The sport’s heaviest puncher, Francis Ngannou, will battle former sparring partner, Ciryl Gane, this Saturday (Jan. 22, 2022) at UFC 270 inside Honda Center in Anaheim, California.
Ngannou really made a statement in his rematch versus Stipe Miocic. “The Predator” proved himself the better man, both opposite the champion and to his past self who had challenged for the title three years prior. It was something of a masterclass, as Ngannou put a beating on Miocic prior to sleeping him for good. It’s the type of win that should’ve blown Ngannou’s star all the way up. Instead, there’s an interim title in the mix, and contract negotiations are arguably the biggest storyline ahead of his first attempt at a title defense. It’s rather odd, but Ngannou can right the ship and refocus the narrative on his own talents with a victory.
Let’s take a closer look at his skill set:
Because Ngannou hits so ungodly hard, it’s been tough to get a read on his skills over the year. Who can say how much the Cameroonian athlete improved from 2018-2020 when his four fights lasted a mere 2.5 minutes? Fortunately, Miocic’s iron chin allowed him to last to the six minute mark, providing some valuable insight into Ngannou’s development.
Firstly, however, there is a unique element to fighting Ngannou. Opponents fight very aware of his power and size, and it forces mistakes. Experienced fighters like Alistair Overeem and Junior dos Santos uncharacteristically lunged into the pocket, and Ngannou knocked them out because of it. “JDS,” in particular, was so out of position from his own offense that he was forced to turn his back (.GIF).
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 often willing to wait for his moment.
Perhaps the biggest improvement to Ngannou’s game between title shots is his ability to lead. In the first round of the rematch, Miocic refused to lead. He hung back and threw low kicks, waiting for his opportunity to shoot. Rather than rush forward and give his opponent entry to the hips, Ngannou played it technical.
Early on, Ngannou worked to draw his foe’s eyes low. He jabbed to the body, dug a couple crosses to the torso, and ripped the calf a couple times (Ngannou also showed some sharp low kicks vs. Blaydes). Then, the payoff came in the form of a jab high, jab low, crushing overhand combo. Later in the round, Ngannou also showed a neat look by switching Southpaw to blast his power left kick.
Miocic took some real damage in the first, and his takedown openings weren’t there. Suddenly, he had to step into the fire to have a chance at victory, but Ngannou’s check hooks were waiting for him. Finally, Ngannou began the end with a slick 2-1 combo, really loading up on the jab to land it with power on the jawline.
The fight ended when Ngannou pulled back with a check hook, landed perfectly, and put Miocic down for good.
Historically, that’s Ngannou’s greatest skill. When he can convince opponents to try to attack him, he’s brutally effective. 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, typically with hooks or uppercuts. It doesn’t matter if Ngannou throws left-right (GIF) or vice versa; it’s all deadly. 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 often 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’s takedown defense has been tested several times now, and he’s come a long way.
“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 three great wrestlers now in Blaydes, Miocic and Velasquez. 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.
Opposite Velasquez, Ngannou was able to score the knockout because of how he defended the shot, meeting Velasquez with his hips rather than sprawling back. By meeting his foe with his hips, he knocked Velasquez back and stopped his forward pressure, pausing the veteran wrestler for a moment.
Then, the punches landed.
Ngannou’s defensive wrestling success vs. Miocic in the rematch was due to both strategy and technique. Strategy was likely the most important bit: Ngannou didn’t give up free takedowns and takedown entries by fighting like a lunatic.
In the rematch, Ngannou kept Miocic to a single takedown attempt, and he did so by punishing the shot. Miocic timed his single leg entry well enough, but Ngannou countered quite nicely, stuffing Miocic’s head down then squaring his hips overtop Miocic’s skull. In the bigger divisions, there’s really no worse place to be than beneath a heavy sprawl, and Ngannou was able to fully clear his foe’s grasp by dropping his hips back with good form.
As Miocic moved to recover from the failed shot, Ngannou was a step ahead, spinning behind his arm pits. He managed to kick out a foot and slam Miocic — his first UFC takedown! — then wail away with hooks and punches under the armpit. Miocic survived, but many others would not have, and the lesson was clear: shooting on Ngannou is a major risk.
Ngannou actually entered UFC with a trio of submission wins in his five professional victories. Interestingly, Ngannou has a habit of securing relatively rare, low-percentage submissions — with the help of his giant muscles, of course.
In his professional debut, for example, Ngannou landed a bizarre straight armbar from mount, attacking the joint from something of a mounted gogoplata-type position. The video has been scrubbed from the net, but it was a good bit of opportunistic yanking against the joint.
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 takedown. 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 ease and wrenched on his arm. Once on the mat, Ngannou did a nice job of transitioning to knee-on-belly before punching the wrist through to finish the hold (GIF).
At the moment, many are high on Gane, and it’s not hard to understand why. He’s a unique technician at Heavyweight, and thus far, he’s been able to outclass all his opponents. However, it’s important to remember that Ngannou is a wunderkind in his own right, an improving fighter who absolutely has the heaviest hands in UFC history.
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.
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