Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.
It has been a long 2018 for knockout artist Francis Ngannou. At the beginning of the year, it appeared he might be on the cusp of superstardom. The Ultimate Fighting Championship and many of its fans envisioned Ngannou as a genuine attraction. A series of brutal knockout wins culminating with a scary highlight-reel stoppage of Alistair Overeem led the UFC to fast track Ngannou into a title shot. His showdown with Stipe Miocic was one of the highlights on the MMA calendar as 2018 began.
Ngannou at that point seemed like he could be something truly special. His unique story, having picked up MMA relatively late and overcoming homelessness just a few years before his rise to prominence, gave him a larger-than-life feel. When he put hands on opponents, they didn’t last long. In a heavyweight division filled with older contenders, Ngannou was fresh and exciting. It was exactly the sort of infusion the division needed.
It hardly feels like we’re still in the same year now when it comes to Ngannou. He fell short against Miocic, of course. In the process, Miocic offered up a template for future Ngannou opponents. Miocic exposed vulnerabilities in Ngannou’s wrestling and conditioning, turning a hotly anticipated title fight into a blowout. Furthering Ngannou’s problems after the fight, he was accused of having let his success get to his head. It was a quick fall in just a manner of months. Remarkably, things would get even worse.
Ngannou’s fight with Miocic made him a polarizing figure. It was Ngannou’s fight with Derrick Lewis that made many fans lose interest in him altogether. The fight was so awful and the competitors engaged so little that most who watched it simply wanted to forget it ever happened. In MMA, all fighters have their ups and downs. Maintaining fan interest is crucial, and Ngannou of late has been greeted with cold indifference. As such, he has been put in a markedly different position for his third fight of the year than he was for his first.
This time, Ngannou’s fight takes place far away from the bright lights of American pay-per-view. Instead, he competes on UFC Fight Pass early in the morning on the other side of the world in China. His opponent is also far from ideal. Ngannou takes on Curtis Blaydes, an opponent he already beat. For Blaydes, it is an opportunity to avenge his only previous loss in advance of a potential title shot. For Ngannou, the reward in besting the same opponent for a second time isn’t nearly as sweet. A loss, on the other hand, would be devastating.
The odds for the fight tell a story about the state of Ngannou’s career. Ngannou has been favored in his past six UFC fights, including as the challenger against Miocic just 10 months ago. That streak will be broken against Blaydes, as the latter is a 2-to-1 favorite ahead of their rematch at UFC Fight Night 141 on Saturday in Beijing. Ngannou hasn’t been an underdog since his first fight with Blaydes, and Blaydes is actually a bigger favorite for the second fight despite having lost the first. The public confidence in Ngannou has dropped precipitously. Blaydes is perceived to be the right sort of matchup to give Ngannou trouble, and Blaydes’ strengths play into the game plan Miocic managed to utilize.
The silver lining for Ngannou in his stock dropping so far so fast is that it reflects how fortunes can change quickly in any direction in this sport. Lewis found himself challenging for the UFC heavyweight title just four months after his epic stinker with Ngannou. That would have seemed improbable at the time of the Lewis-Ngannou fight, and even more so late in Lewis’ fight with Alexander Volkov when Lewis was down big. Like Lewis, Ngannou has the sort of power to quickly reverse his fortunes.
If Ngannou can best Blaydes for a second time, it will offer some solace at the end of what has been a rough year. The heavyweight division isn’t terribly deep, and Ngannou will be headed back in the right direction. The questions surrounding Ngannou following the Miocic fight aren’t going to be positively answered in this one fight. There will still be additional future tests, and the memory of the last couple fights won’t be immediately forgotten. It will have been a messy year that ended on a positive note.
If on the other hand Ngannou falls again, there will be a much tidier narrative. He will have fallen from grace in a short period of time, and the division will have moved on from him. The key players in the title picture are different than those when Ngannou challenged earlier in the year. Many have given up on Ngannou following his previous two losses, and a third would solidify that perception. Ngannou finds himself in the unfortunate position of simply battling to stop the bleeding. Winning offers far less than it did in January, but it’s still much better than the alternative.
Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Wade Keller at PWTorch.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. Todd received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Bellator, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people.