One sentence summary
David: Somebody’s three is about to be set free.
Phil: BIG PUNCH vs an inconvenience for the UFC, round 2
Record: Stipe Miocic 20-3 Francis Ngannou 15-3
Odds: Stipe Miocic +110 Francis Ngannou -130
History / Introduction to the fighters
David: It’s been awhile since we’ve seen Miocic in action. But nothing has changed. He’s the same lunch pail man of heavyweight MMA we’ve come to know and underrate. Even now he’s inexplicably a slight underdog despite a dominant performance the first time around. Perhaps it’s easy to underrate a man who lost to Stefan Struve. Bad losses rarely wash. But that’s just history at this point. Heck, we’re a year removed from it being a full decade since that loss. And since then, Stipe’s been nothing but a jabbing fountain of consistency. This will be his 4th rematch fight since winning the belt, which says a lot about the division. Will it move forward with who’s been guarding it since 2016, or with the man people consider (or would like to consider) the ‘future’?
Phil: Miocic remains the heavyweight anomaly. When he was on the come up there wasn’t really much people could point to that made him jump out in any kind of heavyweight way, aside from the Croat heritage. “Oh, so he’s a bit like Cro Cop then?” Yes but, you won’t see him high kicking people into unconsciousness any time soon. That “but” has been significant for a while. He’s a good wrestler but. He’s a good striker but. He hits hard, but. In a division marked by excesses, he’s carved a path towards being the UFC’s divisional GOAT by being a jack of all trades. Unmarketable as a freak, and unwilling to be much of a talker (hell, even if he wanted to be one, barely anyone would be able to understand what he was saying), he remains a workmanlike, skilled square peg in a round hole. The UFC’s hope is presumably that said peg gets forced through by sheer brute force.
David: Two minutes and forty-two seconds is all we have to go by. Has Ngannou improved enough to win the belt? Having already written about this concept, I don’t want to rehash whatever mambo-jumbo I’m on. But it’s easy to see why Ngannou, despite losing definitively the first go-around, is considered a slight favorite. All he needs is one punch. This will be the refrain for every Ngannou fight. And I think that’s fine. Dance with the one who brought you. Or ones: Ngannou’s left fist, and Ngannou’s right fist. It’s hard to envision Ngannou as a tenured heavyweight champion. He has too many flaws. But Ngannou symbolizes everything misunderstood, and well-established when it comes to the ‘puncher’s chance.’
Phil: I attempted to analyze Ngannou’s game and gave up in despair recently. I don’t think I’m the only one. You find yourself kind of irritated, even blaming the man. Why can’t he just do something apart from nuking his opponents with one punch? This is one of the ways that this sport can trap you: by dragging you into minutiae. The correct solution, I think, is to step back; try to remember that time when someone who might just be the most dangerous man on the planet because he could flatten anyone else with his fists was awesome. Ngannou’s backstory is genuinely one of the most amazing around, and at some point it starts to feel almost churlish to refuse to appreciate him because he doesn’t slot into a technical narrative about the sport.
What’s at stake?
David: I’m not caught up on my MMA “history” so I don’t know if Miocic is already GOAT status, or if this is the fight to put him there. Personally, I don’t care. It’s not that I’m ‘above’ these discussions. It’s just that heavyweight MMA has never made me feel like I was watching the stuff of legends. Fedor’s historic run was mired by squash matches, and what-if scenarios given the Pride vs. UFC phenomenon. Couture’s run was brief, and I don’t know that a fighter with a 63% win rate is all that impressive in principle. Same for Velasquez, minus the bad win rate. Am I getting distracted here? Apologies. Maybe that’s what makes Miocic stand out more than the rest. His run hasn’t been brief, and except for losing to Daniel Cormier — which is what happens when you’re always fighting elite contenders instead of pro wrestlers — his resume isn’t “mired” at all.
Phil: Like you, I’m not hugely caught up in GOAT discussions. You like Fedor’s run of dominance? Sure, go for it. You like weighing resume quality and reckon Stipe has the edge? Knock yourself out. Miocic is a tremendous heavyweight champion. He’s also been someone who has been in a ton of brutal wars at this point. Should he drop the belt, I don’t think it’s a significant mark against him.
Where do they want it?
David: Miocic’s game plan is always straightforward: pump the jab, work the body, and mix it all up with takedowns and counters. A lot of fighters understand this broad strategy conceptually, but rarely do they commit to executing it with consistency. I think this explains the underrating or underappreciation of Miocic. We’re used to seeing these patterns at lower weights to much less success. Does this look like the kind of fight pattern that’ll beat Israel Adesanya, Kamaru Usman, Deiveson Figueiredo, or Valentina Shevchenko? I mean, maybe. I think it’s fitting that the exception is Miocic’s marginally smaller twin (Blachowicz). Nonetheless, this kind of consistency stands out because heavyweight is not a division characterized by consistency. Within that, Miocic is just a damn good fighter. His punch sequencing is more or less what led to beating Cormier in the initial rematch: going upstairs, then downstairs, and eventually upstairs again. It doesn’t seem like much, but when everyone else is headhunting (Ngannou), running in (Blaydes), or undecided (Lewis), it’s the difference.
Phil: While Miocic doesn’t have a single standout strength, he makes up for it by being perhaps heavyweight’s premiere technician (his primary contender is probably Overeem, who has a wider but shallower skillset). While not the puncher that Ngannou is, his power is aided by being able to do shocking things like pushing his opponents out of position before hitting them: whether a pull counter against Ngannou himself, or forcing JDS into a fatal backpedal before squashing him by the cage, he’s a striker who can manipulate his opponent into either punches or takedowns. In the wrestling, he is neither Cormier or Velasquez, but can hit a single leg or work from the clinch. He is tough and game, and can normally find a solution in his toolkit over the length of a fight, even if he doesn’t alight on it immediately.
