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It was only three years ago that Stipe Miocic and Francis Ngannou first fought. To put it charitably, the fight was not competitive. Ngannou was clearly dangerous early, but Miocic wore him down with takedowns and “The Predator” offered little resistance by the end. The straight 50-44 scorecards are among the widest in UFC championship history. It was a reminder of why Miocic has been so effective over the course of his MMA career. Miocic is a generalist rather than a specialist, and he can take advantage of the weaknesses of his opponents because he’s strong in all components of the sport.
Funny thing about that first fight: There seems to be a collective amnesia about its existence. It says “REMATCH” in big bold letters on the UFC 260 poster, but Ngannou is the betting favorite in the sportsbooks even after the first fight went the way that it did. That’s not necessarily a reflection of how the oddsmakers think the fight will go, but it is a signal of public perception. There is widespread dismissal of the first fight as a strong indication of how the second fight is likely to go.
Rematches, of course, are by no means destined to go the same way as the original fight. Junior dos Santos’ quick knockout of Cain Velasquez did him little good in their second and third fights when his rival managed to impose his game. However, Miocic-Ngannou is essentially the opposite of Velasquez-dos Santos. Rather than one fighter landing the perfect punch, Miocic-Ngannou showed how the two fighters’ skillsets matched up over an extended period.
With Miocic winning so decisively and with widespread perception being the fight is likely to go differently this time, you would think that Ngannou has demonstrated that he has shored up his vulnerabilities from the first fight. That’s often the pattern when fighters reverse results with time. They develop a tool that prevents the fight from taking place on the same terms. In this case, Ngannou’s weaknesses against Miocic haven’t been tested at all in the subsequent three years.
The two central problems for Ngannou against Miocic were his inability to stop takedowns and his cardio going past the second round for the first time in his career. Ngannou’s run of sudden knockouts since then has been exceedingly impressive, but it has not answered whether he is better equipped to defend a concerted series of takedown attempts should he not land a knockout punch. Likewise, the only fight Ngannou’s had since then lasting longer than 71 seconds was a stalemate against Derrick Lewis that did not address whether he’ll be better able to keep up with Miocic’s pace.
Ngannou has certainly demonstrated striking power the likes of which we’ve rarely if ever seen in MMA. However, that was readily apparent going into their first fight, where Ngannou also entered on a streak of four straight first-round finishes. If anything, the most promising sign for Ngannou may be the knockout Daniel Cormier scored by connecting on Miocic’s chin. Of course, Miocic went another nine rounds with Cormier after that and “DC” wasn’t able to duplicate the feat.
It would be ridiculous to rule out Ngannou’s chances when he possesses such prodigious knockout power and has used it to impressive effect against many of his generation’s best heavyweights. With small gloves and enormous men, it doesn’t take more than one mistake. Still, in MMA, historically the fighter who needs to do one specific thing to win more often than not loses to the fighter who wins if that one specific thing doesn’t happen.
Regardless of probabilities, it’s understandable that fans’ minds gravitate towards the more exciting and fun possibilities. It’s more enjoyable to have your money on the charismatic star or the flashy striker than the gritty no-nonsense wrestler. Still, it’s foolish to lose sight of the underlying dynamics in the fight. That’s particularly true when those dynamics have already been clearly laid out.
If Ngannou isn’t able to avenge his loss to Miocic, the Ultimate Fighting Championship may come to regret underestimating the champion again. When Miocic beat “The Predator,” UFC President Dana White was visibly disappointed and criticized Ngannou’s performance in frustration. Miocic made clear he felt disrespected by the perceived favoritism towards Ngannou, which led to his infamously stopping White from putting the title belt on him after the fight.
Jon Jones waits to fight the winner of Miocic-Ngannou 2. The biggest marquee fight of the three that can be made between that trio of fighters is Ngannou-Jones. The UFC could have just made Ngannou-Jones now, with the winner fighting Miocic for the title. The company rarely bypasses the most marketable fight, but that’s exactly what it did. It’s hard not to think that the shot callers are expecting they can make Ngannou-Jones next. If so, there’s no shortage of parties making too little of the 25 minutes of Miocic-Ngannou we’ve seen thus far.
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