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Francis Ngannou: your hero for the evening

Francis Ngannou vacated the UFC heavyweight championship to make this fight possible

UFC 260: Miocic v Ngannou 2 Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC

I had many unkind things to say about Floyd Mayweather vs Conor McGregor six years ago. I’m still proud of them, honestly; that piece always gets a spot of honor when I put together a personal highlight reel. I only come up with decent ideas for editorials once or twice a year, so there’s not all that much competition, but still.

Reading back over it is an experience, and isn’t that just the most useful noun when you can’t find relevant or insightful words. It’s certainly unreal to imagine that there was a point in my life where I could get riled up about the UFC abandoning its pretense of being a meritocracy. It’s 2023, Stipe Miocic and Colby Covington are getting gift-wrapped title shots, and it just feels like Thursday.

That version of me would have hated Tyson Fury vs Francis Ngannou, I think. Genuine hate, not the sort of lukewarm dissatisfaction polemicists stoke in themselves until think pieces bubble up.

I don’t hate it. It’s not that I don’t recognize it as a gimmicky, egregiously one-sided mismatch. I just don’t hate it.

A lot of that is, admittedly, the carrot of Fury vs Usyk in the coming months. For all the pageantry, everyone involved knows this is a speed bump at best. The fight we and the sport of boxing demand is signed and on its way; let’s just have a little fun beforehand.

The rest is Ngannou.

On the shallow side, he’s just a fundamentally more likeable person than McGregor. I’ve long considered writing a piece called “Where Have All the Good Heels Gone?” about how we’ve a dearth of lovable rogues and a surfeit of dickheads; my desire to do so tends to wax and wane depending on whether Fury has opened his mouth recently. McGregor is a perfect example, having slipped from the former to the latter ages ago when his malfeasance outpaced his charm.

Ngannou’s persona isn’t big enough to risk collapsing under its own weight like that, but there’s little to dislike about how he carries himself. He just seems like a decent, hard-working fighter, offering an industry standard amount of posturing before doing his job with delightfully violent aplomb.

More than that, though, is how he got here. Not the journey that took him from Cameroonian sand mines to the top of the combat sports world, but what he gave up to make this specific fight happen.

Despite a build that wouldn’t be out of place in Tekken or Yakuza, Ngannou was not an obvious, can’t-miss superstar in the making when he joined the UFC. Hell, he wasn’t even really a knockout artist; he made his first walk to the Octagon at 5-1 with more submissions than (T)KOs. Blowing the doors off the undersized and underwhelming Luis Henrique was a hell of a highlight, but not the sort of monumental achievement that screamed “this guy is a problem.”

That came in his next fight.

He actually entered that bout with Curtis Blaydes as the underdog and not without reason. “Razor” was a colossus himself, not to mention a highly decorated wrestler who’d mulched his first five opponents. Ngannou steadily battered him until Blaydes’ damaged eye forced the ref to halt things after two.

Then came a vicious streak of first-round finishes, capped off by what might still be the most singularly violent uppercut finish in combat sports against lethal veteran Alistair Overeem. It was enough to earn Ngannou a title shot he proved decidedly unready for, as the well-rounded Stipe Miocic weathered an early blitz to neutralize a flagging Ngannou and walk away with a unanimous decision win.

That stumble turned into a downward slide against Derrick Lewis. The hotly anticipated clash of knockout artists turned into an all-time dud when Ngannou, perhaps paralyzed by fear of emptying his gas tank again, landed 11 of 46 strikes over the course of 15 minutes.

Ngannou got up, brushed himself off, destroyed four men in under three minutes combined, and starched Miocic in the rematch before powering through injury to wrestle his way past ostensible heir apparent Ciryl Gane. Knee surgery followed, as did the most critical part of this anecdote: a clash with Dana White over Ngannou’s new contract.

There are many things about UFC contracts that merit being called “the thing about UFC contracts” when trying to pinpoint the apex of awfulness. One is how restrictive they are; despite passing off its fighters as “independent contractors,” the UFC can veto any attempts to compete in other disciplines. Boxing on the side, which the likes of Anderson Silva and Jose Aldo clamored for during their respective title reigns, is right out unless you’re Dana’s Most Special Boy.

Ngannou wanted to make champion money and he wanted to box. Dana said no.

I struggle with “good enough.” I don’t trust my own decision-making, so when I find something that works, I stick with it forever. What I do, what I eat, what I wear, where I live; it’s incredibly easy for me to just ride the inertia even if I’m not as satisfied as I could be.

Ngannou walked away without a guaranteed backup plan in place and I will always respect him for it.

White, who’d spent years urging erstwhile light heavyweight champion Jon Jones to steer clear of Ngannou for his own safety, immediately turned around and accused Ngannou of running away from that fight. Ngannou responded by signing a lucrative deal with PFL that, like Claressa Shields and Amanda Serrano, lets him lace up the eight-ounce gloves as well.

Conor McGregor won before stepping foot in the ring against Floyd Mayweather. Francis Ngannou has won before stepping foot in the ring against Tyson Fury, but his is a victory worth celebrating. Where McGregor sacrificed nothing but a few months of his MMA career to get his payday, Ngannou sacrificed his place at the peak of the sport, openly defying a man most in the industry are terrified to slight.

There’s no doubt he’ll get his ass beat on Saturday, but I’m glad he has the opportunity to do so. Even if he is ducking the Danger Ehren rematch.

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