The future of the UFC heavyweight division just might be a 31-year-old fighter from Cameroon who began training in mixed martial arts in 2013. That is, if the promotion can market that fighter, Francis Ngannou, to sports fans outside the MMA bubble.
On Saturday, Ngannou earned a shot at UFC heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic with a brutal uppercut knockout of the more experienced Alistair Overeem in the co-headlining bout of UFC 218. After the fight, the promotion’s president, Dana White, spoke of Ngannou with a kind of awe.
“First of all, when you look at him he looks like the heavyweight champion of the world,” White said at the post-fight press conference following the event, which took place at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit. “He looks like the heavyweight champion of something. The guy is a monster and he continues to get better. I always believed in this guy since I met him. I thought he was going to be the man, and boy did he look like the man tonight.”
White went on to predict big things for the fighter who debuted with the promotion in 2015.
“Once we keep this guy active and you see him doing this to all the big stars that you know and yeah, I think this guy’s going to be a rock star globally,” said White.
On paper, it’s hard to argue with White. Ngannou’s career record with the UFC is 6-0. All six of his wins have come by stoppage. The only other fighters, in the modern UFC era to open their runs with the promotion with six straight stoppages were Rich Franklin, Anderson Silva and Ronda Rousey. Each of those fighters held a UFC title.
When you factor in Ngannou’s backstory – he was homeless on the streets of Paris after he left his home country of Cameroon when he walked into a boxing gym and asked someone to train him. Shortly after that, he immersed himself in the world of MMA.
In any other sport, a talent like Ngannou would be a marketing slam dunk, but the UFC has a history of mistakes when it comes to its marketing focus. Not only does the promotion promote the UFC brand above the fighters, it also attempts to sell fighters as stars before they have proven anything inside the octagon (see: Sage Northcutt and Paige VanZant). Or it does a poor job of marketing fighters who have the potential to become crossover stars (see: Demetrious Johnson and Cain Velasquez). Already there are some signs the UFC could be heading for a misstep when it comes to Ngannou.
On more than one occasion, White has referred to the surging heavyweight as a “monster.” And while that might be true – there’s no denying that he’s a genuinely terrifying presence inside the octagon. His personae outside the cage is 180 degrees different than when he is fighting.
Ngannou doesn’t take the Conor McGregor tack of shining the spotlight on himself through an outrageous and boisterous personality. He doesn’t try and intimidate his opponents via a scowling visage or ridiculous trash talk. Ngannou doesn’t have the prickly nature of someone like Brock Lesnar. He’s polite, courteous and respectful. By all accounts, he’s a genuinely nice guy who just happens to possess an innate talent for MMA. Ngannou has all the preternatural ability of someone like Jon Jones sans the outside of the cage baggage that dragged down the former light heavyweight champion.
The easiest thing the UFC could do is to take the low road with Ngannou. The promotion could opt to sell him as some kind of MMA Keyser Soze – a frightening myth the promotion uses to scare fans and fighters out of their wits.
That line of promotion is great for the short-term. It brings in casual fans, who want to see this man deliver knockout blows like he did at UFC 218, but it doesn’t get fans invested in Ngannou as something more than, as White said, “a scary monster.”
The easy way out doesn’t get fans to root for the man who was working in a sand quarry at the age of 12. It doesn’t let them know that Ngannou slept in Paris homeless shelters until he wandered into that MMA gym. It doesn’t inform them of how he learned English because he knew it was a meaningful way to connect with fans of the sport. In short, it doesn’t let fans know that Ngannou is a living, breathing person with goals, hopes and dreams. It makes Ngannou a commodity to be sold for short-term profit over long-term buy in.
If the UFC wants Ngannou to be a “rock star” in the world of sports it needs to invest in promoting more than the fighter – it needs to promote the person that is Francis Ngannou, and that’s something the promotion has often struggled to achieve.