(This story appears in Wednesday’s print edition of USA TODAY.)
A few different things happened in the moments right after Francis Ngannou’s enormous fist crashed into the jaw of perennial heavyweight contender Alistair Overeem in December at UFC 218.
The first was that Overeem, all 247 pounds of him, went flying through the air like a bowling pin. The second was that an eerie quiet settled over Little Caesar’s Arena, with even the UFC’s experienced cageside commentators looking momentarily stricken by the sheer brutality of the first-round knockout.
The third was that Stipe Miocic, the UFC heavyweight champion who will defend his title against Ngannou at UFC 220 this Saturday at TD Garden in Boston, shrugged his shoulders and went about his business.
“I thought, ‘Here’s a tough guy, just like everyone else I’ve fought,’” Miocic (17-2 MMA, 11-2 UFC) told MMAjunkie. “That’s it. He goes out there and finishes guys, but I finished those same guys like two years ago. I’m not worried about it.”
Maybe that explains why, after sitting out the last half of 2017, Miocic wasted little time agreeing to defend his championship against one of the most terrifying challengers in recent memory. If Miocic is successful, he’ll set a new UFC record for consecutive heavyweight title defenses with three – a number that says a lot about one of the hardest belts to hold in all of combat sports.
But while it would be a historic feat, it’s hard not to get the impression that there are some hoping it goes the other way. Miocic comes across as a nice guy and an excellent fighter, but not an electrifying personality. He speaks in low mumbles, parceling out words like they’re costing him money. Even his string of four straight first-round knockouts hasn’t quite made him a star in the UFC.
Ngannou (11-1 MMA, 6-0 UFC), on the other hand, may have come from humble beginnings, working as a child laborer in his native Cameroon before he fled to Paris with dreams of becoming a pro boxer, but now the challenger is a flashy knockout artist who is dripping with confidence – and he’s not buying Miocic’s nonchalant response to the threat he poses.
“Seeing what happened in the last fight, everyone would be intimidated by it,” Ngannou said. “Even me, when I step back and look at it, it was crazy. If someone says he is not intimidated by that, that’s just a lie.”
This is the heavyweight archetype that fight fans are drawn to. At 6-foot-4 and typically hovering near the heavyweight limit of 265 pounds, Ngannou is the mammoth striker with the look and swagger of a man who might justify the hyperbolic hype of the fight game. That might explain why so much attention is on him rather than on the champion who stands on the precipice of UFC heavyweight history.
“Stipe is quiet,” Ngannou said. “I think that’s the problem. … We both have a different style, and I think mine is the one that most people want to see.”
The UFC may agree with him. Ngannou’s personal highlight reel has been a big part of the pre-fight promotional materials, with little mention of Miocic’s run at a longstanding UFC record.
If any of that bothers Miocic, he’d never admit to it. The same goes for any hint that the masses may be prematurely enamored with the challenger while forgetting about the champion.
“Listen, they can do what they want,” Miocic said. “Whatever they want to do to make themselves feel better, but I’m the champ. And the reason why I’m the champ, they’re going to find out on (Jan.) 20th.”
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Source: USA Today – MMA Junkie
Read the full article here: Stipe Miocic vs. Francis Ngannou: Nice guy meets 'Predator' in hyped UFC 220 heavyweight title fight