UFC heavyweight power puncher Francis Ngannou had just a dozen fights when he took the cage to challenge 265-pound champion Stipe Miocic in the UFC 220 main event back in 2018. Compared to some of the other heavyweight contenders, like Alistair Overeem and Fabricio Werdum, “The Predator” was still wet being the ears.

He certainly looked like a combat sports rookie across the 25 minutes Miocic spent grinding him into dust. Ngannou got taken down six times and landed just 21 significant strikes, making it clear he was an incomplete fighter who simply wasn’t ready to be champion.

But this is prize fighting and knockouts sell, so the promotion positioned Ngannou as a legitimate threat to the heavyweight throne. He certainly played the part, obliterating Andrei Arlovski and the aforementioned Overeem. Sure, both “The Pitbull” and “Demolition Man” had double-digit knockout losses, but who cares?

Let them bang, bro!

Ngannou would falter in his return to contendership in a heavyweight staring contest opposite Derrick Lewis at UFC 226, a three-round stinker that left most fans scratching their heads. Fortunately for the Just Bleed’rs — and the career of Ngannou — a return to form was just one fight away.

“The Predator” is now the winner of four straight, all by way of knockout.

That was good enough to get the Cameroonian-born Frenchman back into the No. 1 spot, though it’s hard to ignore the parallels between his latest run and the one that brought him to the UFC 220 main event. Two of his highlight-reel victories have come against shopworn ex-champions who are no longer with the promotion.

It also helps that UFC has a heavyweight division so thin you can floss with it.

Ngannou is now 34 and has six more fights than he did when he first challenged Miocic, which means a second championship loss will expose him as a one-dimensional striker who can turn out the lights when his opponents stick to the script — and fumble around in the dark when they don’t.

No more excuses.

“When I look at that fight, I hate watching that fight because I don’t recognize myself,” Ngannou told MMA Junkie about his first Miocic fight. “Even the way that I’m fighting and the way that I’m rushing, that guy looked like me – but I don’t recognize that style. I had better preparation this time. I put some good work on my wrestling, jiu-jitsu, even striking. So yeah, I think skill-wise, I’ve improved a lot.”

With his Daniel Cormier trilogy in the rearview mirror, Miocic will return to the Octagon to make his second title defense against Ngannou in the UFC 260 pay-per-view (PPV) headliner, scheduled for this Sat. night (March 27, 2021) inside APEX in Las Vegas, Nevada, a rematch he wasn’t overly-jazzed about taking.

Like it or not, this is the best the division has to offer… for now.

“It’s great Jon Jones is moving up,” Miocic told MMA Junkie. “There are new guys in the division. A lot of new guys are coming up. Right now, my focus is on Saturday. That’s all I care about. Once I take care of business on Saturday, then we’ll look into it.”

The onus is on Ngannou to prove he’s championship material and that will include his ability to handle the champion’s wrestling, a deciding factor (along with conditioning) in their first go-round. Not knowing if “The Predator” has been able to make the necessary adjustments, for me, is the most compelling aspect of this fight.

We’ll find out in less than 48 hours.

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