Francis Ngannou’s UFC 220 hype has fans overlooking champ Stipe Miocic

UFC heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic holds notable stoppage victories over Alistair Overeem, Fabricio Werdum, Junior dos Santos, Andrei Arlovski and Mark Hunt. (Gregory Payan/AP)

Stipe Miocic can become the first UFC heavyweight champion to defend the title three consecutive times Saturday in the main event of UFC 220 if he manages to halt the incredible momentum of Francis Ngannou.

The potential record-breaking performance isn’t the No. 1 storyline heading into the weekend though. That’s because all anyone seems to be talking about this week is Ngannou and what a dominant and marketable champion he’ll be once he dispatches Miocic.

On one hand it makes total sense.

Ngannou is on the precipice of superstardom and if he can stiffen Miocic the way he did Alistair Overeem in December then Ngannou will be the talk of the sports world come Sunday morning — at least until the NFL playoff games get going.

The 31-year-old was born into poverty in Batie, Cameroon and only a few years ago he was homeless living in Paris. He’s now one win away from being a world champion in a sport he began training in merely five years ago. It would be too hokey if you wrote it into a screenplay but Ngannou has lived it. His journey has inspired sports fans globally and what he’s done in the cage is undeniable.

Ngannou, with his sinewy superhero look, has gone 6-0 in the UFC since making his promotional debut in December 2015. All six of his wins have come via stoppage and he has dusted his four most recent opponents in less than seven combined minutes.

UFC commentator Joe Rogan even described Ngannou as “the scariest man in the history of the sport” and a “one-in-a-million type athlete.”

When you filter out Ngannou’s aura of invincibility, however, and strip this down to what it really is — two great athletes competing in a high-level fistfight — the only determinant advantages Ngannou has over Miocic are punching power and physical strength, two qualities Miocic also possesses in droves.

That’s why it’s somewhat surprising to see Ngannou listed as the odds-on favourite to win the belt.

All the praise Ngannou is receiving is completely warranted, but it’s almost as if mixed martial arts fans have forgotten how good Miocic is, and that’s a disservice to what he has accomplished and what he’s capable of.

Miocic (17-2) is riding perhaps the most impressive winning streak in UFC heavyweight history with five consecutive knockouts over Mark Hunt, Andrei Arlovski, Fabricio Werdum, Overeem and Junior dos Santos.

The firefighter and EMT — yes, despite being the UFC heavyweight champ he still maintains his day job helping the fine people in his home state of Ohio — doesn’t get the credit he deserves for having one of the more fan-friendly styles around either. He has earned eight post-fight performance bonuses in his past 12 fights dating back six years.

Is recency bias at the root of Ngannou being the betting favourite over Miocic? Both fighters are easy to cheer for and they’re great role models, but Ngannou is the fresher face for fans to glom on to. If Miocic was less blue collar and played up the “baddest man on the planet” persona usually attributed to the reigning UFC heavyweight kingpin would he be favoured? Are people worried all the damage Miocic has accrued during his career might finally catch up to him? Or is Ngannou really just that good?

Ngannou does have four submission victories and statistically his 75 per cent takedown defence is not to be discredited, but against Miocic – and this might sound harsh – he essentially has a puncher’s chance.

The six-foot-three, 263-pound contender has taken advantage when his opponents throw looping punches at him in the past, slipping and countering with force. That might be difficult for him to do Saturday since Miocic has tight boxing and there usually isn’t any wasted motion on his punches. Miocic has a decided advantage in the wrestling, grappling, experience and level of competition departments.

Miocic, while highly skilled, relies on his rugged toughness and iron chin probably a little too much and that’s where he could get into trouble in this fight. The “I’m willing to eat one so I can land one” strategy eventually catches up to all fighters who employ it. And when you’re talking about heavyweights, this strategy is not conducive to long-term success (not to mention brain health). Getting into a firefight with Ngannou is certainly not his easiest path to victory nor the smartest avenue to take.

The fact that no fighter since the introduction of the UFC heavyweight title in 1997 has been able to defend it thrice in a row speaks to the unpredictability of a weight class rich with proven one-shot knockout artists.

There is no room for error for Miocic and for Ngannou in this bout. It’s one reason why the matchup is so compelling and why the public will always be enamoured by the heavyweight division.

Are we about to enter the Ngannou era or can Miocic extinguish that notion and prove being listed as the underdog was a mistake?

UFC 220 is the first pay-per-view event of 2018 for MMA fans to enjoy and while the undercard leaves much to be desired — it’s a rough one, folks — this heavyweight title fight at the top of the bill is unassailable.

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