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I love Francis Ngannou. He has dramatic fights that end suddenly in vicious highlight-reel knockouts. He is a cool, likable guy with a very inspiring story. And best of all, he always comes through when I pick him to win, whether it be as roughly even money against Stipe Miocic or, hard as it is to believe now, a considerable underdog against Cain Velasquez or in his rematch against Curtis Blaydes. I have consistently appraised Ngannou's abilities more highly than others have.
In the wake of his dominant title victory over Miocic last month, even former skeptics have referred to this as the “Ngannou era” and wondered if anyone can possibly defeat the fearsome Ultimate Fighting Championship heavyweight king.
Well, I'm here to tell you that he is very much beatable! Not only by some future, developing martial artist, but by current top contenders. Part of my belief is based on general historical logic. I remember very well when Lyoto Machida knocked out Rashad Evans to win the UFC light heavyweight championship and was a perfect 16-0, most were talking about the “Machida era.” The era didn't last long; his very first defense was a highly controversial decision over Mauricio Rua, and in the rematch, “Shogun” knocked him out in the first round.
Specifically, I think at least two men could give Ngannou a hard fight stylistically.
Ngannou possesses genuine one-punch knockout power in both hands from any angle, all delivered with shocking hand speed for a heavyweight. He also has some of the most brutal leg kicks I've ever seen. However, his large, powerful physique comes at a price; his cardio is limited. Now, most opponents can't even survive the first two minutes against him, and even when they do, Ngannou wisely paces himself. However, someone that can both survive that stretch of time and punish the champion for fighting in spurts is his former training partner, Gane.
While not as flashy or as powerful, Gane has the best movement and footwork in the division. He's a 6-foot-4, 245-pound heavyweight who glides around the cage better than most middleweights. Thus, he can use his feet to avoid going toe-to-toe with the champion for the first round. Moreover, if he does get caught, Gane has one of the toughest chins I've seen in the division. He has taken flush shots from both Tanner Boser and Junior dos Santos and barely reacted to them. Of course, that's not the same as being hit by Ngannou, but it's encouraging to know that he might survive some hard connects, much as Miocic did in both his fights against the powerful slugger. Gane also has a better gas tank than Ngannou, having comfortably gone three and five rounds before, often getting stronger as the fight draws to a close. Nor do I think Ngannou can necessarily fight in spurts against Gane, thanks to Gane's powerful array of kicks. I can see “Bon Gamin” having a lot of success with the body kick specifically, which would further sap Ngannou's energy. Gane is also good at checking or avoiding opponent leg kicks, which he would desperately need to do against the champion.
Many will point to their common opponent in Jairzinho Rozenstruik, whom Ngannou splattered against the cage in 20 seconds, while Gane won a dull 25-minute decision. However, this mostly arises out of a difference in approach. Ngannou had a kill-or-be-killed mentality, immediately charging forward and exchanging monstrous blows with his adversary. Ngannou was actually hit cleanly a couple of times by the striker from Suriname, but his titanium chin allowed him to ignore this and land a killing blow. Gane, meanwhile, preferred not to take any unnecessary risks, and easily outpointed his foe, while fighting calmly and intelligently throughout.
Obviously, I still cap this fight in Ngannou's favor. Gane's defense when he can't use his feet to get away is still a work in progress. His head movement and defensive instincts are improving, but he can still be caught, and that may be fatal. However, Gane has a good chance if he can get out of Round 1.
Amusingly, the other heavyweight who might dethrone Ngannou is scheduled to fight Gane! A couple of years ago, I would have given Volkov little chance here. He was prone to defensive lapses and being countered, as was shown at the end of his fight with Derrick Lewis, when he was knocked out with seconds left in a fight he had been winning. However, against both Walt Harris and Alistair Overeem, he showed significant improvement, especially defensively. The Harris fight is particularly interesting, as he is a similar type of fighter to Ngannou, being a fast, explosive striker with power in both hands.
Volkov's striking is more dangerous than ever, and with his length, he is one of the few guys who may be able to jab and kick Ngannou at range. I love his front kick and think it may serve him well in this match. He too will have a sizable cardio advantage over Ngannou, which he has demonstrated time and again, knocking out Fabricio Werdum in the fourth round and coming back to arguably win Rounds 4 and 5 against Blaydes after being dominated for the first 15 minutes.
Again, Ngannou should undoubtedly be the favorite. Volkov doesn't have the chin of Gane, and it's easy to see Ngannou countering a lazy kick with a punch that turns the Russian's lights off. Volkov would have to fight nearly perfectly, at least at the start, much like Miocic did in the first encounter, but victory is possible. It helps that, for once, he probably wouldn't have to worry about being taken down.
Many readers at this point will wonder why, among these two names, I don't also include Jon Jones? While I think Jones is still a great fighter and can find plenty of success at heavyweight, I don't see what he has to offer Ngannou. In my opinion, and that of many others, Jones has lost two fights in a row, first to Thiago Santos and then Dominick Reyes. In both encounters, Jones had success when pot-shotting at range, and against Reyes, wrestling, but was badly beaten when going toe-to-toe.
I don't see how a Jones who struggled to potshot a Santos mostly fighting on one good knee would be able to do so against a much taller, longer opponent in Ngannou. And while Jones has a great chin, Reyes had him badly hurt early in Round 4 before the light heavyweight champion panic-wrestled successfully. The same punches from Ngannou would put him out cold, and his desperate attempts to grapple would likely prove futile.
Moreover, while Santos has excellent leg kicks, Ngannou's are even more powerful. And we all remember Jon Jones having to be carried out of the cage after the damage the Brazilian's blows did to him.
My lack of faith in Jones notwithstanding, there are at least two current top contenders I see threatening Ngannou's reign. And hopefully, one of them will fight him soon.
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