Let’s get this out of the way early: Francis Ngannou has frightening punching power. He didn’t even connect cleanly on Alistair Overeem at UFC 218 last month and Overeem went down as if he were shot with a high-powered rifle.
Imagine for a second what might have happened to Overeem if that uppercut landed cleanly, and with full force. The 6-foot-5, 260-plus Ngannou is, arguably, the hardest puncher in mixed martial arts, and it’s why he’s a roughly 9-5 favorite to defeat Stipe Miocic on Saturday in their heavyweight title fight in the main event of UFC 220 in Boston.
Ngannou-mania is running wild, and with good reason.
But as UFC president Dana White noted, “It’s not good to sleep on Stipe.”
Miocic won the title by knocking out Fabricio Werdum while going backward.
Coaches always stress the importance of transferring weight to the front foot and turning one’s hips into a punch. But Miocic cold-cocked Werdum while backing away. And so let it be noted that there will be two, not just one, frighteningly hard punchers in the cage on Saturday.
Miocic is well aware of what he’s up against and why Ngannou has caught on with the fan base as quickly as he has. Miocic has said in the past he felt the UFC was hoping Ngannou would win. He did not explicitly say that in an interview with Yahoo Sports, but he did note that perhaps the Ngannou support comes because of his overwhelming physical size.
“He’s a big dude who hits hard and that’s what people want,” Miocic told Yahoo Sports. “People love knockouts and he’s going out there and he’s knocking people out. I do the same thing, but I’m not as big as he is and not as terrifying, so I’m just a regular fireman guy who likes to fight.”
Firemen are tough, but Miocic takes that toughness up about 50 levels. He’s one of the best overall athletes in the UFC and is able to compete at a world-class level while also still working full time with the fire department.
That’s almost unheard of in professional sports today given the intense demands that go into preparing for competition.
Miocic, though, has steadily improved throughout his UFC tenure and much of it is the result of the dedication he shows in practice. The backpedaling punch that knocked out Werdum was no fluke occurrence. It’s something he works on with his team.
It would seem logical that ability might come in handy against an aggressive power-puncher like Ngannou.
“We actually do that angle a lot,” Miocic said of the right that finished Werdum and brought the heavyweight title to him. “You pick out the good right angle and work on countering. We’ve worked on that for years and the best time to do it was in a championship fight. It worked out perfectly.”
If he pulls a similar feat against Ngannou, Miocic may find himself becoming one of the sport’s biggest attractions.
He’s got a wry sense of humor and an everyman-type mien that will attract people to him. That kind of personality along with his prodigious athletic ability are good ingredients for a star.
It also takes a mega-victory on a big stage and Saturday’s bout, when he’ll be going for the divisional record for most consecutive successful defenses, is about as big as he could ask for.
He’s not worried about that, at least not with the threat of being rendered unconscious by Ngannou foremost on his mind. He is utterly confident and is convinced if he executes the plan, he’ll come out on top no matter how frightening Ngannou may appear.
“Nothing’s going to change,” he said. “I’m going to walk out with the belt still wrapped around my waist. Nothing is going to change.”
Except, possibly, his popularity if he manages to pull it off and get past Ngannou.
More from Yahoo Sports:
• Rockets push into Clippers’ locker room after game
• Ball brothers have breakout game in Lithuania
• Michael Lee: Cavs-Warriors rivalry is quickly becoming a laughingstock
• Tennis star ends interview after bizarre Kaepernick question