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What Will Ngannou Do Next?

Francis Ngannou isn’t the heavyweight champion. He’s not even the no. 1 contender. But what he does next will mean everything for the future of the division.

Francis Ngannou UFC/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Over the years, Cain Velasquez has smoked just about everybody in the UFC. In some cases, he won so brutally that it felt—even in something as ominous as a gladiatorial cage—borderline inhumane.

Eight years ago though, in his special attraction bouts to kick off the UFC’s deal with Fox, Junior Dos Santos knocked out Velasquez in a little over a minute, one of MMA’s greatest buzz kill moments. It happened again on Sunday night.

The kickoff of the UFC’s new five-year deal with ESPN was in Phoenix this past weekend. In the first main event ever broadcast live on ESPN, Francis Ngannou needed just 26 seconds to shuck Cain from the ranks of the elite. It seems that fighting on television clearly isn’t Cardio Cain’s thing.

Sunday’s fight played out like MMA’s version of the Zapruder film: From one angle, it looked like the 36-year-old Velasquez’s knee gave out on him. (Velasquez later claimed that’s what happened.) From another angle it looked like it might have been a short uppercut that felled him. But whether it was the uppercut or the knee—or more likely, a combo of both—Ngannou won in lightning-flash fashion and has re-emerged as a top contender at heavyweight, just in time to make the most of the new ESPN partnership. As a power broker who cuts an imposing figure, Ngannou is the prototypical heavyweight—he makes the arena quake when he walks to the octagon. After Ngannou’s light work with Velasquez, Joe Rogan called him “the scariest guy I’ve ever seen.” There is something to be said for looking the part of being the baddest man on the planet. Ngannou, who carries the nickname “The Predator,” looks the part. He is the Zion Williamson of the cage.

After being hyped as “the next big thing” going into 2018, Ngannou was dealt the first major blow of his career in Boston that January. He lost his title bid against Stipe Miocic, then lost again against Derrick Lewis that summer in what was perhaps the most bizarre fight of 2018. Why bizarre? Almost nothing happened. Ngannou suffered Big Moment paralysis, landing a grand total of 11 strikes in 15 minutes. His reluctance to engage Lewis led people to wonder whether he might be broken.

Turns out he wasn’t. He was regrouping. Ngannou went all the way to Beijing for a fight with Curtis Blaydes in November and needed just 45 seconds to knock him out. The big difference, a more hype-resistant Ngannou claimed, was the rediscovery of fun. Once he lost the onus of buying into what was being said about him, he returned to his role of being a heavyweight butcher. That attitude carried over to the Velasquez fight, in which he showed up a wiser, more focused fighter, completely unaffected by the gasps he inspires.

Ngannou’s win wasn’t brilliant or brutal or even particularly majestic, but it was a big victory on a big stage at just the right time. Velasquez, the collegiate wrestler with cardio that never quits, was supposed to be the guy with all answers to beat Ngannou. Fat chance. Ngannou looked dangerous and—more importantly—comfortable in the role of executioner. The UFC got behind Ngannou in a big way for his title fight with Miocic, knowing that such a terrifying human being would mean business.

Now he looks ready for the part. The question is, what does the UFC do with him next? Some ideas:

Have Ngannou Challenge Daniel Cormier for the Heavyweight Title

This should be a no-brainer, if only things were that simple in the UFC. The current heavyweight champion, Daniel Cormier, turns 40 next month and says he has one fight left in him before retirement. He wants that fight to be against Brock Lesnar, an undeserving colossus who is also the biggest heavyweight draw in UFC history. The UFC loves the idea of giving Cormier that lifetime achievement award of a fight (because the UFC loves money), but the problem is that Lesnar—the most coveted mercenary of the squared ring and the octagon alike—is tied up with the WWE right now. He flirts with coming back to the UFC every few years or so, but it remains to be seen if that can happen.

There’s also Lesnar’s ongoing saga with USASA, but let’s not drag this piece down with talks of piss tests that are too hot to handle. This is about how Ngannou might sneak in there and take Lesnar’s spot. And the way he can do that is by making things personal with Cormier. Ngannou isn’t much of a talker, but he really doesn’t need to say all that much to lobby effectively here—he just needs to keep pointing out that he beat Daniel Cormier’s training partner, Cain Velasquez.

