The octagon returns to TD Garden on Jan. 20 at UFC 220 with a major pay-per-view event. For the first time since 2003, both the heavyweight and light heavyweight belts will be contested on the same night.
In the main event, champion Stipe Miocic (17-2 MMA, 11-2 UFC) puts his belt on the line against the devastating punching power of Francis Ngannou (11-1 MMA, 6-0 UFC).
“I stepped into [MMA] with an already advanced mind-set.” said Ngannou, who fights out of Paris by way of Batie, Cameroon. “I was ready as a fighter before I even started this game, that helps me a lot.”
At the start of his career, Ngannou planned on training to become a professional boxer until his coaches suggested he try his hand at MMA in hopes of a more lucrative endeavor. Now, after a successful stint on the regional scene and a quick ascension in the UFC, Ngannou splits his training camp between his coaches in Paris and the state-of-the art UFC Performance Institute in Las Vegas.
“I train [at the UFC PI] with Dewey Cooper for striking . . . and then I train for jiu-jitsu with Vinny Magalhaes,” said Ngannou, whose coaches are former kickboxing and jiu-jitsu world champions, respectively. “At the end of my camp, I try to connect all of that with my coaches from Paris. It’s universal.”
At 31, the 6-foot-5-inch, 262-pound Ngannou is still new to the sport with just 12 professional MMA bouts under his belt. But that hasn’t stopped him from tearing through the UFC’s heavyweight division with relative ease. Ngannou, who only started training MMA in 2013, has finished all six of his opponents in the UFC with five knockouts and one submission. And after disposing of each of his last four opponents in less time than it took for him to walk from the locker room to the Octagon, “The Predator” hopes his meteoric rise culminates with a victory over the current champ.
“Stipe has been doing really well . . . he’s been saying stuff like he’s ‘the baddest man in the world,’ ” said Ngannou, sarcastically motioning quotation marks. “But that’s just because the real baddest man wasn’t there. And now, the real baddest man in the world is here. I’m going to claim the throne.”
In the co-main event, light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier (19-1 MMA, 8-1 UFC) will defend his title against a fresh foe in Switzerland’s Volkan Oezdemir (15-1 MMA, 3-0 UFC).
“It’s cool to have a new person in there,” said Cormier, whose last five light heavyweight bouts have come against Jon Jones, Alexander Gustafsson or Anthony Johnson. “The reason it’s been just us four is because there’s a different level to the top guys in the division.”
In his last fight, Cormier was knocked out by former champion “Bones” Jones, but the contest was overturned to a no-contest because Jones tested positive for a banned substance. Now, with the belt back in his possession, the Lafayette, La., native looks to put the finishing touches on his storied career.
“I’m not going to be fighting forever,’’ said a stoic Cormier, who also works as a UFC commentator and analyst. “I’ve always said I’m not going to be fighting at 40. You know, I’ll be 39 in March. Logic would say we’re kind of rolling around towards the end.”
Even with the end in sight, “DC” doesn’t expect things to change in his fight against the dangerous Oezdemir.
“I only know how to fight one way. I fight with a lot of pressure forward, I stand, I strike, I clinch, and I take people down,” he said. “I’m going to bite down on my mouth guard, I’m going to go at Volkan Oezdemir, and I’m going to start making him work from the second the referee says fight.”
Through his career, Cormier’s gritty style has served him well. The American Kickboxing Academy product has finished 12 of his 19 fights with a 50-50 knockout to submission ratio. And with the experience he’s accumulated over the years, Cormier has become used to the bright lights and what it means to be champion at the highest level.
“I’m going to exhaust [Oezdemir]. I’m going to exhaust him to the point where he won’t be able to continue,” said Cormier. “He won’t be able to deal with the pace, he won’t be able to deal with the pressure, but more than anything he won’t be able to deal with the moment.
“Being in [the octagon] is a lot different than feeling like you’re ready to fight someone like me. It’s a little bit different when you actually have to get in there and do it.”Sammy Hurwitz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SammyJHurwitz