Francis Ngannou looks to overcome another tough position that the UFC put him in

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(Getty Images)

At the outset of 2018, many people anticipated that Francis Ngannou would ascend to the top of the heavyweight division.

Coming off a spectacular knockout win over Alistair Overeem at UFC 218 last December, the Cameroonian contender was tabbed to challenge Stipe Miocic for the heavyweight title at UFC 220 seven weeks later in Boston. In promoting the event, Ngannou was positioned as a “one in a million” type of competitor — a punishing powerhouse who had climbed to the top of the list of contenders without much resistance.

In addition to being pegged for greatness inside the cage, Ngannou was viewed as a potential superstar for the organization — a charismatic heavyweight with an incredible backstory and a willingness to be in front of the camera that looked more like “The Baddest Man on the Planet” than all of his contemporaries. All that stood between the ascendant challenger and superstardom was the blue-collar champion.

As 2018 winds to a close, Ngannou is set to make his third foray into the Octagon and does so facing the possibility of ending the year at the complete opposite end of the spectrum from where he started.

Ngannou’s star-making championship opportunity at UFC 220 turned into another reminder that skill and experience still carry a lot of weight in this sport, as Miocic avoided the challenger’s power and used his wrestling to put him on the canvas and grind out a unanimous decision victory.

Six months later, Ngannou returned to the cage in a highly anticipated showdown with fellow knockout artist Derrick Lewis in the co-main event of UFC 226, but the best exchange between the two ended up being their shoving match at the weigh-ins on that Friday afternoon.

From the moment they stepped into the cage at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, it was clear that Ngannou was off as he was unable to pull the trigger and unwilling to exchange. While Lewis was hampered by back spasms and failed to muster much offense either, the Houston native did initiate a couple exchanges and came away with the decision win in what was easily the most disappointing and uninspiring clash of the year.

Following the contest, Ngannou admitted that his loss to Miocic had shaken his confidence and caused him to second-guess his skills, while UFC president Dana White went in on the former title challenger, suggesting that Ngannou had bought into his own hype and failed to adequately prepare for his championship fight.

Just a handful of months after driving the Francis Ngannou bandwagon and charting a course to greatness, White was leading the mass exodus, recasting the man described as a “one in a million” type contender as a run of the mill fighter, who bit off more than he could chew and was felled by his own hubris.

After occupying prime real estate on three straight pay-per-view events, Ngannou is set to return this weekend, headlining Saturday’s debut in Beijing, China in a showdown with surging contender Curtis Blaydes that airs exclusively on UFC Fight Pass.

Less than a year after nearly decapitating Overeem and being heralded as the future heavyweight champion, Ngannou has been dispatched to China for an unnecessary rematch against a surging contender who has grown by leaps and bounds since their first encounter and could very well enter 2019 on a three-fight skid, struggling to find his place in the division he was forecasted to rule 11 months ago.

It would be an unprecedented fall from grace — to go from being favored to capture UFC gold to sitting on three straight losses in the span of a year — and while it’s understandable given the competition he’s faced, it’s no less disappointing, especially because it could have been avoided.

Ngannou’s rise to challenging for the heavyweight title was too quick — a function of favorable matchmaking, a dearth of contenders and the UFC’s overzealousness when it comes to marketing fighters with star potential.

He ascended by mauling overmatched competition and established names with suspect chins, with his highlight reel finish of Overeem garnering the kind of attention that made hustling him into a title shot against Miocic an easy sell, even though another stern test probably would have been best.

The UFC hoped to catch lightning in a bottle and positioned Ngannou as the heir apparent at heavyweight, focusing on the superstar he could become without acknowledging the ultra-talented titleholder, who had no interest in relinquishing the strap.

As much as the loss to Miocic at UFC 220 was bad, it presented a great opportunity for both Ngannou and the organization to acknowledge his shortcomings, press the reset button and work on the obvious holes in his game that were exposed in Boston.

