UFC heavyweight Francis Ngannou will admit he felt a lot of pressure over the past year.
Ngannou (11-3) came into 2018 looking like the sport’s next big thing. He was undefeated in the UFC and was scheduled to challenge Stipe Miocic for the title in January — fresh off a frightening one-punch knockout of Alistair Overeem the month before.
But instead, 2018 has been a forgettable year for Ngannou. He was badly out-grappled by Miocic in their championship fight, then suffered another loss to Derrick Lewis in a slow, puzzling three-round affair, in which Ngannou barely threw a punch.
In preparation for Saturday’s fight against Curtis Blaydes in Beijing, Ngannou abandoned his new home in Las Vegas (where he moved in 2017) and held his entire camp in Paris, where he used to train. He also visited his home country of Cameroon to reconnect with his roots.
“I think I went through a lot of pressure,” Ngannou told ESPN. “The pressure was from what people think. At some point, it’s good to let that go away. I’m not doing this for other people. I am doing this for me. In the beginning, this was for me, and it has to be for me again. That’s one of the things I learned.
“Even though I don’t have family in Paris, I am in the same time zone as my family in Cameroon. I don’t know how to explain it, but I feel a little bit closer to my family and myself here.”
Saturday’s bout against Blaydes (10-1) is a rematch of a bout that took place in April 2016. Ngannou defeated Blaydes via TKO the first time they met, when a ringside physician stopped the bout due to damage to Blaydes’ eye.
Blaydes, of Chicago, has rattled off five consecutive wins since that loss.
Although Blaydes is one of the highest-ranked heavyweights in the world, Ngannou says it’s doesn’t hurt to try to regain his confidence against an opponent he’s already had success against.
“Honestly, right now, I have confidence because I know I can beat this guy,” Ngannou said. “I’ve done it before. Of course, he can improve — but from what I saw in the first fight, what he has, I know I can deal with it.
“I have confidence, but I still need something for that last part of my confidence. I need that last thing, and that is a win.”
As far as the momentum he lost from the beginning of the year, Ngannou, who migrated to Paris from Cameroon in his 20s, isn’t worried about it. As much as it’s been a down year in 2018, he hasn’t forgotten how quickly one can rise to the top in this division.
“I didn’t fight for the title because the UFC liked me,” Ngannou said. “I was there because of my performances. Nothing will keep me from getting there again. You think if I win a couple fights, knockouts, the UFC will say, ‘No, we will not give you a title shot?’ Of course not.”