Francis Ngannou could breathe again. At times earlier in 2018, he wondered if he would ever feel this way again.
Was it only ten months since his inexperience was revealed against UFC heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic? And was it just four months since he couldn’t pull the trigger against Derrick Lewis? It seemed like forever, but all it took was 45 seconds for “The Predator” to get his mojo back against Curtis Blaydes, as the knockout victory snapped the first two-fight losing streak of his career and put everything back in place.
“I’ve been through two losses, which wasn’t easy for me,” Ngannou admits. “I was struggling to come back from that and then this win came out and made me feel good. I think knocking out Curtis Blaydes as I did in China just showed some people that they were wrong. I’m not done yet. I’m just on my way to start.”
Whether in mixed martial arts or boxing, there’s nothing like the heavyweight division. It’s the weight class people who aren’t even diehard fans will gravitate too, and if you’ve proven yourself as a talent and as an attraction, you could lose ten fights in a row and still have enough carte blanche to get another call for a big fight.
Things hadn’t gotten that bad for Ngannou, but his losses to Miocic and Lewis stung enough that he needed a turnaround in his rematch with the surging Blaydes, who he had already defeated in April 2016. And he got it, in the process not only garnering a high-profile Sunday main event against two-time former heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez, but giving him the confidence he lost in the first half of last year.
“That performance helped me a lot, basically to regain the confidence in myself,” Ngannou said. “For this training camp, it was mentally easier. I didn’t have to carry a lot of pressure. I’m just about to go there and have fun. That’s what I used to do and it worked. I don’t have to be concerned with what’s going on, just go there to have fun, and my last performance really helped me with that.”
Fun for Ngannou is scoring knockouts, and the Cameroon native had plenty of it leading up to his first title fight, stopping Luis Henrique, Blaydes, Bojan Mihajlovic, Andrei Arlovski and Alistair Overeem. If he adds Velasquez to that list, it could be enough to put him back in the title race. Velasquez isn’t like anyone Ngannou has beaten before, though, even coming off a 31-month layoff.
“I think it’s gonna be a tough fight if I don’t stop him,” Ngannou said. “He’s a very good wrestler, I think he’s the best heavyweight so far, and he also has very good experience, so he can handle every type of fighter. He’s very well-rounded, so he can be a very tough fight. But he can also be an easy fight. We never know.”
Ngannou smiles, knowing that the best wrestling and best game plan in the world can’t help any opponent if he lands one of his bombs. It’s a gift to have that kind of power in your arsenal, but the 32-year-old also wants the world to know that he’s not a one-dimensional banger, and Velasquez may give him that opportunity to prove himself.
“He’s almost the same style as Stipe, and in the fight with Stipe, it was very bad,” said Ngannou. “But many things weren’t in the right place, and I still want to show the world that I can fight a very good wrestler and handle a fight against Cain Velasquez.”
And if all else fails, all Ngannou needs is one punch. If that’s what “The Predator” is banking on, Velasquez might see it as the sign of an easy night. Ngannou hopes that’s what his opponent is thinking.
“You never know how hot the fire is until you put your finger in it,” he said. “So overlook me, it might be a good thing for me. I might be able to surprise him.”