Francis Ngannou evolved from a KO king to a grappling God with a completely unexpected performance against Ciryl Gane at UFC 270 to retain his heavyweight title despite battling on with a torn knee.
After dropping the first two rounds with his gas tank seemingly running low, the champion produced a massive body slam takedown that must have registered on the Richter scale in California as his French opponent clattered into the mat.
It was the moment of the fight and signalled a crucial change in momentum with the Cameroon native repeating the trick in the championship rounds. With the scores level at two rounds apiece heading into the fifth, both men knew the importance of the next five minutes.
The Frenchman attempted a leg lock but allowed Ngannou to reverse position and spend the majority of the round on top, leaving the judges in no doubt that the champion should retain his prize.
Most fighters, fans and pundits agreed that if the champion was going to win this fight, he would do it early, with a first or second round knockout, as he has done on his five previous meetings.
But Gane was too light on his feet, dancing in and out, not necessarily posing much of a threat himself but evading Ngannou’s power punches easily and doing enough to win the first couple of rounds.
Everything was going to plan for Gane and his coach, Fernand Lopez, who split acrimoniously with Ngannou in what formed the backdrop to much of the build-up to this showdown between former sparring partners.
But clearly the Ngannou who suffered so badly in the grappling exchanges in his first fight with Stipe Miocic is long gone.
What a frightening thought. The baddest man on the planet now has even more weapons at his disposal.
Alarm bells started ringing when Ngannou walked out at Honda Center in Anaheim with strapping on both of his knees. The commentary team admitted they had heard rumblings of an injury, that had been carefully concealed up to this point.
While the problem did not seem to impede the 35-year-old particularly, he revealed the true extent of the damage afterwards, telling Joe Rogan: ‘It has been a very tough training camp, very tough.
‘A lot of s*** happened. Three weeks ago I hurt my knee. Tore my medial cruciate ligament completely, hurt my ACL and other stuff.’