UFC 220: Less than five years after making his professional mixed martial arts debut, Francis Ngannou is set to step into the Octagon in the main event of UFC 220 and challenge Stipe Miocic for the heavyweight title.
He’ll do so as the betting favorite and coming off one of the most hellacious knockouts in the organization’s history — a clubbing left hand that separated Alistair Overeem’s soul from his body and left “The Demolition Man” demolished on the canvas. It was the kind of performance that can transform a formidable challenger into someone seemingly destined to claim championship gold.
But if you know anything about the 31-year-old’s path to fighting on the biggest stage in the sport for the most important title in the organization. you know that his seismic knockout of Overeem and impending date with Miocic are just two more steps towards a dream that took root in childhood and remains the driving force behind the imposing knockout artist.
“This is not something that I woke up some day and just started thinking about it,” Ngannou said about his championship aspirations and rapid ascension in the UFC, speaking with Sporting News. “I grew up with it. It was something that lived in me.
“I grew up with it and I really believed it, so I (did think it would happen this quickly),” he added. “I can’t know why and I can’t be precise, but when you have a dream, you can dream close to the reality.”
The dream to be heavyweight champion is what led him to depart his native Cameroon for France and fueled him as he walked the streets of Paris looking for a gym — any gym — where he could start working towards making his dream come true.
It’s what prompted him to seek out a different gym when he grew frustrated with is initial destination remaining closed on holidays and weekends, eventually leading him to the MMA Factory, where he met his current head coach Fernand Lopez.
That dream is also what prompted another major life decision last year, as Ngannou opted to relocate to Las Vegas and begin training out of the brand-new UFC Performance Institute, a state-of-the-art one-stop shop housing all the equipment, instructors and assistance an athlete needs to sharpen their skills and prepare to step into the cage.
Each one of those steps helped lead Ngannou to where he is today — on the precipice of becoming a major star in the UFC and just a handful of hours away from competing for the UFC heavyweight title.
“The last year helped me to build this year,” said Ngannou, who is a perfect 6-0 in the Octagon and sports an 11-1 record overall. “This year is going to help build the next year and the next year going to build the other one.
“That’s how life works, so every single month, every single year of my life has been important because every year, I have to make a decision to make things better and get close to where I am now.”
Part of what makes Ngannou such a compelling figure is that despite rocketing up the heavyweight rankings and landing opposite Miocic on Saturday night, his ceiling as a fighter and the depth of his skill remain question marks.
His last two opponents — Overeem and former heavyweight champion Andrei Arlovski — have made the mistake of standing with the cement-fisted juggernaut and paid for it dearly, falling in under two minutes as Ngannou connected with the type of power that makes comparisons to a young Mike Tyson seem apt.
While there have been flashes of secondary skills to compliment his enormous power, the truth is that “The Predator” hasn’t needed to turn to other weapons in his arsenal or been forced to show off other facets of his game because up to this point, he’s made it look pretty damn easy.