Francis Ngannou came into his UFC 218 bout with veteran Alistair Overeem with nearly all the pieces in place to become a star.
An interesting back story? Check. He’s got the potential to connect with people from diverse backgrounds spanning several continents. Ngannou migrated from his native Cameroon to Paris to become a pro fighter, then went from there to Las Vegas to make himself more marketable in North America.
The look of a star? Check. Ngannou’s chiseled frame and dyed hair practically jump off the screen. If Hollywood was casting what a heavyweight champion would look like in the 2020s, Ngannou would fit the bill.
An exciting style? Check. Ngannou had knocked out all five of his previous UFC foes inside of two rounds, including a sub-two-minute finish of former champ Andrei Arlovski last time out.
All that was left to make Ngannou a star was the toughest task, the Mike Tyson at the end of “Punch-Out”: That one signature victory, the one over a giant of the sport who still matters, the moment that anoints you as The Next One, once and for all.
And now we can put a check mark next to this category, as well.
Ngannou brought roughly 25 minutes of cage time into the bout with Overeem, who had 73 previous pro fights between MMA and kickboxing.
But disparity in experience didn’t faze Ngannou. A wicked left hook delivered with precision and efficiency knocked Overeem cold and set up a fight with heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic which should be the UFC’s biggest heavyweight title bout in years.
“He looked incredible tonight. Wow,” UFC president Dana White said at the UFC 218 post-fight news conference. “That’s as impressive a heavyweight knockout as you’ll ever see.”
While the UFC has been able to build major stars over the years from Chuck Liddell and Anderson Silva to Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey, the heavyweight division has been a tougher nut to crack. The sheer power the big guys wield makes it nearly impossible to put together a run like Silva, who won 16 straight fights and held the middleweight belt for more than seven years.
The UFC’s heavyweight title traces its lineage to the company’s first belt, the Superfight title, which was first awarded in 1995. No heavyweight had ever successfully defended the belt more than twice in that time.
There have been stars, for sure. Brock Lesnar brought a big fan following with him from the WWE and popped several huge buyrates, but he wasn’t able to sustain his run in the cage and went back to the scripted stuff. Cain Velasquez seemed on the brink of superstardom, but injuries and ill-timed losses kept him from fully realizing his potential.
Thus, the aura of the big heavyweight title fight, a timeless appeal that carried boxing for a century, has been a hit-or-miss for the UFC.
But after a performance like Saturday night’s, in which Ngannou proved he has the steak to go with the sizzle, the pieces are in place to make Ngannou vs. Miocic a major event. Miocic, like Ngannou, is also a knockout artist, with five consecutive KOs to his credit. A victory over Ngannou would also give Miocic that elusive third successful title defense that every heavyweight champ before him couldn’t reach.
It has the makings of the company’s biggest heavyweight title fight since Velasquez vs. Junior dos Santos in the UFC’s network television debut in 2011. And White knows it.
“[Ngannou], first of all, when you look at him, he looks like the heavyweight champion of the world,” White said. “I mean, he looks like the heavyweight champion of something. The guy is a monster. Trust me, I want to make that fight with Francis and Stipe tomorrow.”
For his part, the soft-spoken Ngannou already carries himself like a champion. Dressed in traditional African garb at the post-fight news conference, Ngannou explained that his dreams are as much about making an impact back home as anything he does inside the Octagon.
“First of all, I want to be the first African to have a UFC belt,” Ngannou said. “I want to be the one to open the UFC in Africa, basically in Cameroon. I want Cameroon to be the first country in Africa to [host] the UFC. It’d be good. It’d be honor for me.”
Ngannou was out 11 months between the win over Arlovski and Saturday night’s fight, in part because few wanted to fight him. White, for his part, doesn’t see that being a problem much longer.
“Once we keep this guy active and you see him doing this to all the big stars that you know and yeah, I think this guy’s going to be a rock star globally,” White said.
Ngannou doesn’t disagree, which is why he’s ready to get right back to work.
“I have a thousand things to do in MMA,” said Ngannou. “I’m going to do a good training camp because Stipe is a champ. He’s a good guy. He’s doing well, so I need to prepare and have a good training camp.”
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