Francis Ngannou has been the next big thing in the UFC heavyweight division for several years.
Just about everyone believed greatness was within the powerful Cameroonian challenger's reach if he could ever put his prodigious talents together.
All that potential was realised in six sensational minutes today when Ngannou took the belt away from the most accomplished fighter in the division's history.
Ngannou stopped Stipe Miocic with ferocious punches early in the second round to claim the heavyweight title at UFC 260.
Ngannou (11-2) avenged his blowout loss to Miocic in 2018 by demonstrating everything he has learned in the ensuing three years. The first UFC heavyweight champion from Africa flattened Miocic (21-3) twice early in the second, finally buckling the champ's knees and ending the bout 52 seconds into the round.
"Man, it's amazing," Ngannou said. "The feeling of it is just great. Imagine something you've been waiting for your entire life, and struggling to have it. Sometimes I felt like I was drowning and I had to struggle back, but now we're here."
Ngannou won a fairly quiet first round with superior striking and ground work, but there was nothing quiet about the finish.
Ngannou knocked down Miocic 22 seconds into the second round with a crisp left hand to Miocic's face, but the champion ate several punches to get up. Miocic backpedaled away and even landed a right hand that stung Ngannou, but the challenger loaded up a picture-perfect left hook that bent Miocic's legs at a gruesome angle and put him on the canvas again, where Ngannou landed one finishing hammer fist.
"When the journey is longer, the reward is always more appreciated," Ngannou said. "I'm sure I would have been happy three years ago, but I think now, I have a different perspective about it, being happy about my improvement."
The violence was exactly what Ngannou's fans and coaches expected when the long-anticipated changing of the guard atop the heavyweight division finally happened in this rematch of two highly likable fighters.
Ngannou tried to call his mother in Cameroon immediately after the fight, but said he couldn't get through to her because everyone was "going crazy" celebrating his win.
"I can't talk to anybody in Cameroon right now," he said. "It's a good craziness, for a good reason."
The 34-year-old Ngannou is a former aspiring boxer who discovered mixed martial arts after he left Cameroon for France in his mid-20s. He rose rapidly through his new sport with his fearsome power and growing all-around skill, but Miocic interrupted his ascent by winning every round of their first bout in Boston.
The loss staggered the confidence of a once-dynamic fighter. He barely threw a punch in his next bout, an embarrassing loss to Derrick Lewis.
But Ngannou impressively regained his confidence later in 2018 and kicked off a run of four consecutive knockout victories against veteran heavyweights, putting him back in line for Miocic.
"He was a completely different fighter tonight," UFC president Dana White said of Ngannou. "We saw things from him we never saw before. He took his time, and even ate that big right hand from Stipe. He looked perfect tonight."
In the Vegas cage, Ngannou was far too much for Miocic, the firefighter from Cleveland who has been on top of the division for four of the last five years. Miocic's heavyweight reign has been the best in the history of a notoriously tumultuous UFC division, and he most recently won the final two fights of his trilogy with Daniel Cormier to cement his heavyweight supremacy.
In the co-main event of this pay-per-view show at the UFC Apex gym on the promotion's corporate campus, former welterweight champion Tyron Woodley lost his fourth consecutive fight when Vicente Luque submitted him with a D'Arce choke late in the first round.
Woodley (19-7-1), who reigned over the 170-pound division for nearly three years until Kamaru Usman took his belt in March 2019, looked sharp early and landed some strong shots before he was staggered and finished by Luque (20-7-1), who has won 13 of his last 15 fights.
Earlier, bantamweight Sugar Sean O'Malley overcame an enormous early mental mistake for a vicious third-round finish of Thomas Almeida.
O'Malley, the thrilling fighter with rainbow-dyed hair, floored Almeida in the first round with a head kick and a big punch — but instead of finishing his opponent on the ground, O'Malley anticipated a stoppage and walked away before realising the fight hadn't been stopped.
When he floored Almeida again in the third, O'Malley briefly tried to walk away again before pouncing and throwing a final punch that bounced Almeida's head off the canvas.
The UFC is headed to Jacksonville for its next pay-per-view show next month because Florida officials will allow White to sell every seat in an arena, but the promotion still welcomed a few dozen fans to the Apex.