Welcome to The Weekly Takedown, Sports Illustrated’s in-depth look at MMA. Every Thursday, this column will offer insight and information on the most noteworthy stories in the fight world.
Francis Ngannou is the best striker in the world. Yet that is far from his greatest strength.
The reigning UFC heavyweight champion, who has won three-fourths of his fights by knockout or TKO, looks to add another KO victory to his legacy this Saturday at UFC 270 in a bout against Ciryl Gane. And even though Ngannou possesses incredibly strong fists, he has an even stronger resolve.
At only nine, Ngannou began working in the sand mines in Cameroon. Later in life, he fought off advances from gangs. In pursuit of a new life, he even spent two months in jail in Spain after illegally entering Europe.
“I always believed in my future,” Ngannou said. “When the gang approached me, I knew the outcome. It didn’t matter how long it would take, it always ends the same way. That’s not the path I wanted, and I didn’t want to ruin my family reputation by being a gang member. I had my own dreams and I didn’t want to jeopardize them with that lifestyle.
“And even when I was in jail, I was filled with enthusiasm. I knew I had all kinds of opportunities when I got out.”
A fighting spirit filled with optimism pumps energy into Ngannou’s soul. That resolve is now being put to test in a contract dispute with UFC President Dana White, as Ngannou is unwilling to fight again under his current contract following this Saturday. But Ngannou has been through far worse than a prolonged contract negotiation, and he understands that his price tag will soar even higher if he defeats the undefeated Gane.
“In the past, I’ve fought for free,” Ngannou said. “I’ve fought for 300 hundred euros, and I was so grateful for that and proud to do it. But I have reached a point where I know what I am worth.
“I want a new contract. I think I deserve more. I think my value is worth more than what it is currently on the contract. And I don’t care if people criticize me for that.
“I’ve been criticized before, like when I left my home country in Cameroon. People thought I was crazy. I was doing something bigger than people could understand. I am willing to stand up for my dreams and beliefs.”
Ngannou will hold all the leverage if he wins on Saturday, though the matchup against Gane presents its share of problems. Gane is coached by Fernand Lopez, the man who helped Ngannou develop into an elite mixed martial artist. Gane’s array of kicks could also be problematic, as well as his grappling ability on the mat. Still, Ngannou has the ability to knock out Gane with one punch. He is also far better conditioned than Derrick Lewis, who Gane beat with ease last summer, and offers a much more dynamic skill set.
An added storyline is that UFC 270 takes place in Anaheim, Calif., which is something of a Waterloo for UFC heavyweight champions. The last four to defend the heavyweight belt in Anaheim were all dethroned that very same night, a fate Ngannou seeks to avoid. Ngannou believes this upcoming performance in the Octagon will serve as a reminder as to why he sits alone atop the heavyweight division.
“I’ve heard people say I’m not focused,” Ngannou said. “Is that because I have a life outside of fighting? I have family. Is it because I talk about my contract? I’m taking care of what I need to.
“People always have s— to say. That’s part of life. This is my life, and I am sticking to my beliefs. That’s worked pretty good for me. I don’t see any reason to doubt myself now.”
When asked if this Saturday is the start of an iconic title run, Ngannou offered a thoughtful, though somewhat surprising, answer.
“I want to see myself in the combat sport world as long as possible,” Ngannou said. “As long as I have the fire to do it and the need. As long as that fire and passion is there. That’s what I want. But no one knows what life holds for us. At this moment, I don’t know about my future with the UFC.”
Ngannou’s uncertain future has added a layer of doubt and intrigue to UFC 270. Remarkably, he is even the underdog against Gane, which is stunning to consider after dominating his past five opponents. Perhaps this is exactly the type of unpredictability that UFC 270 needed to reach an even wider audience; it is, after all, Ngannou’s first main event as champion, and he wants to show that he can draw as the headline attraction.
So what happens next? Does Gane capitalize and catch Ngannou unprepared? Or will Ngannou, who has brought a level of unexpected drama to this bout, continue to be unstoppable in the cage?
“The doubt makes this exciting,” Ngannou said. “Those doubting me, they’re going to be disappointed.
“This is just another test. If you don’t believe me, stick around and watch.”
Ilia Topuria unphased by change of opponent, ready to put on highlight reel at UFC 270
Ilia Topuria was originally scheduled to face Movsar Evloev at UFC 270 on the preliminary card.
Evloev withdrew from the fight after testing positive for COVID-19, creating an opening that was snatched by Charles Jourdain. But regardless of the opponent, Topuria is confident that he is getting his hand raised at 270.
“No matter who I’m going to face, the result is going to be the same,” Topuria said. “I’m here to finish people and be the best. That’s what I am going to do on Saturday night.”
Pitting the undefeated Topuria (11-0) against Evloev (15-0) had the potential to be very compelling. Evloev is ranked 13th in the featherweight division, and he could have been a new measuring stick for Topuria. Yet Topuria noted that his goal is not merely to be ranked in the top 15.
“I don’t give a f— about being number fifteen or number ten,” Topuria said. “My goal is to be number one. Every fight will bring me closer to that.”
Only 24, Topuria is explosive and pragmatic in the cage. He last fought in July at UFC 264 when he made quick work of Ryan Hall, who had been on an eight-fight win streak. Topuria dominated, knocking out Hall in the opening round. Now he sets his sights on Jourdain (12-4-1), who has quick turnaround after defeating Andre Ewell on December 18.
“I was a little disappointed Evloev could not fight, but at the same time, I’m happy to still have a fight,” Topuria said. “I am looking forward to putting on a great performance on Saturday night.”
Topuria has fought three times in the UFC, finishing two of those bouts in the first round. When asked how long the fight will go on Saturday, he said it will be another short night.
“Only one round,” Topuria said. “I’m going to finish him in the first round.”
The Pick ‘Em Section:
Here are my picks for UFC 270, where reigning heavyweight champ Francis Ngannou enters as the underdog:
UFC heavyweight title bout: Francis Ngannou (c) vs. Ciryl Gane (ic)
Pick: Francis Ngannou
UFC flyweight title bout: Brandon Moreno (c) vs. Deiveson Figueiredo
Pick: Deiveson Figueiredo
UFC welterweight bout: Michel Pereira vs. André Fialho
Pick: Michel Pereira
UFC bantamweight bout: Cody Stamann vs. Said Nurmagomedov
Pick: Said Nurmagomedov
UFC featherweight bout: Ilia Topuria vs. Charles Jourdain
Pick: Ilia Topuria
2022 record: 5-1
More MMA Coverage:
• Ciryl Gane Determined to Dethrone Heavyweight Champ Francis Ngannou at UFC 270
Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.