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Dublin: 1 °C Tuesday 22 January, 2019

Ngannou ready to be the UFC's next big star — 'but not the type of a Conor McGregor'

The Cameroon-born fighter challenges heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic this Saturday night in Boston.

UFC 2017: 218 Holloway vs Aldo 2 UFC heavyweight title challenger Francis Ngannou. Source: Scott Taetsch

STIPE MIOCIC (17-2) MIGHT be just one win away from setting a UFC record, but he goes into his third defence as heavyweight champion as the underdog.

Miocic is on a run of five consecutive stoppage victories — four of them in the first round — having put away Mark Hunt, Andrei Arlovski, Fabricio Werdum, Alistair Overeem and Junior Dos Santos inside the distance.

His shock win over Brazil’s Werdum on enemy territory — in front of a 45,000-plus crowd in Curitiba — was followed by successful defences against Overeem and Dos Santos. The 35-year-old has dispelled any doubts over his claim to the heavyweight throne, but the emergence of a new star poses a fresh challenge to his reign.

Just over two years since his UFC debut, Francis Ngannou (11-1) carries the tag of favourite into this Saturday’s heavyweight title bout, which headlines UFC 220 at the TD Garden in Boston.

Miocic, who still chooses to spend 12 hours a week working as a fireman in his native Ohio despite of his success, can make UFC history by becoming the first fighter to successfully defend the heavyweight belt more than twice.

Martial Arts 2017: UFC 211 Stipe Miocic has been the UFC's heavyweight champion since May 2016. Source: Jason Silva

The 35-year-old is on the cusp of an achievement that eluded previous champions such as Cain Velasquez, Randy Couture and Brock Lesnar. Yet the bookmakers don’t fancy his chances. At the time of writing, Miocic is available at odds of 3/2 (Ladbrokes). Ngannou has been installed as the favourite at 11/20.

“I’m used to it,” Miocic told ESPN this week. “I’m usually the underdog. It’s fine by me. He’s a tough guy. He’s fought some great guys and he’s beaten them.”

Although he’s universally popular, Miocic’s indifference to the promotional and media side of the game has prevented him from becoming a crossover star on the UFC’s behalf. That’s fine by him, but the organisation appears to have different plans for Ngannou.

Standing at six-feet-four and pushing the 265-pound heavyweight ceiling to the limit, Ngannou is a hugely impressive physical specimen. He may also lack the ability to produce compelling soundbites, but the Cameroon native makes up for it with an authentic ruthlessness and punching power that has seen him compared to Mike Tyson.

The narrative leading into this fight is that the UFC have focused their promotional efforts on Ngannou at Miocic’s expense. The reigning champion tends to agree, although he insists he’s not bothered: Miocic said: “Hype him up, I don’t care. I’m used to it. I don’t mind not getting the hype.”

Ngannou’s journey to this UFC championship bout has also added significantly to his marketability and the overall level of intrigue. Raised in poverty in Cameroon, he moved to Paris in his teens and lived homeless for a while before MMA coach Fernand Lopez — who’ll be in his corner in Boston on Saturday night — threw him a lifeline.

The 31-year-old relocated to Las Vegas last year and, on 2 December, he earned his title shot. In picking up his sixth win in the UFC — all of which have come via stoppage — Ngannou upended Alistair Overeem with a ferocious punch that was widely voted Knockout of the Year.

Ngannou is forecasting that he’ll make short work of Miocic on Saturday to win the heavyweight belt, while the champion rightly points out that the challenger has yet to share the octagon with the same level of opposition.

It’s being billed as the most eagerly-anticipated heavyweight title fight the UFC has ever staged. After Ronda Rousey’s bubble burst and with Conor McGregor’s hiatus ongoing, Dana White might be hoping to wrap the belt around the waist of the organisation’s first African champion this weekend.

Screen Shot 2018-01-18 at 15.12.42 Miocic and Ngannou squaring off at a recent press conference.

Ngannou, a substantially more reserved but no less confident character than McGregor, told The Ringer: “I’m ready to be a star, but not the type of a Conor McGregor. I mean, I feel like we are not the same thing. We don’t have the same interests. We don’t have the same lifestyles.

“As for TV and making appearances like this, it’s part of our job. It’s how we promote our fight. It’s how we promote ourselves. It’s how we earn our money.”

He added: “I’m the guy that’s going to change the heavyweight division. It starts on 20 January, and [I’m going to] bring more excitement for [the] heavyweight division, which was for a long time almost forgot about.”

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Paul Dollery

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