Most fighters change, evolve, and adapt to earn title shots or become champions. That’s a fact that’s not even specific to fighting. That’s just life. Once upon a time, I used to stretch before football practice. Now I stretch carefully in the morning just to avoid aggravating my back.
Francis Ngannou is getting his second crack at the heavyweight title this weekend at UFC 260. To get there, he beat Jairzinho Rozenstruik with the kind of combination someone might throw when a fly interrupts their egg-beating.
And if we simply had the Rozenstruik win to go on, it would be difficult to say whether Ngannou had improved enough to beat Stipe Miocic. After all, these were the same wild combinations Ngannou threw early on in his career – as he did against Luis Henrique – and in the middle—as he did against Cain Velasquez. Granted, the KO punch landed on Henrique was a solid, calculated punch, and Velasquez got injured. Those points aside, however, on the surface, Ngannou doesn’t look like the kind of fighter with the potential to work through the dominance Miocic showed in the first bout between the two men.
But, let’s not kid the analysis gods. Two minutes and forty two seconds: that’s how long Ngannou has been in the cage over the course of his last four fights. That’s the issue with quick finishes, they shows us everything (Ngannou has big power), but tells us nothing (can Ngannou adjust against a technician?).
For some fighters, the cues are there to improve. Justin Gaethje turned the corner by cleaning up his defense. Brian Ortega began using more movement to compliment a powerful, but rote striking attack. Sometimes the cues aren’t there, and the fighter improves anyway, like Dustin Poirier.
If we’re looking for cues on Ngannou, there’s not a lot to go on. There are some, however. More training with Kamaru Usman is likely what led to small improvements in Ngannou’s ability to slide underhooks in against opponents looking for takedowns, as he did against Curtis Blaydes. He seems to have tightened his stance a bit, which could keep Miocic from managing distance.
But this is heavyweight. I think it’s perfectly reasonable to ask: does adaptation even matter? Does Ngannou need to improve in order to be heavyweight champion? Culturally, I think we’re programmed to believe that evolution and adaptation are synonymous. Slogans like ‘adapt or die’ might seem profound, except that even within science, survival and change have been marked more by the calm amidst the catastrophe rather than strict ‘survival of the fittest.’ That’s the philosophy driving Ngannou’s camp: just improve our weaknesses, and our strengths will take over.
But I’m skeptical ‘adaptation’ truly has its reward at heavyweight.
The lower weights benefit from this kind of process: when everyone is similarly fast, strong, and technical, distinguishing yourself through improved tactics – however minor – can yield larger rewards. What reward is there for Ngannou to better defend takedowns?
There are some, to be sure. He doesn’t have to spend the rest of the round on his back, for example. But that won’t help him land punches. Successfully defending a takedown might lead to a higher probability of keeping it on the feet to land a punch. But, Ngannou still ends up in the same tactical spot: playing defense rather than offense. I think the better question is, can Ngannou better manage the ‘fightstates’ where he’s strong in order to decrease the margin for error where he’s weak?
In watching the fight again, I’m not sure Ngannou’s weaknesses were the problem. Yes, Miocic was successful with his takedowns. But if staying off his back is the endgame, how does that stop Miocic from simply pressing him against the cage, and slowing Ngannou in the clinch? How does that improve Ngannou’s gas tank, which contributed more to Ngannou’s lack of takedown defense than lack of technique? How does improved takedown defense help him get stiffened up by Stipe’s jab, or straight rights?
I always go back to what former NHL coach, Guy Boucher, told Steven Stamkos, one of hockey’s premiere goal scorers. ‘Focus on your strengths, because your strengths are what make you special.’ We’ve seen plenty of cases where being ‘well-rounded’ and shoring up weaknesses was a step back. Ronda Rousey didn’t need to improve her striking. A couple of training camps with a questionable tactician was never gonna compete with a lifetime of honed mechanics (Holly Holm), and singular force (Amanda Nunes). Fighters like Jacare and Maia might have benefited on the whole by having better striking, but it’s not how they ultimately distinguished themselves.
There are a lot of expectations on Ngannou. And one of those expectations is that he must improve in order to be better. I don’t think improvement in the strict sense of being better defensively or harder to take down is the key. I think the key is improving what already makes Ngannou special. It seems reductionist, and maybe even foolish. But who is Ngannou if not a wrecking ball of violence? And what better fit for this type of gameplan than a sport that hinges on chaos?
I could be wrong. But I don’t think gradual improvement is what could earn Ngannou a potential belt. I think catastrophe is. And he’s got catastrophe in both fists.