The UFC Heavyweight division embarks on arguably its most intriguing chapter on Saturday at UFC 220. Perhaps the most anticipated title fight since the days of Brock Lesnar takes place when reigning UFC Heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic puts his gold on the line against destructive challenger Francis Ngannou.
Over the years, the weight class which hosts the UFC's largest athletes has gone through ups and downs. It's been the promotion's glamour division at times, while at other moments it has gone forgotten. The current interest is at a high, though, and credit goes to Miocic for establishing himself as a stable champion and Ngannou for tearing through the ranks and becoming a feared challenger.
Ngannou, who clashes with Miocic for Heavyweight gold in Saturday's UFC 220 headliner at TD Garden in Boston on January 20th (10 p.m. ET, pay-per-view), is largely responsible for the hype around the fight. In the span of 25 months, "The Predator" has gone from a complete unknown making his Octagon debut to a man favored by oddsmakers to take the strap.
Although Ngannou is not a fully proven commodity like the champion, the excitement around him is just. Less than five years ago Ngannou, who was born in Cameroon, was homeless and living on the streets of Paris. He had never trained MMA seriously, but once he discovered the sport, everything changed.
Ngannou found his passion with MMA, and his development since his professional debut in November 2013 has been nothing short of staggering. A frightening combination of size, power and athleticism makes Ngannou a problem for anyone willing to compete against him. After losing his second fight, Ngannou has reeled off 10 consecutive wins, none of which have gone past the second round. He's laid waste to all six opponents he's faced in the UFC, and going into his first championship fight, he already views the results as a forgone conclusion.
"I'm the real champion for this division," Ngannou tells Rolling Stone ahead of UFC 220. "I'm the guy that's going to change the heavyweight division and bring more excitement for heavyweight division, which was for a long time almost forgot about. I'm there to win the fight and doesn't matter where the fight goes. I’m going to win."
Ngannou may be the new kid on the block who is turning heads, but the champion Miocic has been holding his ground in the UFC for years. At UFC 220, Miocic can make history. The UFC Heavyweight title has never been defended more than two consecutive times, and Miocic is one of five champions in the history of the division to make if that far. He can set himself apart this weekend, though, and become the most successful champion ever.
As compelling as the story is behind Ngannou's rise to prominence, Miocic brings his own fascinating elements to the table, as well. Although he's the world champion, Miocic still works as a part-time firefighter in his hometown of Cleveland. He refuses to quit, and claims it is more likely that he will become a full-time firefighter than a full-time fighter in the future.
He might not commit 100 percent of his time to fighting like many others, but that clearly hasn't held Miocic back. He's won his past four fights by first-round knockout, taking out former UFC champions Junior Dos Santos, Fabricio Werdum and Andrei Arlovski, as well as top contender Alistair Overeem, during that run.
Despite his success, Miocic openly admits he feels disrespected ahead of UFC 220. Ngannou has received an abundance of promotional attention from the UFC going into the event. UFC President Dana White has hyped Ngannou's punching power as the hardest ever recorded, and at a recent press conference claimed that taking one of Ngannou's punches is equivalent to being hit by a Ford Escort traveling at maximum speed – or a 12-pound sledgehammer swung full-force from overhead.
Miocic, even with his long streak of knockouts, has never received that type of commentary from his boss.
"I feel like they don't want me to win, they want him to win," Miocic admits. "They don't talk about everything I've done, but I'm not going to dwell on it or get upset about it. I don't care. I'm going to go in there and prove everyone and get my hand raised and it's going to be 'And Still.'"
Some agitation over the pre-fight narrative clearly exists on Miocic's side, but he's not the type to lash out or complain. Miocic, arguably to his own detriments, is a humble and soft-spoken champion. He's not particularly media-savvy and prefers to take every situation in stride. But when he gets in the Octagon on fight night, he delivers violent performances.
Miocic's title defense at UFC 220 is getting more attention that any of his fights prior, but again, the champion refuses to exit his comfort zone.
"I'm going to win and that's going to prove my point," Miocic says. "I really don’t care about the hype around him. He's a big guy and hits hard, just like every heavyweight. He's a great fighter, super tough, and he's fought some really good guys. But unfortunately, he hasn’t faced someone like me yet."
For Ngannou, claiming UFC gold would complete a near incomprehensible journey from homeless Cameroonian immigrant to champion. He's been confident winning the belt would be part of his path since early in his UFC career, and has been vocal about it.
For some fighters, all this would be happening too quickly. Ngannou's most recent fight took place just six weeks prior to UFC 220, and it was a memorable one. He scored the 2017 "Knockout of the Year" when he absolutely crushed fellow contender Overeem with a spectacular one-punch knockout at UFC 218 in early December. The clip of the knockout went viral and cemented Ngannou's place as the next challenger.
Ngannou claims to have known even before the fight with Overeem that he would be making a quick turnaround to fight Miocic. He says he's been ready to fight for the belt for much longer than that, though, so despite the short window, he vows to be ready.
“I feel like it's normal because even before my UFC debut, I always believed in myself," Ngannou says. "I always believed even before I started the sport in my life that I can do something really great. That's probably the reason that I started the sport – because when you feel something in you and something that you can't explain, you just have to do it to show people. It's something that I have dreamed about my whole life, I have prepared for this, and we're going to do it."
Ngannou says he has the utmost respect for the champion Miocic, he's just convinced the time has come for a changing of the guard. In fact, he believes that change would have already happened if he'd started fighting a while earlier.
"He's the champion for a reason: He's the champion because the real champ wasn't there,” Ngannou says. "Now the real champ is on the way, and he's not going to be the champion for long."
Miocic has denied every man who has come for his belt, though, and while Ngannou might be his biggest and most fearsome threat, the champion says he won't get flustered.
"I really don't care about his hype," Miocic says. "The only thing I think about is UFC 220. I’m going to stay champ, write this record and keep winning."
Mike Bohn is Rolling Stone's combat sports reporter. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter.