It wasn’t that great a shock that Stipe Miocic defeated Francis Ngannou on Saturday in the main event of UFC 220 at TD Garden in Boston to retain the heavyweight title.
The stunner was that the fight went the distance.
Miocic withstood the storm from the freakishly hard-hitting Ngannou, using his wrestling and grappling ability to neutralize the big man and win a unanimous decision.
All three judges had Miocic winning 50-44, giving him his third consecutive successful title defense, thereby setting a divisional record.
This one was the most fraught with danger, as Ngannou was vastly bigger than the 6-foot-4, 246-pound champion and hit hard enough to end the fight with one shot.
Ngannou landed some shots early in the bout, as Miocic showed off a good chin that left him with a shiner. But Miocic countered with his own good shots and had the ability to compete on the ground.
“I’m not the scariest, but I’m the baddest man in the world,” Miocic said, deadpan, in the cage after the fight.
Ngannou went off as the favorite as a result of a frightening string of victories. He’d won his last four fights entering the match with Miocic in less than two minutes each, capping it by a Knockout of the Year against Alistair Overeem at UFC 218 in December.
His punching power was the talk of the pre-fight build-up, and that annoyed Miocic. He had shown exceptional striking skills in wins over Fabricio Werdum, Junior dos Santos and Overeem and had won the title by knocking out Werdum while backing up.
But Miocic is not only a good striker, but he’s a well-rounded fighter who has a strong wrestling background. He was a star wrestler at Cleveland State and then went on to compete in the national Golden Gloves boxing championship.
He had the kind of well-rounded game that Ngannou couldn’t hope to compete against. Ngannou landed some big shots early, but Miocic used his athleticism to move out of punching range and head movement to make it difficult on the challenger.
As the Round 1 wore on, Miocic began landing hard counter rights that eventually led to the fight getting to the floor.
Once it did, Ngannou was in trouble. Miocic didn’t win style points and it wasn’t pretty, but he spent most of Rounds 2 through 5 making Ngannou carry his weight.
Ngannou spent much of the final 20 minutes of the fight either on his back or on all fours, trying to fend off the determined champion. He simply didn’t have the grappling ability to compete and quickly lost his cardio.
“I think I underestimated him a little bit,” Ngannou conceded.
Many did, but Miocic knew he had the skills to rise to the occasion. There aren’t many on the roster who could have dealt with the heat that Ngannou was bringing early and survive to joke about it after the fight.
“Look how big he is,” Miocic said in the cage to Joe Rogan. “The guy’s huge.”
Size and punching power aren’t guarantees of victory, though, as a battered and beaten Ngannou sadly found out.