Francis Ngannou and the Hunt for MMA’s First Homegrown Heavyweight Superstar

December 7, 2017 6:00 am by Tom Taylor
Francis Ngannou Alistair Overeem

Dana White’s thoughts on Francis Ngannou could not be clearer. When the UFC President talks about the hulking French-Cameroonian heavyweight contender, his eyes might as well light up with dollar signs. In Ngannou, he believes he has found a future superstar.

“Once we keep this guy active, and you see him doing this to all the big stars that you know and yeah, I think this guy’s going to be a rock star globally,” White said at the UFC 218 post-fight press conference, just hours after Ngannou punched Alistair Overeem’s head into the outer reaches of the solar system.

“When you look at him, he looks like the heavyweight champion of the world,” he added. “I mean he looks like the heavyweight champion of something. The guy is a monster.”

“He looked incredible tonight… That’s as impressive a heavyweight knockout as you’ll ever see.”

White’s not wrong. Francis Ngannou’s knockout of Alistair Overeem, dealt with a punch that looked like it could have derailed a train, was absolutely impressive. One second, he and Overeem were exchanging. The next, he was celebrating his latest win, while Overeem lay supine beneath the Jumbotron, eyes lifeless, toes curled like fiddleheads.

This is just the kind of carnage we’ve come to expect from Ngannou.

In the short time he’s been in the MMA limelight, he’s already shoehorned himself into an especially destructive group of combat sports athletes; a small circle populated by behemoths like Mike Tyson, Earnie Shavers, Dan Henderson and Anthony Johnson. The combat sports world is crawling with hard punchers, but like the aforementioned men, there seems to be something special about Ngannou’s fists. They seem extra concussive; like being hit with a 40-pound dumbbell fired out of a cannon. When he lands, you worry for his opponents.

Worry.

As distracting as Ngannou’s victory was, that’s what many onlookers felt as Overeem was scraped off the canvas by a concerned group of officials and physicians, and we’re likely to endure this uncomfortable feeling again Ngannou’s career continues to unfold.

Ngannou’s next fight, of course, is far from a guaranteed win. Instead, it is likely to be the toughest challenge of his career thus far, as he’s expected to take on reigning UFC heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic—probably at UFC 220 on January 20th.

Miocic, who is a truly destructive fighter in his own right—and an active firefighter—seems to possess plenty of the qualities you’d expect the UFC to associate with stardom. For whatever reason, however, he’s never received much of a push from the promotion, and it’s hard to say if he’ll get that push if he beats Ngannou. What is certain, however, is that Ngannou will unfailingly receive a rocket-fuelled push if he captures the heavyweight title from Miocic. The promotion is sure to make a massive investment in their new heavyweight king in an effort to turn him into a mainstream hit.

The interesting thing is that, if the chips land the way the UFC clearly hopes they will, Ngannou could arguably be called the promotion’s first real heavyweight superstar.

Now, I know what many of you are probably thinking.

“Brock Lesnar was a real heavyweight star!”

Fair point. Yet Brock Lesnar’s stardom was not a product of his success in MMA, but his success as a pro wrestler. Though he helmed many blockbuster UFC pay-per-views, and enjoyed a brief stint as the promotion’s apex predator, he was a star before he ever stepped foot in the Octagon, and he remains a star today, when he could not be further from it.

If Ngannou were to evolve into a star of Lesnar’s caliber, he’d be the first, home-grown heavyweight superstar the promotion has ever produced. Another Muhammad Ali or Mike Tyson for this sport, and more importantly, this generation. Another Randy Couture, Cain Velasquez or Junior dos Santos, but with the traits to regularly pass the 600,000 pay-per-view mark. Another Conor McGregor or Ronda Rousey, but standing at a towering six-foot-four, and weighing in at 265-pounds of rippling muscle.

Again, this would all seem to hinge on Francis Ngannou’s defeating Stipe Miocic, but all the ingredients are there. He’s got the rags-to-riches story, having drifted from a rugged town in Cameroon, to the streets of Paris, to the bright light of the UFC. He’s got the God-given ability, having stormed through the UFC heavyweight ranks, leaving a trail of mushroom clouds in his wake. He’ll soon have the ability to cut some solid promos on the mic, having dedicated himself to learning English… It would seem to be a matter of time before the movie roles, book deals and Hollywood appearances commence.

Though Dana White has falsely identified new superstars in the past—Sage Northcutt, Paige VanZant, Eric Silva, the list goes on—he might well be right this time around. Francis Ngannou might just evolve into MMA’s first, true, homegrown heavyweight superstar.


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