Francis Ngannou vs. Junior dos Santos headlines UFC Minneapolis this June 29, 2019 at the Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
One sentence summary
Phil: Old punching time meets new punching time
David: Face/Off: 10,000 carbs-each-morning Edition
Record: Francis Ngannou 13-3 | Junior dos Santos 21-5
Odds: Francis Ngannou -215 | Junior dos Santos +195
History / Introduction to the fighters
Phil: Francis Ngannou: is he the future of the division, or is he a weird anomaly? Despite being in the UFC for about three and a half years, it is oddly difficult to tell. Wicked handspeed and natural power are great things to have, but as Cody Garbrandt could tell you, they don’t necessarily translate into long-term, championship-level dominance. It is good, however, that he seems to have escaped out from under the insane expectations of the UFC promotional machine. Back when he was riding a two fight losing streak, it looked like he might have been broken, but he’s recovered to the extent that we now know: Francis Ngannou is back! Whoever that is.
David: You’d think we’d know who Ngannou is by now. Freaky power punchers tend to have a specific sell-by date. His unique style, and method of business instead makes him an unlikely man of mystery. He looked unstoppable at first, culminating in a punch that sent Alistair Overeem’s head into an observable event horizon. Then he lost to Stipe Miocic and Derrick Lewis — culminating in Dana White’s predictable Throw the Talent Under the Bus rant. Now he’s face to face with another big striker who was once primed to be the heavyweight future, making this quite the metaphysical showdown.
Phil: JDS is, by some measure, the known quantity in the matchup. While both men have had their ups and downs in the UFC division, Dos Santos has had both the higher highs and the lower lows. This isn’t to disparage Ngannou’s awful staring match with Derrick Lewis, which still stands proud as one of the worst fights in UFC history, but I don’t think that anyone wrote Ngannou off in quite the same way that JDS was written off after his loss to Miocic. This also isn’t to say that JDS has pulled himself back up to his former heights. Wins over Lewis, Tuivasa and Ivanov are... fine. But JDS still lives in a no-man’s land between his former greatness and the definitive write-off zone that his former rival Cain Velasquez occupies.
David: When we last left our hero, he was pulling himself up by his bootstraps to take out Derrick Lewis. JDS never really bottomed out. He just kind of scraped the bottom and quickly slung back up. Along the way we questioned his long-term stability in the division. It’s hard to say where he’s at, right now. Heavyweight is a blubbery chaos machine that favors violent luck over graceful skill. This fight will either be a referendum of that statement, or a rebuke.
What’s at stake?
Phil: Wait where are we at heavyweight again? Taking a brief look at the rankings, it looks like this fight is kind of it as far as contender bouts go. Alexander Volkov hasn’t done anything since beating Werdum, and other than that the division is a wasteland, unless Jon Jones decides to try his hand at heavyweight. Title shot for the winner!
David: Ngannou will find his way into title contention with a win. JDS has already been through the heavyweight ringer of rock, paper, and scissors. So who knows.
Where do they want it?
Phil: Francis Ngannou is a man who has shown shocking advances in skill that you wouldn’t have expected to see from someone with his level of experience. Primarily, in his counterpunching ability. The Cameroonian has a preternatural ability to pick up on big, slow, heavyweight head movement and wallop his opponents with a sweeping hook, uppercut, or right hand. On the other hand, however, those skills haven’t visibly progressed too much in recent memory? In this way it’s hard to know what Ngannou has shown us beyond this. He can learn kimuras very quickly, he appears to be exceptionally physically durable, and he’s reasonably difficult to take down. In his most recent fight, he showed an ugly but functional leg kick. Nothing really jumps out, or if it does it’s put into the shade by the light from the nuclear reactors in his fists.
