Top UFC heavyweight contender Francis Ngannou admits he stepped into the cage against Stipe Miocic in their first meeting with many questions about how he would perform.
He didn’t like the answers.
That title bout was the first time Ngannou, perhaps the most feared striker in the organization, was in a fight scheduled for five rounds. The Las Vegas resident had finished opponents so quickly in his previous bouts that he had never even seen the start of the third.
Was he ready to compete with the world champion? Was he prepared to go five rounds if necessary?
Miocic gladly took him to school. He used his jab to work inside to the clinch and set up takedowns, where he controlled the challenger against the cage and on the mat for the full 25 minutes.
“I had a lot of unanswered questions and I didn’t have any experience,” Ngannou said this week ahead of the rematch in the Saturday’s UFC 260 main event at the Apex. “I don’t have that concern anymore. I had better preparation this time. I put good work into my wrestling, jiu-jitsu and even striking. I have improved a lot. I may be 34 years old, but I’m very young in the sport. I have a lot of room to grow.”
Learning those lessons took time. Ngannou was gun-shy in his next fight and failed to generate much offense at all in a decision loss to Derrick Lewis.
Then, everything clicked.
Ngannou has knocked out his last four opponents in a total of just 2:42 to propel himself back to title contention. Miocic, meanwhile, has fought three times—all against Daniel Cormier.
The champion lost the belt to Cormier, then won the next two meetings to claim the unofficial title of best heavyweight in UFC history. Miocic holds the heavyweight record for most total title defenses with four and consecutive title defenses with three. He can set the record for most total heavyweight title wins should he win his seventh on Saturday.
“You can’t really argue,” Ngannou said of Miocic’s status as greatest heavyweight of all time. “I might change it, but for now, yes. He’s it.”
Ngannou will get that chance on Saturday. The bout headlines a 7 p.m. pay-per-view card. Preliminary fights air on ESPN at 5.
It’s an opportunity Ngannou has hoped for since he returned to the gym after the previous loss to Miocic.
“I’ve wanted my next fight for the title to be against him because he made a point he was the better fighter last time,” Ngannou said. “I wanted to avenge that and prove I’m the best. The most difficult part has been waiting.”
Miocic expected to see Ngannou again, too. It’s been difficult not to notice the quick knockouts, but he believes there has been real growth in Ngannou as a fighter.
“He’s definitely gotten better,” the champion said. “He’s evolved. You can tell. I’m here to extinguish him again.”
Ngannou knows that will happen if he looks anything like he did in the first meeting.
It’s a performance he hopes to avoid replicating, but he didn’t spend a whole lot of time studying the film. It’s too painful.
“I’m not taking credit away from Stipe, he was the better fighter that night,” Ngannou said. “But I hate even watching that fight. I don’t recognize myself, the way I’m fighting, the way I’m rushing. That guy looked like me, but I don’t recognize him. … This time, things will be different.”
He better be right. If not, he’ll be asking himself a whole lot of questions.
Main card bouts on Saturday’s pay-per-view card at the Apex:
Stipe Miocic (20-3) vs. Francis Ngannou (15-3), for Miocic’s heavyweight title
Tyron Woodley (19-6-1) vs. Vicente Luque (19-7-1), welterweights
Sean O’Malley (12-1) vs. Thomas Almeida (22-4), bantamweights
Gillian Robertson (9-5) vs. Miranda Maverick (10-2), women’s flyweights
Jamie Mullarkey (12-4) vs. Khama Worthy (16-7), lightweights