An indomitable Lion in the UFC! Francis Ngannou has been the next big thing in the UFC heavyweight division for several years. Just about everyone believed greatness was within the powerful Cameroonian challenger's reach if he could ever put his prodigious talents together.
All that potential was realized in six sensational minutes Saturday night when Ngannou stopped Stipe Miocic with ferocious punches early to a devastating 2nd round knockout to claim theAmerican Mixed Martial Arts League (MMA) heavyweight title at UFC 260.
Beaten by decision in January 2018 in their first meeting, Ngannou did not miss his second chance against an opponent who never existed in this fight, fought behind closed doors in Las Vegas.
Ngannou (11-2) avenged his blowout loss to Miocic in 2018 by demonstrating everything he has learned in the ensuing three years. The first UFC heavyweight champion from Africa flattened Miocic (21-3) twice early in the second, finally buckling the champ's knees and ending the bout 52 seconds into the round.
"Man, it's amazing,'' Ngannou said. ``The feeling of it is just great. Imagine something you've been waiting for your entire life, and struggling to have it. Sometimes I felt like I was drowning and I had to struggle back, but now we're here."
In the first round, he had to deal with a big right hook to the left temple, a series of close left punches after his opponent managed to get out of a takedown attempt, and a kick to the right temple.
Ngannou won a fairly quiet first round with superior striking and groundwork, but there was nothing quiet about the finish.
As he returned to his corner, a mixture of incomprehension and anger accompanied him. The worst was yet to come.
Patient, but forced to move forward to compensate for a shorter reach, Ngannou saw that his opponent was not at his best and found the breakthrough with a right-left combination that sent Miocic bouncing off the fence. Thereupon, he landed a series of close-range shots, before finishing him off with a big left jab on the counter.
The bleeding American fell backwards, bending his left knee, and was saved from further punishment by the referee, who stopped the action 52 seconds into the second round, while Ngannou exulted.
"I can hardly find the words, I had made this promise to myself to win. To achieve this, when no one thought I could, is such a powerful feeling. To prove wrong those who doubted me gives me immense satisfaction," he commented afterwards.
The 34-year-old now has 16 wins and three losses in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), making him the man to beat in the category.
What a journey for this colossus (1.93 m, 113 kg) who left his native Cameroon in 2013 for Paris, where he slept on the street for a while.
"When the journey is longer, the reward is always more appreciated,'' Ngannou said. "I'm sure I would have been happy three years ago, but I think now, I have a different perspective about it, being happy about my improvement.''
Ngannou is a former aspiring boxer who discovered mixed martial arts after he left Cameroon for France in his mid-20s. He rose rapidly through his new sport with his fearsome power and growing all-around skill, but Miocic interrupted his ascent by winning every round of their first bout in Boston.
The loss staggered the confidence of a once-dynamic fighter. He barely threw a punch in his next bout, an embarrassing loss to Derrick Lewis.
But Ngannou impressively regained his confidence later in 2018 and kicked off a run of four consecutive knockout victories against veteran heavyweights, putting him back in line for Miocic.
"He was a completely different fighter tonight,'' UFC President Dana White said of Ngannou. "We saw things from him we never saw before. He took his time, and even ate that big right hand from Stipe. He looked perfect tonight.''
"It's the story of a young man who hasn't had much luck in life but who hasn't given up, who has allowed himself to dream. I am fighting against a fate that was destined for me, a situation to which I was condemned," Ngannou told AFP in 2018 before his first duel with Miocic.
Ngannou tried to call his mother in Cameroon immediately after the fight, but said he couldn't get through to her because "everyone was going crazy'' celebrating his win.
"I can't talk to anybody in Cameroon right now,'' he said. ``It's a good craziness, for a good reason.''