If we know one thing for certain about Francis Ngannou, it’s that he hits hard — so very hard. Some would tell you the impact of one of the UFC heavyweight champion’s punches is the equivalent of getting hit by a Ford Escort. Outside of that, we know little about Ngannou as a true mixed martial artist. That could change on Saturday when he faces interim heavyweight champ Ciryl Gane in the main event of UFC 270.
That’s not to say Ngannou isn’t a good fighter or to deny his talents. He is an exceptional fighter, but he’s exceptional at one thing — striking. Remove emotion from analysis and from what we’ve seen of Ngannou and Gane, Gane is the more complete mixed martial artist.
Gane is fast and light on his feet — something that is not true of most UFC heavyweights. That lightness allows him to move in and out of range with speed and makes him hard to hit. He’s also able to switch stances and evade the rushes of his slower and more flat-footed opponents. Gane’s MMA style is also one that allows him to capitalize quickly on mistakes. If an aggressive fighter overextends and misses and puts themself in an awkward position, Gane can make them pay for that error and be out of range by the time that fighter registers what has happened to them.
Ngannou is a much better fighter today than he was when he joined the UFC, but just how good is he? Is he a complete mixed martial artist? Again, we don’t know.
Ngannou showed better takedown defense and improved and patient striking in his win over Stipe Miocic at UFC 260, but Miocic is not Gane. Miocic’s striking defense and striking IQ are not as high as Gane’s. Miocic struggled to circle away from his opponent and was susceptible to the pressure of Ngannou. Gane will not have those issues, especially in a large octagon.
We know Ngannou can end the fight with one punch, but against someone as defensively sound as Gane, will he get that chance? I’m not sure.
Ngannou is powerful, but he is not a high output striker. Only 12 active fighters in the UFC land fewer significant strikes per minute than the champ does at 2.54 per minute. And as the research of Richard Mann shows, most of those fighters are grapplers, not strikers. If Gane keeps Ngannou at distance with his defense and kicks, Ngannou could struggle mightily in landing at his average rate.
Ngannou is likely going to need to show a new wrinkle to his game in this fight. Yes, patience will need to be a part of that change and I don’t think he’ll have a problem there, but so is strike and target selection. As Mann points out, Gane absorbs less than one head strike per minute thanks to his defensive acumen. Ngannou needs to be aware of that and not just head hunt, which he usually does. Seventy-nine percent of Ngannou’s landed significant strikes are head strikes, which is one of the highest rates among active UFC fighters.
This fight is the biggest of Ngannou’s MMA career. This is the bout that could launch him into a conversation as one of the all-time great UFC heavyweights, but to start that conversation he’s going to show us he is more than a fighter who can avoid takedowns and hit extremely hard.
This is one of the most fascinating UFC heavyweight bouts in a long while, that it is a title unification contest only adds to that intrigue.