UFC 220 is in the books, and the most hotly anticipated heavyweight title fight in a number of years is in the books with it.
The end result: Stipe Miocic is still your UFC heavyweight champion.
It was a result few predicted going into the event, with Miocic showing up in Boston as an underdog bent on destruction. He eventually came out on top, and he did so in surprisingly dominant fashion.
For five rounds, Miocic mugged Francis Ngannou—who was gassed by the end of the first round—dragging him to the mat repeatedly and holding him there for minutes at a time.
Now, along with Featured Columnist Matthew Ryder, who sat cageside for the festivities, they break down what they saw and felt as they watched the men they knew so well battle for the sport’s biggest prize.
Matthew Ryder: There remained a haze in the air at TD Garden, an almost literal fog of war sitting heavy at the end of UFC 220. In one way or another, we were all pretty sure we wouldn’t know what to make once Stipe Miocic and Francis Ngannou were done their cage time, and that was the case.
Miocic defused the Cameroonian bomb with surprising aplomb—at no point did it appear he was in any particular trouble, save for a few solid shots that stiffened him up early in the fight.
Seeing as Miocic won and you wrote so expertly on his path to the title fight we watched this weekend, I’ll pass it to you first, Scott.
What did you see out there?
Scott Harris: I saw a guy who executed a game plan. You know what they say about plans, and what tends to happen to them after you absorb some facial trauma. That’s a cliche for a reason, and Miocic defied it.
He seemed to let Ngannou do his thing in the first round, standing with him for extended periods, mixing in takedowns, playing matador to allow Ngannou to dump his adrenaline (and landing some sharp combinations of his own in the process).
Miocic knew full well Ngannou had never been beyond the second round, and he began to pile up takedowns and top control until Ngannou was exhausted enough that his legs went rubbery. In the later rounds, the riding time in the clinch and on the ground seemed almost as torturous as any rain of knees or elbows.
It reminded me of something Miocic’s coach, Marcus Marinelli, told me when I spent some time with Miocic and his camp last fall. He told me what a good listener Miocic is, that "he only needs to be told something once."
To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, when Miocic learns something, it stays learned. That was evident in every movement of Saturday’s masterclass.
Ryder: I’m inclined to agree. There was a studied, deliberate intent to the champ early in the bout, where he was evasive and just offensive enough to keep Ngannou honest, casually checking the clock throughout.
As the fight wore on and also out of Ngannou, Miocic only doubled down on his focus and commitment to the plan. It was predictable going in, but it was that much more obvious as you saw it in his eyes and on his face, and saw how effective it was as he began to pull away.
How about you, Chad? What were you thinking as the fight unfolded, in light of your perspective on the challenger?
Chad Dundas: For Francis Ngannou, it was a worst-case scenario in terms of answering our many questions about his skill set.
For example: Could Ngannou land a big shot early to keep Miocic from dragging him into deep water? No.
Did he possess the defensive wrestling to keep the champ from taking him down? No.
If Miocic dragged him to the mat, could Ngannou get back up? No.
Would he be prepared to fight five five-minute rounds if he had to do it? Nah, son.
The lopsided result here highlighted some factors about Ngannou’s training camp that had me scratching my head while visiting him in Las Vegas before his fight against Alistair Overeem in early December.
First, while Ngannou trains at the new, state-of-the-art UFC Performance Institute—a fact lauded on the UFC 220 broadcast—his longtime coach, Fernand Lopez, still lives in France. So most of the camp is done with Lopez monitoring things from afar. The coach arrives in America in the last couple weeks to put the finishing touches on a game plan, but mostly Ngannou and his UFCPI trainers are on their own.
At least that’s how it worked for Overeem. If indeed they repeated that methodology for Miocic, I can’t help but wonder: Is it the best way? Ngannou certainly didn’t look well prepared for his first UFC championship opportunity.
Second, during our time together Ngannou seemed—if not disdainful, exactly—somewhat dismissive of the grappling arts in general. He obviously prefers to strike and has been very successful at it, but I walked away from our interview wondering exactly what he was doing to shore up his ground game. Against Miocic, it was clear that area still needs a ton of work.
It’s not that unusual for a dominant heavyweight—a guy who is the roughest, toughest person in his own workout room—to fail to address his shortcomings until they are painfully pointed out to him inside the Octagon in front of thousands of people.
I think that’s the case here with Ngannou. The biggest questions about him now will be what he does moving forward to address his flaws, because he can still be a terrifying force in the Octagon.
Ryder: It’s something of an amusing twist of fate, this notion that both Miocic and Ngannou executed the game plans they envisioned, but they found such different paths to the judge’s scorecards at the end of the night.
In the same way, you could see it in Miocic as he was having success with his, you could see the befuddlement in Ngannou that he could not, in fact, simply punch a hole in his opponent’s face and collect a cheque this time.
Any takers on the parallels of these two men in their career trajectories, and where they might be going from here? Let’s not forget that Miocic wasn’t flawless on his way to where he is today, and Ngannou isn’t the first massively hyped guy we’ve seen lose in his first try at a title.
Dundas: Moving forward, Ngannou’s saving graces might be his relative youth and the perennially shallow nature of the heavyweight division. He’ll obviously go on being a marketable figure in a weight class that sorely needs them. So long as he posses that terrifying one-punch-knockout power, people are going to want to watch him.
For example, if the UFC somehow managed to make his next fight against Brock Lesnar, I don’t think many people would turn their noses up at it. In fact, the loss to Miocic might even make a fantasy Ngannou-Lesnar fight seem more interesting, since people might be more apt to give Brock a chance after seeing Ngannou’s many flaws exploited by the champion.
So, I think Ngannou can go on being a major player in the 265-pound class as long as he wants. If he carries on, he’ll likely end up getting more than one shot to win UFC gold.
Here’s one thing that gives me pause, though: This guy’s first love is clearly boxing. He grew up in Cameroon idolizing Mike Tyson and his MMA style is almost solely reliant on his stand-up game. He transitioned to MMA early on only because his coaches told him he’d have an easier time breaking into the sport as a complete unknown.
I can’t help but worry a little that Ngannou’s love of boxing will ultimately win the day. Will he really have the desire to do the work necessary to close the holes in his MMA game? Or at some point will he decide he had it right in the first place: that this wrestling stuff is for the birds and he wants to make a go of it in the sweet science?
With Dana White talking about getting into boxing promotion, the opportunity may soon be there for Ngannou to chase his original dream. After a loss like the one he had against Miocic, I wonder if that’s going to start sounding pretty attractive to one of the hardest punchers on the planet.
Harris: There are plenty of great examples of fighters needing a loss in order to improve or optimize themselves. As you said, Miocic is such an example, taking great strides forward after losses to Stefan Struve and Junior dos Santos. He’s not the champ without those experiences.
As for what’s next, I can practically hear Miocic’s response. "Whatever." Give him a fair wage and tell him where to sign. Cain Velasquez? Daniel Cormier? Brock Lesnar? Whatever.
A rematch with Ngannou, someday, would make sense, too. Ngannou looked helpless in Miocic’s side control Saturday, so his need to get better should be obvious. It’s an open question as to whether he does it, or if he heads off in another direction, as Chad mentioned, but my Spidey sense says he does.
Miocic will lead by example, noting in his post-fight speech to Joe Rogan that he has "get back in the gym and get better." He’s not a physical marvel like Ngannou or others, so he knows he needs to stay sharp and get sharper. He’s 35 years old and can’t do this forever, but there’s no reason to think he won’t be here for some time to come. He is not and probably never will be the UFC’s glamor boy, but he’s the heavyweight GOAT now, and that’s more than enough.