It’s easy to forget, given his meteoric rise in the sport, but Francis Ngannou never intended to get into mixed martial arts.
When Ngannou migrated to France from his native Cameroon in his mid-20s, he initially got into boxing. His coaches eventually steered him toward MMA. And looking back, he says, one of the main reasons he was able to stick with the sport — and become so good at it — was that he enjoyed it.
Yes, he needed to make a living. And yes, he recognized he had natural talent. But had he not enjoyed it, it wouldn’t have worked out so quickly for him.
“What kept me doing it was that it was fun,” Ngannou told ESPN. “And at some point, it got more serious. I lost sight of the fun I had in the past.”
Ngannou (13-3) faces former heavyweight champion Junior Dos Santos (21-5) in the main event of Saturday’s UFC Fight Night in Minneapolis. The winner could very well be next in line for a title shot.
That could be looked at as additional pressure on the two men involved. But Ngannou says he has learned how to remove that type of pressure from his fights. In his words, he has learned how to “not care, even though I do care.” Ngannou put way too much stress on himself in back-to-back losses in 2018 — a title fight against Stipe Miocic and a sluggish three-round bout against Derrick Lewis — and he says he’ll never do that again.
Ngannou is still considered a potential star at heavyweight, if he’s able to put everything together. And Dos Santos is on his longest win streak since 2012, when he lost the championship belt he had won a year earlier. Saturday’s main event has high stakes in the division, even if Ngannou is focused on tuning them out.
By the numbers
8: Finishes for Ngannou since 2015, tied for the most in the UFC during that stretch.
0: Fighters with three consecutive UFC knockouts of under a minute. Ngannou won his past two fights via KO in 45 and 26 seconds, respectively. (The only fighter to win three straight in the UFC inside a minute by any type of finish is Ronda Rousey.)
6: Consecutive bouts in which Dos Santos has not attempted a takedown. In all, JDS has spent 94 percent of his time on the feet in his UFC fights.
4.76: Strikes landed per minute by Dos Santos, according to UFC Stats. That’s more than twice as many as Ngannou (2.05). Dos Santos also is the more accurate striker, landing at a 48% clip to Ngannou’s 37%.
Source: ESPN Stats & Information research
A look back: KO vs. KO
Junior Dos Santos in 2011:
Francis Ngannou in 2017:
Five vs. five
“I feel confident when I’m boxing against a guy. I know this guy has a lot of power. That’s why everybody wants to see this fight. He has a lot of power. He throws awkward punches from everywhere. He’s dangerous, I know. But, man, I have the footwork, I have the agility, I have the speed. So I can make it happen. And I will make it happen.” — Dos Santos, speaking to ESPN
“I think I’m the best boxer in the heavyweight division. I’m going to prove it on the 29th. Yes, he’s a very good boxer, so I have to show that I am better than him. … And I don’t believe in Dos Santos’ jiu-jitsu black belt. … I have watched his fights and saw him in a lot of positions that I would do differently, even though I’m not a black belt. So I have doubts about it.” –Ngannou, speaking to reporters last week
Junior Dos Santos’ greatest hits:
Francis Ngannou’s KO reel:
Oh, yeah, one more KO from Ngannou:
Brett Okamoto’s pick
I’m back and forth on this one, which makes sense given we’re talking about a standup fight between two heavyweight knockout artists. This is the kind of fight that could turn on a dime. I think Dos Santos has a very good chance to pull an upset, but with the exception of the Lewis debacle one year ago, Ngannou has performed very well in this type of style matchup.
Ngannou by KO, Round 1.
Waiting in the wings
Daniel Cormier? Stipe Miocic? We’ll know better Aug. 17, when the heavyweight champion and the ex-champ fight their rematch. Cormier is 40 and on borrowed time, having pledged to his family that he’d retire by the time he hit the big four-oh. And even if he beats Miocic again and opts to stick around for more, DC might eye a money/revenge fight against Jon Jones. But if he or Miocic is looking for the biggest challenge at heavyweight, it’s the winner of Saturday’s slugfest.
What to watch for (beyond the main event)
Did you know?
There have been no submissions at either of the past two UFC events. According to the relentless researchers at ESPN Stats & Information, this is the first time there have been no subs on consecutive cards since November 2015. It has never happened in three straight UFC cards.
Unfortunately for those who love to witness history, Demian Maia is fighting on this weekend’s card. The Brazilian jiu-jitsu ace has 13 career submissions — accounting for half of his victories.
Flying under the radar
The beleaguered flyweight division is represented in the co-main event by Joseph Benavidez vs. Jussier Formiga, and it’s a rarity for the UFC. The promotion seldom puts the 125-pounders this high on a card when it’s a nontitle bout. But when it happens, it often involves Benavidez: This will be his third nontitle co-main, and there have been only three other nontitle flyweight main events or co-mains in UFC history. (Benavidez also twice fought in main events, in title fight losses to Demetrious Johnson in 2012 and ’13.)
How the numbers add up at 125
An additional helping of co-main event food for thought, courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information:
Benavidez (27-5 overall) is 14-3 in the UFC, giving him an .824 winning percentage, which is fifth-best among the 137 fighters who have had at least 15 UFC bouts (behind 18-1 Jon Jones, 15-1 Tony Ferguson, 20-2 Georges St-Pierre and 15-2-1 Demetrious Johnson).
Benavidez is 12-3 at flyweight. With a victory, he would tie Demetrious Johnson for the most 125-pound wins in UFC history. This also will be his 16th fight at flyweight, breaking a tie with Johnson for most in UFC history.
Formiga (23-5, 9-4 in UFC) is seeking to become the third UFC flyweight with 10 victories.
Benavidez is the better striker, landing 3.41 significant strikes per minute and outlanding opponents by 0.86 per minute. Formiga lands only 1.37 significant strikes per minute and is outlanded by 0.68 per minute, according to UFC Stats.
The key for Formiga, who has never won by KO/TKO, is getting the fight to the ground. During his current four-fight winning streak, he has eight takedowns and 17 ground passes, while his opponents have none. Overall, Formiga is 9-0 in the UFC when he lands a takedown and 0-4 when he doesn’t. (Benavidez has allowed a takedown in four of his past five fights, but still won all of them.)
Against Maia, you must think on your feet
Maia has won his past eight fights in which he landed at least one takedown. In his past three losses, he has gone 0-for-49 on takedown tries.
Call the 41-year-old Brazilian one-dimensional if you want, but if he gets you to the canvas, he’s going to make you feel like you’re in another dimension.
Nickname of the night
There’s nothing more highbrow than a literary reference, and if that reference takes the form of a comic-strip character with 85 years of history behind him, that’s tough to beat. But sorry, Jared Gordon, too many other sports figures with your surname have been known as “Flash Gordon.” So let’s shift our artsy attention to the silver screen. Light heavyweight Paul Craig has a nickname — “Bearjew ” — that references the bat-wielding Sgt. Donny Donowitz from “Inglourious Basterds,” the 2009 Quentin Tarantino film that earned eight Oscar nominations. That’s a lot to live up to for Craig. He can’t possibly be as brutal as the original, can he?