Francis Ngannou removed the last remaining impediment standing between him and his desired goal: a second crack at the Ultimate Fighting Championship heavyweight crown.
“The Predator” on Saturday blew up former champion Junior dos Santos with punches in the first round of their UFC on ESPN 3 headliner at the Target Center in Minneapolis. Dos Santos bowed out 71 seconds into Round 1, as he suffered his first loss in more than two years and ceded the stage to the new No. 1 contender.
Ngannou traded leg kicks with the Brazilian and capitalized on a brief moment of weakness. Dos Santos overextended on an overhand right and stumbled out of position, his back to the monstrous Frenchman. Ngannou blindsided “Cigano” with a clubbing right hook, drove him to all fours with subsequent hammerfists and drew the curtain soon after with unanswered punches.
In the aftermath of UFC on ESPN 3, here are five matches that ought to be made:
Francis Ngannou vs. Daniel Cormier-Stipe Miocic winner: Ngannou has done his part to rebuild his brand and blur the memories of his atrocious July 2018 encounter with Derrick Lewis. In three appearances since, he has stopped dos Santos, Cain Velasquez and Curtis Blaydes in less than two and half minutes combined -- a testament to his fast-twitch explosiveness and otherworldly punching power. Whether those gifts can take him all the way to the top of the division remains to be seen. Cormier will defend the undisputed heavyweight championship in a rematch with Miocic at UFC 241 on Aug. 17, with Ngannou undoubtedly awaiting the winner.
Joseph Benavidez vs. Henry Cejudo: A three-fight winning streak has Benavidez on the cusp of another title shot at 125 pounds. The 34-year-old San Antonio, Texas, native put together a sensational performance in the co-main event, where he brought down Jussier Formiga with a head kick and follow-up punches in the second round. Formiga was deemed unfit to continue 4:47 into Round 2. Benavidez remains underappreciated from a historical perspective, largely because he had to ply his trade in the shadow of the great Demetrious Johnson for the better part of a decade. Nevertheless, his 28-5 record speaks for itself. Cejudo, who lost a split decision to Benavidez in 2016, has defended the flyweight championship just once since he upset Johnson in August. He recently underwent shoulder surgery and expects to miss the rest of 2019.
Demian Maia vs. Vicente Luque: Maia slammed the gate on the fingers of another would-be welterweight contender, as he took a majority decision from American Top Team’s Anthony Rocco Martin in a three-round battle at 170 pounds. Even though FightMetric credited him with only three significant strikes, the longtime Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt frustrated Martin through two rounds with takedowns and positional control. Maia, 41, eased off the gas across the final five minutes and wandered into danger on the feet before pulling guard to avoid further damage. His lead held up despite judge Nick Palmer awarding Martin a 10-8 third round and striking a 28-28 scorecard. Luque last competed at UFC Fight Night 152 on May 18, when he stopped Derrick Krantz on first-round punches and extended his run of consecutive victories to five.
Vinc Pichel vs. Gilbert Burns: Perhaps Pichel has grown weary of flying under the radar at 155 pounds. “The Ultimate Fighter 15” semifinalist overcame a shaky start to hand Dana White’s Contender Series alum Roosevelt Roberts his first professional defeat, as he pocketed a unanimous decision in their lightweight feature. All three cageside judges scored it 29-28 for Pichel, who improved to 3-1 since he returned from a three-year absence in 2017. He overwhelmed the previously unbeaten Roberts with pressure and technique, executing three takedowns and six guard passes while outlanding him by a healthy 81-34 margin in total strikes. Burns last appeared at UFC Fight Night 150, where he submitted Mike Davis with a second-round rear-naked choke.
Drew Dober vs. Leonardo Santos: Dober recorded the fastest finish of his 31-fight career, as he brought down Marco Polo Reyes with punches a cool 67 seconds into the first round of their lightweight showcase. The Elevation Fight Team standout has won six of his last eight fights -- submission defeats to Beneil Dariush and Olivier Aubin-Mercier were the lone hiccups -- and shows signs of reaching his peak at the age of 30. Time will tell whether or not he can maintain his momentum as he climbs the treacherous ladder at 155 pounds. Undefeated over his past 12 appearances, Santos returned from close to a three-year hiatus on June 1 and did so in devastating fashion, as he knocked out Steven Ray a little more than two minutes into their encounter at UFC Fight Night 153.