Fans of mixed martial arts have notoriously short memories, so let’s not sit here and pretend that the story of Francis Ngannou has already been told to its conclusion.
One fight can change everything.
The day was Friday, the ninth of November, and Donald ‘Cowboy’ Cerrone was gearing up to take on a young and hungry lion in the form of Mike Perry at UFC Denver – coming into the bout with a 1-4 streak that had many people questioning his long-term future in the sport.
It was understandable too. Nobody likes to see their favourite fighter in a position where the brutal losses are coming around frequently and with a fighter as game as Cowboy, you’d have been forgiven for worrying about his health given his form up to that point.
Jump forward to the morning of Sunday the 11th, just two short days later, and he’s being pegged as a potential opponent for the former-lightweight champion Conor McGregor and all of a sudden, those brutal losses seem like a distant memory.
It happens so often that we really should see it coming by now but if you’re telling me that Francis Ngannou isn’t capable of recapturing every last bit of the hype he has lost this year, you need to pay closer attention to the past.
The mental aspect of mixed martial arts is one that’s hard to fully appreciate from afar.
The idea of the hammer and nail is one that is mentioned often. It’s easy to be the hammer, but your true mettle is tested when you have to take on the role of the nail.
Everything from Dana White’s relentless promotion of Francis during the build-up to UFC 220 to his residence in the UFC Performance Institute in Vegas for that camp served only to augment his belief in his abilities.
And there’s nothing wrong with that, for the most part.
But when the notions you have about yourself come crashing down in the most dramatic of fashions in what should have been the biggest moment of your life, your true test will come in the weeks and months that follow.
Stipe put a bad beating on Ngannou from the first bell to the last and made the difference in quality abundantly clear – defending his title for a record third time and stealing away the shine that saw him unfairly underpromoted in the leadup to the event.
When the first test of Francis’ ability to bounce back came a few months later at UFC 226, I think it’s fair to say he completely bottled it.
I don’t need to get into how bad the performance he turned in against Derrick Lewis was or how it was amongst the poorest fights in the history of the UFC but all in all, the man looked to be a shell of himself.
As a late entry into the sport, Ngannou’s rise saw him encounter very little in the way of opposition to his brutal punching power. Losing to Stipe like that with the weight of the promotion on his shoulders and then rebounding in such dreadful fashion isn’t as difficult to understand as most believe it to be.
The interesting chapter in the story of Francis Ngannou begins tomorrow at UFC Beijing.
Fair enough, you tasted your first high-profile defeat and reacted badly – perhaps with an even worse display than most. That’s in the past.
In Curtis Blaydes, the UFC have given him the perfect test for two reasons.
Firstly, he represents a very bad stylistic matchup for Ngannou – whereas Derrick Lewis could well have represented a very good one. Blaydes’ has already stated to the media that his goal will be to take Francis down as soon as possible.
Ngannou will be forced to ride straight into the fire in this fight.
By pairing him with a fighter like Blaydes, the UFC matchmakers are giving him the perfect opportunity to reignite the self-belief that got him to the dance by overcoming a truly challenging opponent that fortunately comes with one key ingredient – the second reason that this fight is perfect.
Francis has beaten Curtis Blaydes in the past.
I’m not saying he should be favoured in this fight. In fact, if I were to place a bet on either man it would likely be the in-form Blaydes.
But that’s not the point.
The UFC have made the decision to match him up with his former conquest and in my opinion, the familiarity that comes with facing someone he has already shared the octagon with in victory could well light the spark within him again.
When Francis Ngannou fought Curtis Blaydes for the first time back in 2016, sure, neither man was as developed as they are today, but the Francis Ngannou that fought on that night was the Francis Ngannou who believed he was the best in the world, the same Francis Ngannou who knew that his power could shatter absolutely anyone he stood across from.
Whether that was delusions of grandeur borne out of a misguided ego or not is irrelevant. The power that saw him nearly decapitate Alistair Overeem is very much still in his locker.
It’s very important to remember that.
— Simon Head (@simonhead) December 3, 2017
It’s not going to be easy, and some might even say that the odds are skewed in his opponent’s favour, but this is the type of test that will allow of us to see what Francis Ngannou is made of.
And if he can make the right adjustments, allow himself to get comfortable and then bring the hammer down on the Curtis Blaydes-shaped nail that stands before him, I guarantee you that we will once again be singing songs in honour of The Predator’s power by the time Monday morning comes around.
Cillian Cunningham, Pundit Arena