I was eight years old when Mike Tyson fought Evander ‘The Real Deal’ Holyfield for the first time. I don’t know if the fight was actually telecast in India – I would have been too young to watch it anyway, but I remember the newspaper and magazine features on the fight vividly.
They described Tyson as ‘The Baddest man on the planet’ – a moniker that was then bestowed upon boxing’s reigning heavyweight champion. It is a simple nickname that conveyed a powerful, almost primal message – This is the man that can beat anyone else in the world. Looking back, it’s probably when my fascination for combat sport began.
We now know that boxing alone is no longer sufficient to win a fight. In fact, Tyson wasn’t even the real baddest man on the planet in 1996. Just three years earlier, a skinny Brazilian named Royce Gracie had entered a tournament that allowed competitors to use any martial art they chose. Gracie amazed spectators by winning the tournament, taking his considerably larger opponents to the ground, and effortlessly submitting them with an array of chokes and arm locks.
It was now clear that all the hand-speed and punching power in the world could not help you if you were flat on your back. True fighting supremacy could only be achieved by learning a variety of fighting disciplines.
That tournament was UFC 1, and since then, the quest to find the best fighter in the world has continued. Great fighters have come and gone, but no man has ever defended the UFC heavyweight title more than twice. Injuries, contract issues, and the impossible ask of winning consistently when your opponent has virtually any fighting technique in the world at his disposal have all played a role in limiting the heavyweight title defense record at 2. That record could be broken this weekend during UFC 220, when Stipe Miocic defends his title against the most terrifying challenger in years – Francis Ngannou.
Despite his impressive resume, Miocic is probably the most under-rated heavyweight champion in recent history. Previous champions have had an ‘it’ factor that clearly differentiated themselves from the pack. Brock Lesnar was a force of nature – a huge powerhouse of a wrestler that could overpower any opponent in front of him. Cain Velasquez was a cardio machine – his impossible pace overwhelmed opponents. In comparison, Miocic doesn’t have any attributes that make him particularly special. He’s a medium-sized heavyweight, with very good boxing and decent wrestling. He’s not much of a talker either – despite sounding uncannily like Stone Cold Steve Austin, he likes to maintain a low profile and let his punches do the talking.
Fight fans like their heavyweight champions to be big, loud and violent though, and they don’t come much bigger or scarier than the challenger Francis Ngannou. Reportedly the hardest puncher in the world (take that with a liberal pinch of UFC PR-infused salt), Ngannou has put together a string of spectacular knockouts on his way to a title bout. His last fight resulted in 2017’s KO of the year, and is probably the most replayed bit of UFC footage in 2017 (look it up, though you have been warned, it is not for the faint of heart)
Ngannou also has the come-from-nothing sort of story that fight fans have loved for decades. He spent his childhood working in sand mines in Cameroon, and then moved to Paris, homeless and penniless, with a hope of securing a better life for himself, and a dream of becoming a professional boxer. He wandered into an MMA gym instead, and just five incredible years later, finds himself the betting favourite against the best fighter in the world.
Miocic vs Ngannou features elements of many familiar fighting narratives – in many ways it is a contest of youth vs experience, as well as power vs skill. But mostly it seeks to answer a question that fighters, promoters, and fans have debated relentlessly for years – Who is the baddest man on the planet?