Cormier and Velasquez are sworn brothers from way back. Their bond is so tight that it’s even made some problems for the UFC. The pair vowed never to fight each other early on when Velasquez was the heavyweight champion, which prompted Cormier to avoid obvious conflict by whittling himself down to 205 pounds and compete as a light heavyweight.

So, now that Ngannou has taken out Velasquez, it seems reasonable to think that it would be possible to tempt his training partner to come and avenge the loss. Cormier is a plainclothes Hercules who thinks and operates like a dad (which he is). He’s stubborn, he’s practical, he wasn’t born yesterday. And in his reflective moments, he always sees exactly what goes on in the fight game.

But he has a weak spot for Velasquez. His loyalty is true, and his sense of business is strong enough that he knows when the pros overwhelm the cons. If Ngannou bangs the “I beat Velasquez” drum and gets people to chant along with him, it’s not hard to imagine Cormier coming around to the idea of taking matters into his own hands. If those same people think Ngannou would actually beat Cormier? All the better. Cormier is a defiant champion when it comes right down to it. He loves nothing more than to make people eat their words.

After he defended his title against Derrick Lewis in November, Cormier broke down his list of next would-be opponents: (1) Lesnar; (2) Jon Jones, who has beat him twice (but only once officially); and (3) Miocic, the man he beat to take heavyweight title. That’s Cormier’s perspective. The UFC’s perspective? A Lesnar-Cormier fight would be nice, just as Jones-Cormier trilogy. A Miocic-Cormier rematch is something to hold a finger crucifix up to. The UFC wants nothing to do with that fight.

But a Ngannou-Cormier fight is just as big as anything the UFC can come up with, and with Lesnar in the WWE and with Jones preoccupied with defending his light heavyweight title at UFC 235 on March 2, Ngannou’s case is right there to be made.

Have Ngannou Rematch Stipe Miocic

One factor in Cormier’s potential final matchup is his back injury, and right now his timetable for a return is unclear. Assuming he’s shelved for a longish period of time, the UFC could opt to run back Ngannou-Miocic, and make it a clear no. 1 contender bout.

Ngannou mentioned in his post-fight media conference this past weekend that he’d love to fight Miocic again. Miocic was the man who derailed his hostile takeover of the division and taught him all the harsh lessons that come with “too much too soon.” If the UFC makes Cormier versus Lesnar happen—and UFC president Dana White said this weekend that it had a fight in the works for Cormier—Ngannou-Miocic makes a lot of sense.

The first fight was an incredibly tension-filled experience; it was chin-checking roulette. Miocic got the victory, setting up his knockout at the hands of Cormier, and has been smarting ever sense.

Cormier (and the UFC for that matter) thinks that Miocic needs to beat somebody else before he can rechallenge for the title. Why not Francis?

Ngannou Versus Brock Lesnar

This won’t happen, but can you fucking imagine? It would be like Bo Jackson versus Brian Bosworth back in the day, Goliath versus Goliath, two slabs of tectonic humanity crashing into each other. In short, it would be a heavyweight spectacle. Lesnar would straight-up bum rush Ngannou to try and get the fight to the ground. The kicker is he doesn’t like to get hit, and there are millions who’d pay for the privilege of watching him get hit with one of those Ngannou uppercuts just as he changed levels for the takedown. #Goosebumps.

Ngannou Versus Jon Jones

Another long shot, but Jones has been batting his eyes at the heavyweight division since before all his suspensions and run-ins with the law (which is to say, a long, long time). Should he make the leap after his 205-pound title defense against Anthony Smith at UFC 235 in early March, it would likely be for a title fight against Cormier.

Then again, Jones has named-dropped Lesnar as a desirable first opponent for when he makes the inevitable jump, which shows how shrewdly in tune he is to the novelty side of matchmaking. He’s also flirted with the idea of taking on Cain Velasquez in a superfight, and we all just witnessed what happened to Velasquez when he fought Ngannou. Does Ngannou now inherit Velasquez’s spot in the Jones sweepstakes? He should. But with Ngannou still on the come up, here’s guessing Jones would rather fight a current champion (Cormier) or an ex-champion like Miocic or Lesnar.

A fight between Ngannou and Jones may not make much sense yet. But if Jones continues his dominance and Ngannou crashes through either Cormier or Miocic to win a title? A fight like that can quickly go from a loose hypothetical to a must-see event. The UFC knows what it has in Ngannou, and regardless of whom he fights next, he sends the exact right message in a marketing campaign:

Be afraid. Be very, very afraid.