David: Ngannou is very much a general practitioner inside the cage. He recommends watchful waiting. I wouldn’t call him a tactician, per se. But he’s acutely aware of his literal strength, bulling his way forward when the power-meter on his opponent begins to drip. His power is marked by a distinct ability to sweep around defenses rather than just puncture through, with a nice “array” (more of a selection of on-sale strikes, really) of shovel punches, half-probing jab, and bricking strikes to counter movement and pressure. Against technical fighters, this doesn’t really work. As it did (or didn’t) against Miocic. Against prone fighters, this can work — as it did against Overeem. Or not work — as it didn’t against Lewis. His success seems to depend a lot on what his opponent is willing to give him. In a way, that makes Ngannou special in his own right. Despite crushing power, he has what it takes to stay calm before, within, and after the storm.
Phil: JDS is a bizarrely mischaracterized fighter, mainly in the way that people seem to conflate him with his former rival. Cain was a fighter who was profoundly defined by his physicality: by his ability to close distance, withstand punishment on the way in, and crush people with his endless cardio once he was in the phonebooth. Dos Santos has always been defined more by spatial than physical factors, and hence has aged better. Are you good at moving forwards? Then JDS will struggle to keep you off him. Are you a defined counterpuncher? Then JDS isn’t much better at closing you down. Other than that, he retains most of his physical gifts, with the notable exception of his freakish durability, which was largely spent in the second and first fights with Velasquez. So he remains someone who is difficult to take down and keep down, someone with incredible cardio for a heavyweight, and someone who has still never lost a mid-range boxing match.
David: dos Santos has been here long enough to see his game evolve. Except it hasn’t. At least not in a significant way. That speaks to his fundamentals. With a nice flicking jab, and a powerful straight right, his rote method of pugilism allows him to stay consistent in a way few heavyweights can manage or even strive toward. Like Ngannou, his success is defined by what his opponent gives him. Even against lesser competition, like his fight against Tai Tuivasa, he was tagged under pressure. His raw durability and speed got him out of high danger areas, but it’s easy to imagine how differently that fight would have looked against a more deliberate pressure attack.
Insight from past fights
Phil: Ngannou’s fights tend to be the definition of boom or bust- either he annihilates his opponent, or he settles into terrible fights. The idea that this is based in cardio (the ol’ Joe Rogan “big muscles need lots of oxygen” idea) seems at least partially false. Instead, it just seems to be that he’s a counterpuncher who can’t lead. Against people who rush in (Velasquez, Blaydes) he can pick them off. Against people who keep their distance (Lewis) he lacks the tools to close. The problem is that his sheer physicality often seems to spook his opponents into attacking when they don’t have to. I still maintain that Overeem could have beaten Ngannou if he’d just gotten on his bike.
David: You said it best. Boom or bust. You mentioned a really important point — that opponents seem provoked into action when none is warranted. I’ll give Ngannou some credit here and argue that some of this is calculated. He sort of bobbles around, and half-leans, giving off the impression of someone about to strike. Because he’s so good at winding up his punches on his backfoot, opponents don’t have many good opportunities get out of range unless they’re quick — or don’t engage to begin with. That’s pretty much how Arlovski and Overeem got deaded. Ngannou wasn’t moving forward during the exchanges, which I think is partially by design.
Phil: The main thing for me is that Ngannou is with a good camp (Xtreme Couture) now, having left his old coach behind. He was always a man who picked up skills quickly, so I’m interested to see how much he can improve in a better environment.
David: Space. If JDS keeps it, he wins. If not, he’ll end up on the business end of Ngannou’s highlight reel.
Phil: Look, I understand. JDS has eaten big counters in most of his recent fights. Ngannou is a face-melting hitter. But I just can’t pick Ngannou. He simply hasn’t shown much beyond a few counterpunches, an ability to start quickly, toughness and power. Are these enough to become an elite heavyweight? They surely are. Are they enough to beat someone who, while flawed, is exceptionally experienced and crafty in his given area? I’m not sure that they are. Junior dos Santos by TKO, round 4.
David: I guess my issue with picking JDS is that I don’t think he’s crafty so much as his craft keeps his weaknesses contained. He’s rarely looking to adapt, or switch-up. JDS is technical, but I don’t consider him tactical. Ngannou may not be tactical by contrast, but he’ll pick up on that predictability. By then, he just needs to make good on one strike. Francis Ngannou by KO, round 3.