UFC 260 Real or Not: Smaller cage favors Ngannou; Woodley’s UFC future is at stake

MMA

Francis Ngannou, Tyron Woodley and Sean O’Malley all will be looking for redemption Saturday at UFC 260, for reasons varying from avenging a title fight loss to possibly having to hang onto a roster spot.

Ngannou faces heavyweight champ Stipe Miocic in the main event, trying to avenge a 2018 unanimous decision defeat. Miocic dominated Ngannou on the canvas, raising the question as to whether anything will be different this time if Ngannou can’t defend the takedowns.

Smaller cages, like the one at the Apex, usually favor the wrestler, but is that true in this case? Ngannou wants to limit Miocic’s space as much as possible, so maybe proximity will favor the puncher. The William Hill sportsbook at Caesars Palace has Ngannou as a slight -125 favorite.

Woodley, the former welterweight champion, hasn’t had a win since 2018. He’s lost three straight, albeit to elite competitors: champ Kamaru Usman, Gilbert Burns and Colby Covington. Will his UFC survival be on the line against Vicente Luque?

O’Malley doesn’t have to worry about getting cut, but the 26-year-old prospect is coming off his first professional loss and dropping two straight would at least slow down his hype train. He’s a 3-1 favorite to win against Thomas Almeida, who has lost three straight and four of five.

ESPN’s panel of Phil Murphy, Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi and Jeff Wagenheim breaks down the key storylines for Saturday’s card, separating what’s real from what’s not.


Unless Ngannou has found a way to defend takedowns, there’s no reason to believe the sequel will play out differently.

Wagenheim: No, that is not real for two big reasons: the blocks of granite at the ends of Ngannou’s right and left arms. Those weapons alone are reason to believe the rematch could go differently from Ngannou’s 2018 title challenge, in which Miocic wrestled him into oblivion over five one-sided rounds. The champ landed six takedowns that night and attempted eight others, all of which kept the challenger on the defensive when he wasn’t on his back. As a result, Ngannou landed just 18% of his significant strike attempts (compared to Miocic’s 72%), hitting nothing but air for much of the fight.

Early on, though, Ngannou did find his target. Of his 21 significant strikes in the fight, 15 came in Round 1 — mostly in the opening two minutes. That surge out of the gate instilled in a busted-up Miocic an urgency to get the fight to the canvas, which he did by timing Ngannou’s windmill punches, getting out of their way and grabbing the overextended big guy and dragging him to the mat again and again.

Has Ngannou improved his wrestling since then? One would assume so, since it’s been over three years, but we have no evidence. After the loss to Miocic and a forgettable staring contest with Derrick Lewis, Ngannou faced Curtis Blaydes and Cain Velasquez, who are Nos. 1 and 2 all time in takedowns among UFC heavyweights. Neither of them was able to put Ngannou on the canvas, though — they didn’t have time. Ngannou knocked out Blaydes in 45 seconds and Velasquez in 26. So much for testing Ngannou’s wrestling.

But to me the real key to Saturday’s rematch for Ngannou is to pace himself for what might be a long night. I know, his strategy of blasting out of the gate with power has continued to work wonders for him. Since the duds against Miocic and Lewis, Ngannou has fought four times for a total of just over two minutes — knockouts in 45, 26, 71 and 20 seconds. But Miocic had an answer in 2018. He weathered the Ngannou storm with footwork, head movement and timely punch combinations, and midway through their first round in the cage together, the challenger was tired and desperate. If Ngannou allows his gas tank to drain to “E” again, he runs the risk of coming up empty in his second bid to be champ.


The smaller cage at the Apex will favor Ngannou.

Okamoto: Not real. If the smaller Octagon favors anyone, it’s Miocic. It’s too broad and lazy to issue a blanket statement of: A smaller cage always favors the wrestler; but the fact is, it usually does. Less space is a good thing if you’re looking to shoot into an opponent’s hips or corral a single-leg takedown. It’s also easier to put an opponent on the fence in a smaller cage, which for Miocic, would be a good way to rob a puncher of his knockout power.

All that said, Miocic figures to be the more elusive striker on the feet. He’ll be looking to use angles and distance to his favor as long as they’re exchanging strikes — so, in that sense, he might miss the extra space if this turns into a standup fight. But the safest route for Miocic to win is to do exactly what he did the first time they fought, and that is take Ngannou down. And a smaller Octagon is a better place for him to do that.


Tyron Woodley needs a win to secure his roster spot.

Raimondi: In most cases, I’d say that notion is preposterous. Woodley is a former UFC welterweight champion, and he was a very good one at that. He’s been an ambassador for the sport. He’s popular, has a handful of incredible highlight-reel knockouts and has crossed over into movies. Woodley has his fair share of haters, and UFC brass probably doesn’t like some of the things he has said over the years, but there’s little doubt that having Tyron Woodley on your roster is a net victory. He’s just a solid guy all around.

But times have changed for the UFC, especially in the last few months. I was surprised when, in early March, the UFC released former heavyweight champion Junior dos Santos and heavyweight legend Alistair Overeem at about the same time. Not only are both future UFC Hall of Famers, they’re still pretty good and are capable of headlining events. In other words, they’re a lot like Woodley. If the aging dos Santos and Overeem were ousted, the 38-year-old Woodley, too, might be on the chopping block. So, I’m going to say real on this one. Woodley may be facing a must-win situation against Vicente Luque.

Woodley has dropped three straight. Of course, you do have to consider whom those losses came against, but the UFC has shown that it can jettison big names, especially ones who might be getting paid more than the average fighter. Woodley fits that bill as a former champion and pay-per-view headliner. He deserves every penny of his paycheck, but if the UFC feels like he’s in the way of younger (and cheaper) talent rising in the rankings, this could be make-or-break for “The Chosen One.”

Luque is no slouch, either. He’s a very dangerous striker with knockout power and opportunistic submissions. It’s a tough matchup for Woodley and potentially one he needs to win if he wants to keep his spot on the roster.


O’Malley needs a win to restore his shine.

Murphy: One of the great things about MMA — compared with boxing — is a single loss rarely derails a prospect’s potential. Most fans see a single blemish as forgivable.

At UFC 69 in 2007, Matt Serra shocked the world by knocking out Georges St-Pierre in the first round. No one holds that against GSP when evaluating his legacy because of what he did thereafter. More recently, Cory Sandhagen got tapped inside 90 seconds by Aljamain Sterling last June. Sandhagen rebounded with back-to-back knockout wins and has fans clamoring for a title shot against the winner of Sterling-Petr Yan 2.

Opportunity for redemption is rewarded, if taken.

O’Malley having his peroneal nerve chopped to death by the ultra-durable Chito Vera on Aug. 15 will prove a footnote in a promising career if “Suga Sean” gets back on track against Almeida. There’s enough of a body of work — three straight bonuses before the Vera loss — to resume his climb up the bantamweight ladder and have a lone blemish forgotten.

Almeida himself knows all too well how mystique fades with a series of setbacks. He has dropped four of five fights, starting with his first-round KO loss to Cody Garbrandt in a 2016 main event. Almeida was favored in four of those five. He’s not this weekend — 3-to-1 odds are in O’Malley’s favor, for whom this is a crossroads fight. With a win, the hype train picks up steam. But with another loss, it’s unavoidable that Suga will lose shine that may take years to restore.

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