Francis Ngannou will face perhaps the most interesting test of his career to date on Saturday night as he welcomes the legendary Cain Velasquez back to the octagon.
And I say ‘interesting’ because it’s now easy to get the feeling from the general MMA fanbase that the blueprint is out on how to beat this man.
One smothering performance by the former-champion Stipe Miocic was enough for people to all-but-lose their faith in the abilities of Francis Ngannou.
His infamously meek showing at UFC 226 may as well have put the nail in the coffin then and there.
And yet, those who witnessed his destruction of Andrei Arlovski and his near-decapitation of Alistair Overeem wisely chose not to completely disregard this hulking behemoth based on the shortcomings of his grappling-game or the questions over his mentality.
Power like Ngannou’s is enough to make all of that irrelevant.
I don’t think it’s a stretch or an over-exaggeration to call him the hardest hitter the sport has ever seen.
And from his UFC debut to his most recent outing, he has been able to combine his power with enough speed in order catch the admittedly sluggish competition he has faced to date with a shot that usually resulted in a brutal knockout.
But in Stipe Miocic, he came up against an athlete in his prime, a truly modern fighter who was able to nullify his offense using a far superior technical skillset.
Ngannou could have caught him and no doubt could have finished him had the opportunity presented itself but Stipe represented the first elite-level talent he faced whose chin and physical attributes weren’t on the decline.
And boy, did he make that difference known!
Miocic battered and, in some ways, mentally broke ‘The Predator’ for the vast majority of the twenty-five minutes on the clock and when his return came a few months later against Derrick Lewis, it showed.
But with an x-factor as devastating as his fight-changing punching power, dismissing that one shot could be dangerous.
When Ngannou managed to completely run through Curtis Blaydes in under a minute at UFC Beijing – it was too quick to properly assess if anything had really changed.
People were very quick to write off and even ridicule Francis in the aftermath of his universally-panned bout with Lewis at UFC 226 but as we learned in his next outing, that power can change everything in an instance.
Whether he himself knows that and has taken confidence from his latest win or is still feeling the effects of his mauling at the hands of Miocic is anyone’s guess, but with an opponent like Cain Velasquez, he will face a style that in some ways is built to completely negate his own.
But it’s worth mentioning that Francis is well and truly an exception to most of the rules that govern the world of fighting.
Just over four years after making his MMA debut, he fought Miocic for a world-title.
Seán Sheehan of SevereMMA made an interesting note on the relatively green Cameroonian ahead of this matchup.
The last time Cain Velasquez won a UFC title fight Francis Ngannou hadn't made his MMA debut. #UFOTD
— Seán Sheehan (@SeanSheehanBA) February 5, 2019
If the win over Blaydes proved that he can shut any man’s hardware down with one well-timed shot, a win over Velasquez will test his ability to face his demons, the test he failed emphatically at UFC 220.
And while there are many questions that surround the mentality of Ngannou, the questions we have about the returning legend perhaps even outnumber those that hover over his opponent.
Many believe that Ngannou comprehensively answered his critics after defeating Curtis Blaydes in his last outing but in my view, it will take a lot more from him to prove that he has overcome his problems.
The scary thing about Francis, however, is that he doesn’t necessarily need to in order for his hand to be raised.
Cillian Cunningham, Pundit Arena