July 11, 2018

Francis Ngannou and the Fear of Fighting

By Raphael Garcia

The athletes that compete in mixed martial arts have to be some of the toughest humans on Earth. They step into a steel cage to batter each other with nearly every part of their body. Not to mention the hours upon hours they spend in the gym honing their respective crafts. So with that in mind, there should be a lot of concern regarding the message that Francis Ngannou posted to Instagram after suffering a loss to Derrick Lewis at UFC 226:

“I am not proud of my last performance. I have carried my fear from the last fight to this one. I completely understand the frustration & anger that it has caused to my fans, coaches, teammates, family and friends and I am truly sorry for that. I won't let everyone down again. All I can do now is prove myself and make you proud again.”

So let’s break this down. Ngannou has been fighting professionally since 2013, and he joined the UFC in 2015 after six fights. He stepped into the Octagon with a 5-1 record, and then he proceeded to go on a tear, winning six fights in a row. Many of these wins came in brutal fashion, as five of the six ended by a form of knockout. Ngannou was familiar with the vicious nature of mixed martial arts and was adept at doling out brutality. But when it was time to be on the other side of that violence, his mental state was shaken to its very foundation (or at least that appears to be the case).

That shaking came at the hands of the former UFC Heavyweight Champion, Stipe Miocic. For five rounds, Miocic beat Ngannou from pillar to post, a clean sweep on the scorecards. The statistics from the fight tell the same story, as Miocic landed 200 total strikes, compared to the 33 that Ngannou landed. What started out as a somewhat competitive fight in round one completely changed from the second round on, as the next four rounds saw Miocic land 176 strikes in that time, 82 of which came in the fourth round. In that 20-minute stretch of fighting, Ngannou landed only 15 strikes. After taking a beating like that, it’s understandable that Ngannou is facing a mental struggle with regard to getting back into the cage and potentially taking that type of damage again. And Derrick Lewis can certainly dole out damage.

So for three rounds, Ngannou stood in front of Lewis like a statue, not taking action for large portions of the bout. Fans in the arena booed, did the wave, and generally demonstrated their disinterest and disdain for what was occurring in the Octagon. In typical fashion, UFC President Dana White expressed his disgust with the fight as well in post-fight statements, even taking a shot at Ngannou’s “ego” in a way that makes one wonder what White really thinks about Ngannou as a person.

So now what? First of all, the UFC and Ngannou’s fans need to understand that he may never return to past form. The days of highlight-reel knockouts and boundless aggression may be behind him. Even worse, his time as a top-tier heavyweight -- however brief -- may now be over. MMA is an unforgiving sport, and mental toughness is a major component of why that is. That isn’t to say that Ngannou isn’t tough, but if he’s questioning his own fighting spirit, it’s OK for the rest of the MMA world to do the same.

It will be interesting to see what type of fight is booked for Ngannou in the future, and when that fight is planned for. Even though he’s promising not to let this occur again, his team and the UFC as a whole need to take steps to ensure it. Lest we forget, Ngannou is still a fairly young fighter. So booking him in the type of fight that can help him build confidence is key. The UFC should keep him away from anyone in the Top 5, if not the Top 10. Giving him a less dangerous opponent that he can restore his confidence against and demonstrate -- to both fans and himself -- that he has overcome his demons is the first step in removing the tarnish to his career that that the one-sided thrashing he took at UFC 220 created.

The question is, will the UFC and Francis Ngannou's support system take the steps to get him back to a place where he’s capable to compete? The mental game is as big a part of fighting as standing in the cage and exchanging blows. Right now, Ngannou’s primary job is to rebuild the confidence that has faded since that loss to Miocic. Only then can he begin to wash away the bad taste that he left in the mouths of fans at UFC 226. Time will tell whether he can do so.

UFC 226
Derrick Lewis vs. Francis Ngannou: Derrick Lewis def. Francis Ngannou via unanimous decision (29-28, 29-28, 30-27).

UFC 226: Miocic vs. Cormier takes place July 7, 2018 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Click HERE for more UFC 226 Pre-Fight Analysis

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