Ngannou earns shot at heavyweight title, UFC stardom

Francis Ngannou celebrates his win over Alistair OvereemFrancis Ngannou made the UFC’s heavyweight division exciting again with one devastating punch in December, which earned him the opportunity to fight for the title on Saturday at UFC 220 in Boston. Defending champion Stipe Miocic is all that stands between Ngannou and the heavyweight belt, and a win on Saturday would make Ngannou the biggest thing in the star-starved UFC universe.

Ngannou stole the show at UFC 218 with an uppercut that knocked out Alistair Overeem. Punch knockouts have become something of a trend for Ngannou - aside from a 2016 fight against Anthony Hamilton that he ended with a kimura submission - and it’s not hard to see why. Ngannou possesses the speed and agility of a much lighter fighter, and his counterpunches are a combination of patience, precise timing, and a frightening amount of force. He’s exactly the kind of fighter the heavyweight division has lacked for years, which might be why he’s already being considered the champion by many betting fans.

Miocic is the underdog heading into his third title defense, which might be all the motivation he needs to rise to the occasion on Saturday. Like Ngannou, Miocic is primarily a puncher, and one area in which he definitely has an edge over his challenger is experience. Miocic has been in two fights that reached the fifth round, losing the first and winning the second, while Ngannou’s fights have never lasted beyond the second round. Drawing Ngannou into a long, grinding bout might provide Miocic with the best opportunity to retain his title, and doing so could earn him the respect his previous heavyweight defenses did not.

With Georges St-Pierre almost immediately vacating the middleweight title he won in dramatic fashion after returning from a multi-year hiatus and Conor McGregor still holding out for a bigger financial share, star power has been in short supply for the UFC. Ngannou represents the kind of larger-than-life thrills the fight series has lacked in the wake of untimely injury withdrawals and embarrassing failed drug tests for its other would-be marquee names. All he has to do is land one more knockout blow.