But instead of pulling “The Predator” out of the pack of contenders and letting him get a couple wins under his belt before trying to make another run at the title, he was thrown into a bout with Lewis, a dangerous knockout artist who had won seven of his last eight fights at that point and was coming off a come-from-behind victory in February.

Back in a highly-publicized pairing without having addressed any of the issue that arose in his loss to Miocic, Ngannou froze. The guy who once appeared destined to rule the division with his iron fists looked completely unsure of himself. After two years of facing little resistance and being told he was soon to be king, the hulking heavyweight was humbled by Miocic and had no idea how to react.

Coming away from his bout with Lewis, Ngannou looked like a fighter who needed to take the rest of the year off to do some serious soul searching in hopes of regrouping in the first quarter of 2019.

Instead, he’s been paired off with Blaydes, who had success against Ngannou in their first encounter when he was still training himself out of a UFC Gym in Chicago and is unbeaten since their first meeting. Last time out, the Elevation Fight Team member dominated Overeem, grinding on him for two rounds before splitting him open and knocking him out with hellacious elbows from top position midway through the third round.

He was a bad matchup for Ngannou when they first squared off two-plus years ago in Zagreb, Croatia and he’s an even more terrible opponent for him now, as he remains a standout wrestler with a granite chin, only now he’s also brimming with confidence.

It’s a matchup with very limited upside and one that is emblematic of the issues that plague the UFC’s approach to matchmaking at the top of divisions.

Far too often, the organization cannibalizes contenders, pitting championship hopefuls against one another until there is only one fighter standing. From there, instead of shuffling the vanquished to the back of the line and replacing them with new names, they’re simply rolled right back into different pairings with the same crop of athletes, often resulting in situations where the top contenders have all faced one another.

Not only does it make it difficult for emerging talent to break into the championship mix because the veteran contenders they need to face in order to truly establish themselves are often booked, but it also creates a situation where there is a dearth of viable title challengers.

Blaydes is the lone fighter in the Top 5 who isn’t coming off a loss at the moment; he’s won four straight, is unbeaten in his last six and doesn’t stand to gain much by posting a victory over the struggling Ngannou in Beijing on Saturday.

If he wins, nothing changes for him and he remains one of the few legitimate contenders in the heavyweight division, while Ngannou catches a third straight loss and remains in an unprecedented tailspin after entering the year with lofty expectations.

If he loses, one of the few legitimate contenders in the division is erased without any real return, as there is no performance Ngannou could deliver that is going to prompt fans and media to move past his two poor showings earlier this year and accept him as a legitimate contender again so quickly.

Blaydes should be biding his time on the sidelines, serving as a back-up plan should Daniel Cormier’s bout with Brock Lesnar fail to materialize, while Ngannou should be beginning a two- or three-fight rebuilding stretch rather than facing another elite contender.

The excitement the hulking 32-year-old from Cameroon generated with his win over Overeem and heading into his showdown with Miocic was genuine and his potential is vast, but he got pushed too hard, too soon and hasn’t been afforded a chance to get his feet back under himself yet.

Even if all the knocks against him coming out of the debacle in Las Vegas against Lewis are legitimate — that he was believing his own hype, failed to train properly, and was suffering from fractured confidence following his bout with Miocic — that’s all the more reason to pull back and force him to prove he’s figured all those things out and worked to fill the gaps in his skill set Miocic exposed in January.

Rather than throwing him back in there with the lone fresh name in the Top 5, give him time to get settled, work on some things and rebuild his confidence by registering a win or two.

Just under a year ago, Ngannou was “The Next Big Thing” at heavyweight — a can’t-miss contender carving a path of destruction through the division.

Now, he’s on the brink of being declared a bust.

It didn’t have to turn out like this.

Hopefully, his incredible rise and epic fall won’t all be for naught.

Hopefully, he figures things out, gets closer to reaching his full potential and can make another run up the heavyweight ladder in the future.

And hopefully the UFC recognizes that sometimes it’s OK to press the reset button and give competitors a chance to regroup and rebuild, rather than constantly marching forward, bolstering the resume of one contender at the expense of another.