Alain “The Panther” Ngalani has been a prominent feature on the ONE Championship heavyweight landscape since his debut in 2013, but a fresh influx of talent has the Cameroon-born star more motivated than ever to compete on the global stage.
A multiple-time World Champion in the striking arts, Ngalani is still committed to expanding his skill set so he can compete with the elite grapplers who’ve joined with The Home Of Martial Arts.
In this exclusive interview, “The Panther” reflects on his last bout against “Reug Reug” Oumar Kane, the explosion of African mixed martial arts, and his excitement to step back inside the Circle against the new crop of athletes in his division.
ONE Championship: Your last bout was a loss to “Reug Reug” in January. What are your reflections now that you’ve had some time to process the fight?
Alain Ngalani: Obviously, with everything that was going on, I was really excited to jump in there. It didn’t matter that it was short notice, and it was a pleasure to welcome someone from Africa in there.
I was very confident in defending the takedowns. I’ve been working a lot on my ground game and my striking is on point. I just have to make sure my timing is right, my takedown defense is right, and I pace myself in a certain way.
Going into that fight, I was really keen to put that into action, to strike and hurt him from a distance. I was waiting for him to charge, and when he did, I can remember clearly that when we went on the ground, I was okay.
Watching the fight again, I saw that maybe I took too much time on the ground before I responded. In my head, I felt like I was receiving his punches but they were not hurting me, so I wanted to keep that position and work my way under to switch.
In the meantime, he was pounding, but I wasn’t thinking that the referee would stop the fight. I thought, ‘He’s not hurting me, so I’m not going to bother changing position. I’m going to go where I want to go, I’m going to take my time.’ That’s what I was feeling and thinking. But it is what it is. I’m always grateful. I’m not one to dwell. I’m just grateful that I was there. The past doesn’t matter to me – it’s about what’s next.
ONE: It looked like you shared a moment with “Reug Reug” after the match. Have you struck up a relationship with him?
AN: He’s a great guy. His team invited me to Senegal to do some exhibitions with him and his team over there, and they contact me all the time. It’s cool. He’s a great guy, and I can only wish him the best. He has a lot of talent, coming from a different background, and it’s a pleasure to see him coming out and expressing himself in some way.
I’m very happy to know him and that he got to come out at ONE Championship. I am looking forward to seeing him improve.
ONE: Do you think he has what it takes to be the next big World Champion from Africa?
AN: He’s coming from wrestling — obviously, he has a lot of work to [do in order to] adapt to MMA. But he’s young and he has the time to do it. To be honest, it’s clear Africa has a lot of raw talent, there’s no denying that. It’s time to acknowledge that now. Africa has a lot of talent, and you’re going to see them coming out more often than ever.
ONE: As well as Kane, there have been a host of other world-class signings to the heavyweight ranks. What are your thoughts on the division at the moment?
AN: I think it’s very exciting to see all the newcomers. They’ve put a lot of spice into the heavyweight division. If you’re a heavyweight or light heavyweight and you were sleeping and taking it easy, you want to wake up now and get your [act] together because this is it. Things are moving. You’ve got to come out and do something, change your game, or adapt.
I like competition. That’s the reason why we are all here. That’s what puts the fire in our belly. Competition triggers and excites me to do more, to compete. It’s going to be fun.
ONE: There are a lot of elite wrestlers and grapplers among the new additions. What are your thoughts about matching up with this style of opponent in the future?
AN: Personally, it’s clear that I’ve always had an issue with wrestling and grappling. That’s been my nemesis, so every time I find myself on the ground, I find myself panicking. That’s the reason why I’m still here because it was all about the challenge.
I could have stuck to kickboxing, but I was a World Champion – I had nothing to prove there. I wanted to be challenged, and that was in MMA. I wanted to understand the game and learn, and that’s why I am still here and I still have that edge.
I still didn’t show even 30 percent of my capacity in wrestling, jiu-jitsu, and grappling. I know if I polished myself properly there, I would be untouchable. It doesn’t matter about my age – I’m feeling good. So as long as I’m enjoying myself, and I’m still excited and healthy, I will carry on pushing, learning, and challenging myself.
I work out every day, I enjoy my workouts, and from time to time I step out there and show what I’ve got. I still have motivation. This is an exciting time. All these newcomers are bringing something completely different to the game. Things are changing, belts are changing hands. It’s not a matter of grappling, it’s a matter of being well-rounded. You have to be able to strike well and defend well on the ground.
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ONE: Some of them have been very vocal since entering ONE, but are there any, in particular, you’d like to face?
AN: It’s not about talking, it’s just about stepping out there and doing your thing, so for me, I’m not choosing one or the other. You know me, I’m not against anything. ONE calls me and they say, ‘Are you ready to step out against this guy?’ And I say, ‘I am here, whatever you want.’
I’m not scared. Nothing is bothering me. I step out there and I do my thing. I keep improving, and if it’s my time and it’s my day, I will perform well. So there’s not one particular person that I would want to talk about. Anyone is welcome.
ONE: Brandon Vera was always an opponent you wanted to face when he was the ONE Heavyweight World Champion. Is that still a matchup you want now that he has recently lost his belt, and would this be good timing?
AN: He is a great guy, a great athlete, and he has done a lot. I wish him well. I hope he can take a step back and come back stronger. This is the fight game. For me, whether it’s Vera or anyone else, the division is filled with a lot of talent, and I’m keen to go out there.
If it’s my day, I’ll go out there and do some crazy things. Anybody can lose, have a good day or a bad day. It all depends, so you just have to get out there, keep believing, and keep pushing. That’s what I’m doing.
ONE: What do you think about Reinier “The Dutch Knight” de Ridder wanting to step up to the heavyweight division to try and take a third ONE World Title?
AN: I think it is incredible what he has done, taking both belts from Aung La N Sang. Congratulations to him on the amazing performance. I didn’t think he would take the light heavyweight belt, but he did. I give it to him. Bravo, De Ridder!
But I think going to heavyweight is going to be more of a challenge. It’s not a small game. If he wants to fight like he did against Aung La, just taking him down and drowning him through the rounds, that’s one way of doing it that can be countered very quickly. And if he can’t, what is he going to do? I haven’t seen that yet.
I’m not sure it’s going to be that easy with someone who is naturally a heavyweight, so it would be very exciting to see him challenge [a heavyweight]. I have seen that he has put some fire in the ranks and made some noise, so that’s very impressive.