Francis Ngannou rides uncanny punching power back into heavyweight title contention

·Combat columnist
Francis Ngannou celebrates his KO victory over Cain Velasquez in their heavyweight bout during UFC Fight Night at Talking Stick Resort Arena on Feb. 17, 2019 in Phoenix. (Getty Images)
Francis Ngannou celebrates his KO victory over Cain Velasquez in their heavyweight bout during UFC Fight Night at Talking Stick Resort Arena on Feb. 17, 2019 in Phoenix. (Getty Images)

PHOENIX — The finish of the main event in the UFC’s first full card on ESPN was eerily similar to its first bout on Fox more than seven years ago.

Cain Velasquez, who is regarded widely as one of the greatest heavyweights in mixed martial arts history, came out on the losing end of both. In 2011, he injured a knee and lost his heavyweight title to Junior dos Santos in just over a minute.

On Sunday in the main event of UFC on ESPN 1 at the Talking Stick Resort Arena, Velasquez again had the mega-platform to vault himself to superstardom and again, it ended with Velasquez stopped in just seconds.

The difference this time, though, is with how the finish came.

In 2011, there was no question that Velasquez was injured when he was knocked out.

On Sunday, Velasquez’s left knee clearly buckled and he went down awkwardly during an exchange with Francis Ngannou. He said he injured the inside of his left knee and was never hit. Ngannou pointed to a short uppercut he threw as the reason for the 26-second KO victory.

Regardless of how the finish came about, it was cruel as can be for Velasquez, who endured two back surgeries and missed more than 31 months after demolishing Travis Browne at UFC 200 on July 9, 2016, in Las Vegas in what was the last fight of the UFC’s ownership by brothers Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta.

The company was sold for more than $4.2 billion the next day, but Sunday’s appearance was Velasquez’s first under WME’s stewardship.

He was downcast and appeared to fight back tears as he spoke about the finish. He insisted he was not punched.

“Taking that one step I did with my left foot, I just felt something pop,” Velasquez said. “When I tried to take another step, it just gave out. My knee gave out on me. I can’t believe that happened. Going in 100 percent healthy, 100 percent ready and just to have this freak accident, I can’t even believe it. It’s just hard, but that’s sports. It’s what happens sometimes.”

Asked if he felt a punch, Velasquez shook his head no and said, “It was just the knee, you know? He didn’t even touch me.”

Ngannou, the hardest puncher in the UFC, saw it vastly differently. Replays seem to support his view. Velasquez threw two high kicks and then a Ngannou punch seemed to graze the top of the former Arizona State All-American wrestler’s head. Velasquez took a step forward and replays show Ngannou throws an uppercut and Velasquez’s head snaps. That’s at the point where his knee seemed to give out.

Francis Ngannou lands the finishing blows against Cain Velasquez on Sunday in Phoenix. (Getty Images)
Francis Ngannou lands the finishing blows against Cain Velasquez on Sunday in Phoenix. (Getty Images)

UFC president Dana White said he hadn’t spoken to either Velasquez or Ngannou, but said his first thought was that Velasquez’s knee did buckle. But he said, “Francis Ngannou is a huge, strong powerful guy and when he’s throwing those kinds of punches, yeah.”

He didn’t finish the thought, but the implication was clear.

Ngannou had no question. He’s one of those power punchers who doesn’t need to take a massive swing to score a knockout. In his prime during the 1940s, former heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis is reputed to have knocked opponents cold with a punch that traveled no more than six inches.

Ngannou has that kind of game-changing power. In the teaser previewing the fight that was shown in the arena, heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier, Velasquez’s close friend and training partner, made light of Ngannou’s vicious left-hook knockout of Alistair Overeem at UFC 218 on Dec. 2, 2017.

“We’re still searching space for Overeem’s head,” Cormier said while doing a voiceover on the teaser.

It was only July when Ngannou’s career seemed to screech to a halt, after he lost a five-round decision in a title fight with Stipe Miocic at UFC 220 and then stunk up the joint in a curious loss to Derrick Lewis at UFC 226.

On Sunday, though, Ngannou did what he wanted to do, and if there was an injury, it was the result, he said, of his punches.

“The knee buckled after the uppercut on his chin,” Ngannou said. “There is video about it and you will see.”

There is no skill in professional sports that is more useful to an athlete than one-punch knockout power is to a fighter. A 100-mph fastball still has to get over the plate and a slugger still has to put the bat on the ball. A golfer who can drive it 40 yards further than everyone else has a huge advantage, if he keeps the ball in play. A great shooter in basketball means a team is never out of a game, but the shooter still needs to have teammates get him the ball in good positions. But a fighter who can knock you out with one shot can win any fight at any time.

If Ngannou ever straps that UFC heavyweight title belt around his waist, it will be solely because of that power.

On a scale of 1-10, Ngannou’s punching power is a 25. After Velasquez went down, Ngannou finished him violently, landing two massive hammer fists from the top after Velasquez collapsed and his knees fell awkwardly underneath him.

The UFC was expecting a huge audience on ESPN and wanted to use the interest in the Velasquez-Ngannou fight to help create momentum in not only the next pay-per-view, which is a light heavyweight title fight on March 2 between champion Jon Jones and Anthony Smith, but also to build the profile of several fighters on the undercard.

Kron Gracie, the son of the legendary Rickson Gracie, one of the founders of the UFC, submitted Alex Caceres in just over two minutes with a rear naked choke earlier in the card, becoming the first member of his family to win in the UFC since Royce Gracie at UFC 4 in 1994.

There was a breathtakingly brutal welterweight bout between Vicente Luque and Bryan Barbarena that had the crowd roaring and ended with a perfect knee by Luque in the waning moments.

But the main event didn’t deliver when Velasquez’s body failed him again.

“He had so much talent and so much potential but those injuries, man, they just killed him,” a disappointed White said. “We had him teed up for that fight years ago with Junior dos Santos and then we had him teed up again tonight for this fight on ESPN with millions of people watching.”

Velasquez seemed to indicate he wants to go on, pending his health. If he can get back anywhere close to where he once was, the UFC will have an embarrassment of riches at heavyweight with Cormier, Miocic, Velasquez and Ngannou.

But given his history, there is reason to question whether he can make it back.

For Ngannou, he has his sights set firmly on the title. He took a shot at former heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar for talking smack but never showing up to fight, and said his goal is to fight for the title.

Given that Cormier is injured, there’s no plan for his next fight. The UFC would love to make Cormier-Lesnar, but until Cormier is healthy, everything is on hold.

The only thing not on hold is Ngannou’s dreams.

“I want that title,” he said repeatedly during the post-fight news conference.

He learned his lessons from mistakes in the past, he said, and insisted he’s a changed man.

“I know how to do things the right way now,” Ngannou said.

As long as he has that kind of thunder in his hands, he’s out of no fight. And he remains a threat no matter how badly he’s behind or how good the opponent is in front of him.

Velasquez found that out the hard way Sunday.

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