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Five potential opponents for Francis N’Gannou’s PFL debut

The biggest free agency signing in MMA history, Francis N’Gannou, sent shockwaves across the MMA landscape when he signed with the PFL. Here are five potential opponents for The Predator's 2024 debut.

Ante Delija

The reigning PFL heavyweight tournament champion is the most obvious opening challenger for N'Gannou's debut, and despite withdrawing from his opening bout against Yorgan de Castro, Croatian giant Ante Delija still looks likely to retain his crown.
Standing at 6'5" and holding a career record of 23-5, Delija has been a participant of the PFL heavyweight tournament since 2021 and has looked dominant in his victories over rivals Matheus Scheffel and Renan Ferreira.

Delija has fast hands for a big man, often throwing his punches in combinations that finish with a pulverising left hook. His left hook was the beginning of the end in last year's final as it started the sequence that finished Matheus Scheffel and secured him the $1million tournament prize.

What makes this matchup so interesting is Delija's ability to clinch and wrestle. He is incredibly comfortable working in the clinch and has some of the best wrestling at heavyweight, which is an area where N'Gannou has come into some difficulty in the past.

However, he has been known to get into boxing matches with his opponents and despite his willingness to stand and trade being pleasing for the fans, in a matchup with a murderous puncher like N'Gannou it could prove to be fatal for him.

Rob Wilkinson

The first man to take a shot at N'Gannou since his arrival, "Razor" Rob Wilkinson has no fear of "The Predator" and hopes his call out will land him a spot opposite N'Gannou in 2024.
"See you next year @francisngannou"
Wilkinson is the PFL's sitting light-heavyweight champion and a fan favourite since his arrival in the PFL last year.
Four consecutive KO/TKO's saw the Aussie warrior win the 2022 light-heavyweight tournament and the $1million cash prize, capping off a dream run that has seen him not lose a fight since 2019 across MMA and kickboxing.

Wilkinson was at one time a member of the UFC's middleweight roster, but after losing his debut to Siyar Bahadurzada, he welcomed future champion Israel Adesanya to the organisation, losing once more by KO/TKO and was given his walking papers.

The beauty of a Rob Wilkinson fight is he always comes to finish the fight. Only two of his 20 professional MMA bouts have ever gone the distance making him an all-action fighter who lives by the sword and dies by the sword, a very interesting proposition for a potential matchup with N'Gannou.

Kirill Kornilov

With N'Gannou being signed to the PFL's super fight division rather than their heavyweight tournament, it gives opportunities for the PFL to look elsewhere when finding him potential opponents.
Enter, Kirill Kornilov.

A formidable Russian fighter who stands 6'5", Kornilov is currently taking part in the ACA heavyweight grand prix and if he wins that, it could place him with the winning ticket in the N'Gannou sweepstakes.

Kornilov is a seasoned striker, winning 67% of his professional victories by KO/TKO against tough competition across Russia.
Despite underwhelming results whilst fighting for GLORY in his kickboxing career, Kornilov still took the likes of Jahfarr Wilnis and Nordine Mahieddine to the judges' scorecards during his career inside the ring.

One thing Kornilov does lack is name value. His 15-1-1 record is impressive but being an unknown Russian quantity with a great record is often a danger sign that most fighters try and avoid.

However, considering the financial rewards for taking part in a fight with N'Gannou, it's difficult to imagine that anyone offered the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow will turn it down, and N'Gannou's confidence in himself means he is unlikely to run scared at the thought of fighting Kornilov.

The PFL's Russian contingent should also help smooth over any signing issues, the like of Movlid Khaybulaev and Magomed Umalatov already are signed and have great success in the PFL tournaments, and the signing of Abdul-Aziz Abdulvakhabov for the 2023 tournament from ACA proves the two have done successful business before.

Shamil Gaziev

He might not be well known to a wider audience, but Shamil Gaziev is a man not to be taken lightly, and someone with a more personal connection to N'Gannou than anyone realises.

Gaziev has a perfect career record of 10-0 and also fought for the IMMAF as an amateur. He is a battle-tested warrior who currently competes for BRAVE CF, an organisation that the PFL has done business with before when they signed Jarrah Hussein Al-Silawy.

But its former UFC interim heavyweight champion Ciryl Gane who connects Gaziev and N'Gannou.
Gane and N'Gannou where once training partners together under Fernand Lopez at the MMA Factory in Paris, before N'Gannou left causing a rift between him and Gane.
Now Gane and Gaziev train together, and after N'Gannou defeated Gane all the way back at UFC 270, it is safe to assume Gaziev will want to get that win back for his teammate.
Gaziev's own skills merit being given a chance against N'Gannou, he handed Kirill Kornilov the only loss of his career to date and defeated UFC veteran Darko Stosic by first round knockout the last time he entered the cage.
If N'Gannou and Gaziev were to fight, Gaziev would have all of Russia and his adopted home country of Bahrain behind him, strengthening an already growing bond between the PFL and its foreign investors.

Ryan Bader

Bellator's current heavyweight champion, Ryan Bader, has focused his time on defending the 265lb belt since his losses to Vadim Nemkov and Corey Anderson back in 2020 and 2021.

Bader is currently undefeated at heavyweight in Bellator. Since winning the title against Valentin Moldavsky in 2022, he has defeated Cheick Kongo and Fedor Emelianenko to take his rightful place at the top of the tree.

A combination of superb wrestling, leading back to his high school and collegiate career, and powerful strikes particularly with his overhand right have made Bader into a perfect foe for N'Gannou to test out the potential wrinkles in his game.
With the name value that comes from being a sitting champion in Bellator and a veteran of the UFC, it is likely that it will be much easier to sell a fight between N'Gannou and Bader than it will with Kornilov or Gaziev.

One problem does remain though - Bellator are unlikely to just let their champion walk away to a rival organisation.

There are some ways to handle this issue though.

Bellator have a history of co-promotion, particularly with Japanese promotion RIZIN, which has proven to be mutually beneficial for both parties and has seen champions from both organisations face off inside the cage.

However, others speculate that Bellator is on the market and the PFL are interested in merging the two organisations.

Whilst this would be excellent for fight fans due to the two combined rosters leading to some excellent fights, there are no finalised details yet, with journalist Ariel Helwani reporting as such on his show "The MMA Hour".

"Something is going to happen, and I've heard there's two major players, but I don't feel comfortable reporting on anything at this time".
Should Bellator and the PFL end up in some sort of arrangement, it's hard to imagine one of the first fights that gets made won't be N'Gannou vs Bader.

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