SPORTS

Francis Ngannou promises to ‘knock out’ Andrei Arlovski as heavyweight prospect takes on former champion at UFC on Fox 23

Francis Ngannou burst into the UFC in December 2015, putting the heavyweight division on notice by finishing all four of his opponents during the next 12 months. A win Saturday against a former champion would mark the next step toward his ultimate goal.

“I want to be the champ, I want to be the best,” Ngannou said

Ngannou (9-1) faces Andrei Arlovski (25-13, NC) inside Pepsi Center at UFC Fight Night in Denver. The bout marks the biggest test of his career against his most experienced opponent.

Arlovski is 14-7 in the UFC alone. In Ngannou’s four trips to the Octagon, three of his opponents were making their UFC debut. But that shouldn’t discount the work and punishment delivered by “The Predator.”

In his debut just 13 months ago, Ngannou rocked Luis Henrique with a devastating uppercut in the second round. In his next bout last April, he defeated Curtis Blaydes when the doctor stopped the fight because Blaydes’ right eye was swollen shut. In July, an early flurry stopped Bojan Mihaljovic. Then in December, Ngannou displayed strength and grappling technique by submitting Anthony Hamilton with a kimura in less than two minutes.

Winning your first four UFC bouts is a tall task for anyone, but it’s even more impressive for Ngannou considering he began training for the sport in 2013. The native of Cameroon had trained as a boxer for less than two years when he moved to Paris to try his hand at MMA. When he arrived, he was homeless, but trained all day in the gym and had a friend help find him places to sleep.

Since Ngannou began his MMA training, the heavyweight division hasn’t seen much change. Sure, the UFC belt has changed hands twice when Cain Velasquez lost to Fabricio Werdum, who was then knocked out by current champion Stipe Miocic. Still, the contenders have largely stayed the same. When comparing the current ESPN.com heavyweight power rankings to the final batch of 2013, seven of the 10 fighters are listed on both. All three of the new fighters are over 30: Ben Rothwell (35), Arlovski (37) and Vitaly Minakov (31).

The division is looking for new stars. The youngest fighter in the current rankings is Minakov, the former Bellator champion who was stripped last May due to inactivity. His past four bouts have been inside his native Russia. Ngannou, who recently turned 30, is looking to join that group.

You could call this a fork-in-the-road fight for Arlovski, who last held the UFC championship in 2005, and enters on a three-fight losing skid (all via stoppage). This comes off the heels of a career resurgence for “The Pitbull,” who amassed a six-bout win streak entering 2016. It isn’t the first time in Arlovski’s career he has faced adversity, as he lost four in a row from 2009 to 2011 under the Affliction and Strikeforce banners.

Despite the difference in cage time, Ngannou is confident he can get his hand raised Saturday.

“He has a lot of experience, but I believe in myself and I trust myself that I can get a knockout,” Ngannou said.

The odds favor Ngannou’s claim. He’s currently listed as the favorite at -425, with a bout duration of under 1.5 rounds at -200. A potential factor in this matchup could be the altitude. Fighting a mile above sea level has caused fighters issues in the past with their cardio. The last time heavyweights competed in Denver, at UFC 135 in 2011, both contests were slow-paced decisions. The UFC has put on only two events in Colorado since, one in Denver and one in Broomfield, and neither featured a heavyweight scrap.
To combat this, Ngannou arrived in Denver on Jan. 14, a full two weeks ahead of the event. His goal was not only to acclimate to the air, but to also get over jet lag from the flight from Paris. Ngannou added that after a few days, he felt much better. In addition to arriving early, he trained with an elevation mask while working at the MMA Factory in Paris.

With the potential to rise in the rankings and begin a run at gold in the balance, Ngannou is excited for the opportunity. He knows what is at stake in this fight, and that’s where his focus lies. Afterwards, he’ll see how things shake up. For now, he’ll focus only on what he can control.

“I just want to win all my fights and then give me a title shot or get close to a title shot,” Ngannou said.