By Stephen Kihn
Francis Ngannou says he’s waited two years to share the octagon with former two-time UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez.
The Cameroonian gets his wish on Sunday when the duo headline the first UFC main card to air on ESPN at the Talking Stick Resort Arena in Phoenix, Arizona, USA.
Ngannou (13-2) initially called out Velasquez (14-2) in January 2017 after dispatching ex-champ Andre Arlovski (27-18) during a run to title contention.
He was denied a bout then with the injury-plagued American, but did earn a crack at the belt a year later, albeit in a losing five-round effort against Stipe Miocic (18-3).
Ngannou, however, knows a win over Velasquez this weekend could well earn him another shot at gold.
“I’m feeling very good,” Ngannou, who trains under coach Fernand Lopez at the MMA Factory in Paris, France, told mmaengage.com.
“I had a good training camp. I have prepared physically, also I feel good in my mind.
“I’m very excited for this fight. It is going to be a very good fight.
“I’ve been waiting for two years. After fighting Arlovski I called for him, and now I get it.”
Ngannou wields freakish power in his hands, best encapsulated by his brutal knockout of Alistair Overeem (44-17) in December 2017 with a brain-jarring uppercut.
His talents were last displayed when he TKO’d fellow contender Curtis Blaydes (10-2) in 45 seconds in November 2018, as he rebounded from unanimous decision defeats to Miocic and Derrick Lewis (21-6), with the latter contest a bizarrely dire showing from both men.
The 32-year-old, though, has a limited ground game, which was exposed by Miocic and is an area where the well-rounded Velasquez excels.
Velasquez wrestled with distinction in school and for Arizona State University, and is a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt.
Ngannou accepts he could never hope to out-grapple Velasquez given his late start in MMA, so he prefers instead to focus on his strengths and tactics.
“MMA is about the game plan: how to approach the fight; how to manage the fight,” Ngannou said
“That is the most important thing I learnt. 2018 was a learning process of how to fight; how to manage the fight; how to manage everything around; how you manage yourself; how to get in the best camp and not get in there already tired.
“I mean, a lot of my fights were very fast, and when you rise very fast, even if you’re good, you still have something that you skipped; something you haven’t gotten in the time.
“And also because I didn’t grow up an athlete, I had to learn everything. I didn’t have an amateur career, so in five years I had to learn everything.”
While Ngannou beat Blaydes for the second time in his previous outing, Velasquez last fought two-and-a-half years ago when he TKO’d Travis Browne (18-7) with a vintage first-round demolition job.
The 36-year-old is considered one of the finest heavyweights in history, but has only fought seven times in the past seven years mainly due to injuries, as well as stalled contract talks with the UFC.