About three years ago, Francis Ngannou looked like he might be a fighter who falls victim to his own hype.
After beginning his Ultimate Fighting Championship tenure with six consecutive victories, Ngannou was exposed in a five-round decision loss to Stipe Miocic for the heavyweight title at UFC 220. His ensuing Octagon appearance was a baffling, action-starved loss to Derrick Lewis at UFC 226 that hurt the stock of both of the division’s most powerful knockout artists.
After the second of those defeats, UFC president Dana White speculated that Ngannou began to get a big head during his rise to stardom.
“I think that he had a pretty quick rise here and obviously the fight over Alistair Overeem catapulted him,” White said after UFC 226. “Everybody was talking about him. I thought he was going to be the next guy. I think his ego ran away with him. Big time. I can tell you that his ego absolutely did run away with him. And the minute that happens to you in the fight game, you see what happens. You start to fall apart.”
Ngannou regrouped after that humbling stretch to post a five-bout winning streak that included first-round stoppages of Curtis Blaydes, Cain Velasquez, Junior dos Santos, Jairzinho Rozenstruik and culminated in a knockout of Stipe Miocic in their rematch at UFC 260 on Saturday at the UFC Apex in Las Vegas.
It was an understandably emotional moment for Ngannou, who had to silence the critics after coming up short during his first run at glory.
"I felt like I was drowning and I had to struggle back, but now, here we are,” Ngannou said. “We are here, we got it done. It’s just amazing. I think I have to really take the time back to collect my emotion and to really feel it. Right now it is just all over the place. I assume this is going to be the biggest thing.
“I just haven’t had enough time to feel it. Absolutely, it feels great, but as for right now, I can’t think far ahead,” he continued. “My mind is just right here, right now. Man, this is great. The emotion of it, thinking about everyone behind it. It’s not just about the belt, it’s about what it represents. It’s the principle, it’s the ethic, the dream, the life. It’s about the people that are behind me, the people that have joined me in the dream and my journey, who believed me and put their hands on the dirt to get this done. It’s all about it. This is something way beyond me.”
Ngannou knew he always wanted another chance to prove himself against Miocic, who owns promotional records at heavyweight for most successful title defenses and most victories in championship bouts.
“Even if it wasn’t for the title shot, I would have liked to have a rematch against Stipe,” Ngannou admitted. “I always wanted my title fight to be against him since I lost to him in January 2018. I wanted that revenge and as his résumé speaks for itself, he is the greatest of all time and it is good to make a statement out of that.”
Ngannou appeared to be much improved as he adopted a measured approach against Miocic in the opening stanza of Saturday’s headliner. Perhaps the most notable moment of the opening five minutes occurred when he sprawled on a Miocic takedown and punished his adversary with heavy ground-and-pound.
“I was very confident about it,” Ngannou said of his wrestling. “Obviously, I didn’t want to go down on my back, but I was even thinking of taking him down, because we’ve been working on this a lot and I really believe that I can give him a hard time on the ground game, on the grappling.”
When the opportunity to finish arose, Ngannou was ready. A left hook from “The Predator” put Miocic on wobbly legs. Though the Ohio-based firefighter answered with a hard right of his own, Ngannou ate it and and folded Miocic with another vicious left hook. The Cameroonian-born Frenchman then punctuated his triumph with one final hammerfist 52 seconds into Round 2.
“I saw how he fell and I felt like he was hurt, but he’s tough, so I didn’t really want to give him any chance,” Ngannou said. “That’s why I followed that.”
In the aftermath, Ngannou dedicated his victory to those who stuck with him when it looked like he might be a flash in the pan. Instead, Ngannou is the unofficial “Baddest Man on the Planet” and the 17th heavyweight champion in UFC history.
“Today, this is not just for me. This is for all of us. For people that put their hand on the dirt and believed in this, people from around the world, for my fans, for everyone who believed it, because that’s very important,” he said. “Those people give you the strength when you need it, extra motivation when you’re tired and maybe just want to skip on training or something. You think about that and that gives you motivation to keep going forward.”