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We’re always looking for the Next Big Thing in mixed martial arts. Fans and media alike gravitate towards fighters who promise not to be just very good but spectacular, something truly special. This is something that happens in all sports to some degree, but MMA, driven by individual stars and featuring typically short career peaks, is particularly oriented towards the search for the transcendent new superstar. That quest has added urgency right now, as the Ultimate Fighting Championship struggles to create new stars to follow Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey.
Few fighters have fit the bill in providing excitement and hope better than Francis Ngannou. The massive heavyweight with the compelling personal story and the otherworldly knockout power has run through the competition over the course of his young UFC career: six fights, six wins, six finishes, no fights that went past the second round. Ngannou on Saturday has the opportunity to seize the heavyweight crown just over two years since he first stepped into the Octagon. The heavyweight division has been dominated by older fighters for years, but finally, there is a dangerous young threat in the 31-year-old Frenchman.
When Ngannou was matched with Alistair Overeem a little over a month ago, the UFC clearly viewed it as a potential launching pad for the rising star. Overeem has one of the best heavyweight resumes in the history of the sport, but his chin is a severe liability and Ngannou’s power is remarkable. When Ngannou scored one for the all-time highlight reel, the UFC wasted no time in booking Ngannou for a title showdown. It was already time to see if Ngannou could seize on that promise, and the challenger was established as the clear betting favorite.
The excitement over Ngannou is understandable, but he’s not going to a planned coronation in the UFC 220 main event; he’s going to a fistfight. In his way is a rather formidable obstacle. For years, Stipe Miocic has been honing his skills in the UFC, and the 17-2 heavyweight champion is now clicking on all cylinders. It’s not just that Miocic has the better overall resume. He has been performing at a higher level in recent fights. Ngannou’s power is no joke, but Miocic has devastating power of his own. The heavyweight king has four straight first-round knockouts, three in main events and the fourth in a co-main event. He scored those knockouts against tougher opponents than the best of Ngannou’s career.
The rising young fighter is exciting in significant part because he has not yet been challenged and there’s intrigue about what will happen when that test comes. By contrast, Miocic is proven in high-pressure situations. Ngannou has never made it past the second round; Miocic has twice gone to the fifth. Miocic captured his title by silencing a crowd of 45,000 in then-champion Fabricio Werdum’s home country. He defended it successfully in his own hometown, with his friends and family looking on. Those are different types of pressure, and he has dealt with both. In spite of all that, his challenger was installed as a 2-to-1 favorite.
This is nothing new. Fans are always eager to anoint new superstars. Doo Ho Choi burst onto the scene in the UFC with explosive striking that belied his youthful looks. He captured the imagination of the fans in the process. Choi was installed as a sizable favorite in his last two fights against veterans Cub Swanson and Jeremy Stephens. Swanson and Stephens are excellent fighters, but neither has an aura of invincibility. We’ve seen them lose. They’re less glamorous. However, they’re still very dangerous, and Stephens repeated Swanson’s feat and beat Choi in the UFC Fight Night 124 headliner on Sunday in St. Louis.
When B.J. Penn challenged Jens Pulver for the UFC lightweight title at UFC 35, Penn was the betting favorite with just a 3-0 record. Penn’s supporters weren’t wrong about how good he was, as he would go on to become one of the greats. However, the proud, skilled Pulver was sold short, and he proved it in a successful title defense. It wasn’t that Penn was a fraud; it was that Pulver was better at that moment. That’s instructive.
It’s likely that among those tuning in for UFC 220, most will be hoping to see something extraordinary from the dynamic challenger. The excitement will be in whether Ngannou can deliver a moment as memorable as what he did against Overeem. Miocic is unlikely to command the same level of attention because he isn’t as new and unique. That’s surely fine by the confident champion. His whole persona is that of the everyman, down to the firefighter day job. Don’t let that fool you. Miocic’s past opponents have commanded the pre-fight discussion plenty of times, only to have the Strong Style Fight Team star get the best of the fight. We haven’t seen that pattern for the last time.
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.