, but ... was that a bad decision? Rozenstruik is a dangerous kickboxer who likes to take his time to find range and counter from the back foot. There was no wrestling threat, so Ngannou eliminated a dangerous foe instantly.

In his last four wins, Ngannou has shown good decision-making, the area he most needed improvement in order to defeat Stipe Miocic. However, he’s also faced little adversity, been given few reasons to second-guess himself or have to adjust his strategy in his miniscule two minutes of live fight time.

Is that enough to fill the gap? To change a dominant loss to a world title win? We’ll find out, but there’s little doubt that an extra five-to-ten minutes of cage experience would have been invaluable ahead of this rematch.