David: People laugh at Ngannou’s combination against Rozenstruik, and admittedly, so do I. It looks like the kind of combination you throw in Mortal Kombat when you’re low on health and have no other options. I don’t think there’s some kind of merchant scroll embedded in Ngannou’s technique, and we’re underrating his mechanics or anything. But I do think we tend to sell his tactics short. Yes, his gameplan is to knock his opponent out. But within that, there’s an attention to detail with how he looks to channel combinations through the movement of his left hook. Sometimes he’ll throw it as the start of a combination (see Arlovski and Henrique), or the end (see Overeem, and Rozenstruik). But he legitimately isn’t there to simply let fists fly and see what happens. He’s always looking to time his combinations, extract offense from his opponent with movement, and insert (rather than flail) looping hooks, uppercuts, and shovel punches in the counterattack. Brawling may be the end result, but it’s not the foundation. Even then, ‘brawling’ doesn’t deserve the negative connotation it often gets. Amanda Nunes had to brawl to beat Cyborg. Kamaru Usman largely brawled with Colby Covington to retain his belt. Etc. The key to effective brawling is timing. Ngannou has that, even if his window to do so decreases the longer the fight goes.
Phil: Ngannou is one of those fighters who I think needs his opponent to be in a particular slice of range in order to be effective. Ironically, the way that he fights seems to force them into that range- he steps forward, left hand coiled and right hand cocked, and the sheer annihilating threat of either landing seems to discombobulate almost everyone he goes up against. They feel like they have to attack him (or they’ll die) and they have to finish or hurt him (or they’ll die). Thus they charge in and get summarily clobbered. The thing is, he really does seem to have a good sense of where people are moving and how to hit them. He has a counterpuncher’s instincts, if not any of the technical scaffolding to actually make a countering game work. Once he’s in close, however, all that is a moot point: in a physical exchange, he knows where the other fighter’s body is, and he can just put his fist through where he thinks they’ll be. Jabs, lowkicks, lateral movement etc. are things which have appeared in his approach, but without any consistency. Essentially it’s just been: they are going to level change on me at some point, and when they do they will die. If they don’t, his second approach is just to charge, and hope that like most heavyweights his opponents run backwards in a straight line.
Insight from past fights
David: A lot of material to work with here: Miocic vs. Overeem, that saw Miocic get popped with single shot punch entries. Lewis vs. Ngannou, that saw what happens when Ngannou tries to fight conservatively. And their first fight, that saw the first round of Miocic eating a couple of heavy shots, and wrestle-boxing his way to a much simpler, more definitive final four rounds. I think the first round of their first fight is still a good if-then representation of how either man can win. If Ngannou can take advantage of those short bursts, Miocic is in trouble, just like he was last time. If Miocic can take advantage of dragging Ngannou into a war of attrition, Ngannou is in trouble, just like he was last time. There’s nothing new bridging the gap in our understanding of how the fight might play out given that Miocic’s game is unchanged, and whatever changes Ngannou has made, haven’t materialized in any meaningful way.
Phil: According to excellent analyst Ryan Wagner of the Fight Site, there is some reason to hope that Ngannou’s wrestling defence (primarily his underhook awareness) has improved since their last fight. Everything else is a blank slate. Ngannou showed he could jab and low kick with Stipe- if he could do this with any consistency he could force Miocic into predictable, and more importantly counterable takedowns. Has he shown any willingness to develop those weapons since their last fight? He has not.
David: More training with Kamaru Usman? We’ve seen small improvements in this part of Ngannou’s game. He’s more conscious of how and when to flash underhooks, for example, and his adjusted stance seems prepared for this kind of reactionary fighting. But I subscribe to the school of thought (or ‘thoughtlessness’) that says Ngannou should simply fight to his strengths and damn the rest. If Miocic is to be beaten, he will be beaten by what Ngannous is good at; not by minimizing what he’s bad at. Plus it’s just much more fun to watch.
Phil: Ngannou’s approach has advantages: primarily that he has taken almost no damage since fighting Stipe the last time (even his terrible bout against Derrick Lewis had almost no meaningful strikes taken on either side), whereas Miocic has been in a number of brutal wars. If one of these guys is coming in looking eroded, we know which one it is.
David: As much as I favor Miocic to win, on average, more rounds, and as much as Miocic should win the rounds themselves, on average, I don’t feel like heavyweight is ever stable enough to see fights go the distance, on average. That’s kind of convoluted so hopefully what I said makes sense. If this fight doesn’t go five rounds, I think it’s more likely that it doesn’t go five rounds because Ngannou just landed the right punches. Yes, I could totally see Miocic finishing Ngannou. In fact, I think the prospect is much more likely than people give it credit for. Ngannou took some hellish shots. Any less gas, and maybe Miocic gets a mercy stoppage. But Miocic tends to get caught. Whether in fights he lost (Struve, Cormier) or fights he won (Overeem, Ngannou). If he’s gonna get caught again, this feels like a bad time (against a surging, confident Ngannou) to do so. Francis Ngannou by TKO, round 2.
Phil: I think Miocic has significant paths to victory, on the feet at least as much as he does in the wrestling department (perhaps more). I think blindly going for takedowns would get him lit up as badly as Velasquez was. I am still profoundly unconvinced of Ngannou’s ability to withstand a consistent jabbing game. That being said, Stipe rarely wins his fights cleanly, has been in a ton of wars, and Ngannou puts people to sleep when he hits them. Francis Ngannou by TKO, round 2.