How close is Francis Ngannou from heavyweight title shot?

Kevin Iole
Combat columnist

LAS VEGAS – The first employees to arrive at the UFC Performance Institute are usually greeted by a hulking figure, a smiling face who has seemingly made the state-of-the-art facility a second home.

Those same employees often wave goodbye in the late afternoon as they’re headed home for the day.

Francis Ngannou is not a UFC institute employee, but he puts in the hours that an employee does. The heavyweight contender, who fights Alistair Overeem on Saturday in the co-main event of UFC 218 at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit, is one of the fighters who has taken most advantage of the new technology-laden facility.

“I don’t know if he ever leaves,” UFC president Dana White said in jest.

Ngannou’s physical traits are obvious: At 6-foot-4 and 250 pounds, he’s a massive man, an imposing presence whose power is intimidating. But one-dimensional fighters don’t often go where Ngannou wants to go, and so he spends his time dutifully adding a chip to the pile as each day passes.

He’s always been athletic and had talent on the ground. But Ngannou’s committed to becoming the entire package, so there is no weakness to exploit.

He planned to move to the U.S. from his early days in the UFC, when he was a raw, untested fighter brimming with potential but also with plenty of question marks. The construction of the UFC Performance Institute, where he’d have everything he needs all in one place, made it a no-brainer for him to relocate to Las Vegas.

Francis Ngannou has taken the UFC heavyweight division by storm thus far. (Getty)

In addition to world-class training facilities, Ngannou would have his pick of the best training partners here, as opposed to in France where he first learned about MMA.

“There are a lot of things going on that makes America better for me [to train in] than France,” Ngannou said. ” … Being a UFC fighter, as a heavyweight in France, it’s not that easy to do. We talked about it and the best thing for us was to move.”

Ngannou has the kind of talent to become a star of the highest order. The public loves knockouts – particularly heavyweight knockouts – and in less than two years in the UFC, he’s already built a career’s worth of highlight-reel finishes.

He’s not just a hulk, though White has admiringly called him “a [expletive] monster.” Ngannou has also shown surprising speed, agility and athleticism for a man so thick. Had he been born in the U.S. instead of in Cameroon, he might well be an elite edge rusher in the NFL given his rare combination of speed and power.

Ngannou, though, insists it’s more than just his athleticism and the skills he’s worked so hard to develop that make him the UFC’s hottest title prospect. He was homeless not long before he signed with the UFC, and those memories spur him to make himself successful.

“Skills and athleticism, all of that, I think the main thing [for my success] is motivation,” Ngannou said. “My strength and my power is all in my mind. When I look back at where I’m from and see my family, it’s kind of scary. I don’t want to go back. I don’t want my kids, my son, to live through the same things. That is motivation.

“When I look at my family, when I look at my mom, I hope I will be able to help and I hope she will be proud of me. She gave all of what she had for us. That’s my motivation. … My past has made me the man I am today and I am stronger.”

Overeem is tasked with finding a way to slow down this beast of a man who has won his last three fights in the first round and who has yet to go two full rounds in his UFC career.

Everything is there for Ngannou to become the most dominant heavyweight in the world. But potential is one thing; there have been a lot of potentially great champions who have never ascended because of one flaw or another.

It’s about doing it when the lights come on and the attention is the greatest and it’s do or die.

So far, Ngannou has done it, but to become the fighter that many in the UFC brass believe he can be, he’s got to start doing it against the likes of Overeem, long one of the best heavyweights in the world.

Ngannou knows it, and knows what he’s up against on Saturday, but he relishes it.

“Of course he is a tough guy,” Ngannou said of his opponent. “But that’s what you want. You want to be fighting these kinds of guys because when you are, it means you’re one step closer to becoming the best in the world.”

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