It's Time to Slow Down the Francis Ngannou Heavyweight Hype

Scott Harris@ScottHarrisMMAMMA Lead WriterMay 5, 2017

Francis Ngannou
Francis NgannouFRANCK FIFE/Getty Images

No one in their right mind would ever drink out of a puddle.

Until you find yourself dying of thirst in the desert. Then, suddenly, puddle water is delicious. It's refreshing and earthy and not at all repugnant. It's like liquid manna from the gods!

Today's UFC heavyweight division—any heavyweight division, really—is that desert. Champion Stipe Miocic is talented and charismatic but has yet, at age 34, to transcend the MMA bubble. Fabricio Werdum, the man Miocic beat for the title, is 39. Cain Velasquez can't stay healthy. Alistair Overeem is aging and one-dimensional. Roy Nelson, 40, is now a shell of a self that, even in the best of times, didn't have the deepest bag of tricks.

Don't even bother looking at the lower reaches of the division. Among the immortal names populating the official UFC heavyweight rankings: Marcin Tybura, Aleksei Oleinik and Daniel Omielanczuk.

And yet, what is that that shimmers in the distance? A glistering mirage of glamour in a decidedly glamour-starved division that has historically been considered the sport's glamour leader?

That mirage is Francis Ngannou.

The marble-cut Cameroonian-Frenchman entered the UFC with authority in 2015. In the five consecutive wins since, the 30-year-old Ngannou (10-1) has racked up gaudy stats: four knockouts, one submission, two performance bonuses and not even a soupcon of a third round.

With all that in mind, it was understandable—and entirely predictable—when the hardcore fan set lost its freaking mind Tuesday when Ngannou announced he was moving to Las Vegas to prepare for "the next level" of competition.

And I don't say that lightly. I mean, people really, truly spun themselves up. 

They may have been egged on in part by none other than UFC President Dana White, who said about Ngannou in January that "I believe that this guy has the potential to become the heavyweight champion of the world. I also believe he has the potential to hold that title for a very long time."

But it's time to take this impulse off the overdrive setting. Ngannou is a promising prospect, but it's premature to expect him to rampage to the title and, in so doing, sweep us all out of this confounding heavyweight wasteland. It's time to pump the brakes on all this Ngannou hype.

From a technical standpoint, there's no question Ngannou has earned some acclaim. A physical marvel at 6'4" and about 256 pounds, he has a great combination of power and quickness. But there's more to his game than what a glance at his resume might suggest; he brings nifty footwork and an impressive command of range and angles to bear alongside show-stopping knockout ability. His clinch and submission games are coming along, too.

Even so, Ngannou has only competed 11 times professionally. The son of a Cameroonian street fighter, Ngannou lived on the streets of Paris for a time while pursuing a boxing career. He eventually gravitated to MMA, but either way his is not a deep athletic background, at least not in the formal sense.

Ngannou cut his teeth drubbing nobodies in Europe, and it hasn't been much better in the UFC. He had his hands full last April with Curtis Blaydes, a journeyman filling in on short notice. His biggest name opponent to date was Andrei Arlovski, a then-37-year-old with a badly flagging chin whom Ngannou flattened in 92 seconds. Another UFC opponent was Bojan Mihajlovic, whoever that is.

Yes, Ngannou gets better every fight. With his training-camp move, there's no reason to expect that to change. In the meantime, though, there aren't a lot of moving parts to his game. He has no wrestling to speak of, and his takedown defense is not impregnable. It's a good thing for Ngannou (and all of us, frankly) that Jared Rosholt's no longer on the UFC roster.

In that vein, there is reason to believe UFC matchmakers may shield Ngannou from opponents who could stop his hype train. The division's lack of depth—in particular the extended absence of Velasquez, whose ground-and-pound game is a custom-made Ngannou antidote—certainly plays in Ngannou's favor here.

With all these factors in mind, Ngannou will continue to climb the ladder. He will continue to win. He's a compelling character worthy of fan devotion. But he'll need more experience and success before anyone can truly confirm that he's more than a trick of circumstances.

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