Pace could be a key factor in Ngannou-Dos Santos battle

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Francis Ngannou has certainly gotten himself back on track with back-to-back first-round knockouts, after back-to-back losses knocked him out of the UFC heavyweight title picture. In his most recent fight, he stopped former UFC champ Cain Velasquez in what was perhaps his biggest victory to date. Ngannou gets a shot against another former champion in Junior Dos Santos in the main event of UFC Fight Night on Saturday.

Statistically, Dos Santos has a clear advantage in terms of striking rate. However, Ngannou’s power striking also provides him a clear path to victory. As we break down the key statistical categories that could turn out to be the difference on Saturday, some clear trends have emerged in each man’s career.

Striking differential

It should not come as a shock to anyone who’s watched the UFC heavyweight division over the last decade that Dos Santos is more of a volume striker than Ngannou. In 19 UFC fights, the former champion has landed 4.76 significant strikes per minute, compared to only 2.05 for Ngannou. Dos Santos’ offensive striking rate opens him up for counters and offense from his opponents, though, as he has absorbed 3.07 per minute, which is higher than the average for a ranked heavyweight (2.82). On the other hand, Ngannou’s conservative approach allows him to maintain solid defense, and he allows his opponents to land only 1.94 strikes on a per minute basis.

Despite some defensive shortcomings, Dos Santos’ strong striking rate leaves him with a +1.69 striking differential, which is the fourth-highest among ranked heavyweights. Striking differential, which is significant strikes landed per minute minus significant strikes absorbed per minute, is usually a good approximation of overall striking performance since it measures both offense and defense. Due to his lack of offensive volume, Ngannou has only a +0.11 striking differential, which ranks 14th among the top 16 heavyweights.

While the striking differential strongly favors Dos Santos, it also illuminates a clear path to victory for Ngannou. Dos Santos’ style relies on his ability to land with volume. While this has carried him to multiple impressive victories in the UFC, it has also left him with a below-average strike absorption rate. If Dos Santos sticks with his normal style, he will almost certainly take shots from Ngannou. That might not turn out to be the best strategy.

Striking power

The standout aspect of Ngannou’s UFC career has been his ability to stop fights with his strikes. He lands an impressive 0.91 knockdowns per 15 minutes of fight time, but that does not tell the entire story. The UFC’s definition of a knockdown is rather strict, and multiple criteria must be satisfied for one to officially count. In his 10-fight UFC career, Ngannou has won seven fights via KO/TKO due to strikes. In those seven fights, he has averaged only 14.57 significant strikes per fight. It is clear from this metric that he is able to influence a fight with very few strikes, and his stoppages are the result of power blows, not the accumulation of multiple strikes over time.

Dos Santos might have the edge in terms of volume striking, but Ngannou’s power prove he does not need to land many strikes to have an impact or even finish the fight. In the UFC, Dos Santos has been knocked down four times in his career, and he has lost due to referee stoppage because of strikes in three of his four losses in the promotion.

That’s not to say “Cigano” doesn’t have plenty of striking power in his own right. He owns a higher career knockdown rate than Ngannou, at 0.94 knockdowns per 15 minutes, though again, some of that can be attributed to sheer volume. it would seemingly be wise to employ a more conservative offensive style in this bout, as Ngannou’s ability to end the fight with only a few strikes means that Dos Santos’ normal volume style could leave him open for reprisals.

Striking target

To be successful while landing so few strikes, Ngannou has focused his attack on the heads of his opponents; as you might imagine, head shots cause by far the most knockdowns and finishes. In his UFC career, 81% of Ngannou’s landed significant strikes have been targeted at his opponents’ heads. Dos Santos also lands the majority of his strikes above the shoulders (63%). However, he also clearly has a choice secondary target, as 34% of his landed significant strikes have been to the body. Not only does he make a concerted effort to land body shots, but he is also accurate when attacking the midsection; he has landed 67% of his significant body strike attempts in the UFC.

This habit of working the body could pay dividends against Ngannou. For “The Predator,” 18% of his absorbed strikes have landed on his body, and he avoids only 34% of his opponents’ significant body strike attempts. On top of that, body shots are traditionally linked with conditioning, and Ngannou has faded in longer fights during his run in the UFC.

Including only fights of at least five minutes, Dos Santos’ striking differential is exactly the same as his career mark (+1.69). On the other hand, Ngannou has had four fights that were five minutes or longer in the UFC, and his striking differential is significantly lower in the longer bouts; in those four fights, his striking differential stands at -0.45.

If Dos Santos is able to consistently land to the body, he could help put a dent in Ngannou’s already questionable cardio. A longer fight plays to his favor, and an exhausted Ngannou will have a lot of trouble keeping up with Dos Santos.

Striking defense

Even though Dos Santos absorbs a considerable number of significant strikes, his striking defense, at least in terms of percentage, is pretty solid. During his UFC career, he has managed to avoid 58% of his opponents’ significant attempts, which is tied with UFC heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier for fifth-best among ranked heavyweights. This stat implies that his strike absorption issue is due to continually engaging in high-volume striking confrontations and not a lack of footwork or head movement.

Ngannou lands only 37% of his significant strike attempts. That rate is the second-worst among ranked heavyweights and ahead of only Blagoy Ivanov. In the past, Dos Santos has allowed himself to be hit by throwing an abundance of strikes. If he is able to lower his volume to avoid counters, Ngannou might not have the accuracy to consistently land. The former champion has the defensive ability to avoid power shots, but he needs to employ a comprehensive risk-limiting strategy to take advantage of Ngannou’s inaccuracy.

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