Francis Ngannou (17W-3L-0D) retained his heavyweight belt by defeating former teammate and interim heavyweight champion Ciryl Gane (10W-1L-0D) -via unanimous decision.
Ngannou, 35, shocked many when he entered the Octagon sporting two knee sleeves. The champion later confirmed he tore his MCL in both legs three weeks before the fight, but did not want to pull out.
The defending heavyweight champion started off slow, with Gane showing his technical ability in the opening rounds. But Ngannou surprised many showcasing his wrestling prowess in rounds three to five.
After the event Ngannou, who is out of contract, confirmed his intention to box in the future. “I don’t have forever here, I have options,” he told Joe Rogan. “Boxing is something I have in the back of my mind, and I have to do it before I end my career.” UFC president Dana White seemed to snub Ngannou, with matchmaker Mick Maynard putting the belt around the champion; a tradition usually reserved solely for White.
Ngannou’s power is legendary. But immediately from the offset it was clear that Ngannou’s movement was compromised, his breaths all too heavy after every step, and his strikes lacking the snap that has laid out so many an opponent.
Gane on the other hand started brightly, and while Ngannou laboured about the Octagon, his French counterpart practically bounced with a mixture of feints, kicks and fancy footwork.
The 31-year-old showcased his creative striking ability with a beautiful behind-the-back elbow from guard the highlight from Round One. For an individual who weighs over 250 pounds, Gane moves like a man half his size with movements seemingly all too fluid for a heavyweight.
Round Two saw much of the same, with Ngannou’s skin slick from sweat. Meanwhile Gane looked unfazed, hands hanging low and picking precise shots at the champion. Yet, despite Ngannou’s obvious injuries in both legs, it is a wonder Gane didn’t target his opponents legs more. Regardless it would be Gane’s best round of the night.
It was clear that any chance of a knockout at this point wouldn’t come from the Frenchman, who’d happily snipe Ngannou from range and win via points. With round two over, it was clear Ngannou had work to do.
With his legs and cardio compromised we saw Ngannou do something we’ve rarely seen the feared power puncher do. In round three, the man revered for his work with his fists wrestled his opponent to the ground, or more aptly power slammed the 257 pound Gane like he was nothing.
This made Ngannou the first to take Gane down in his eight UFC fights, something that seemed to stun the interim champion.
Suddenly the fight billed as a stand-up brawl became a intricate chess match between two 200 pound plus tacticians. Ngannou, so feared on the feet, nullified his compromised striking ability and controlled rounds three and four with a mixture of submission attempts and ground control.
The Francis of years gone was brutal but was a one dimensional machine, go for the knockout or bust. Yet following his maulling on the mat at the hands of Stipe Miocic in their first heavyweight title fight, it is clear Ngannou has made clear improvements to his ground game in the years since.
Round 5 saw much of the same. Yet Gane, knowing the winner of this round would likely win the fight, stepped his wrestling up. His work paid off almost completing a leg lock submission on his former teammate before retaining top position.
But in a moment of madness – – likely chalked up to inexperience – – he gave up that position for a half-hearted submission attempt. His attempt would be snuffed out by Ngannou who then controlled Gane for the remainder of the fight.
Before the official decision was even read out Gane mouthed the words “Desole (sorry)” to the cameras in his native tounge.
Gane ultimately failed to create many meaningful moments. While he controlled rounds one and two, his failure to adjust and score big shots ultimately was his downfall.
Yet the Parisian is just three years into his MMA education. He has time still to develop, and with Ngannou’s future up in the air it could be Gane who could become the face of the division.
Meanwhile, Ngannou was keen to point out his road to UFC 270.
Speaking to Joe Rogan he said: “It’s been an incredible journey,” Ngannou said. “It’s been a very tough training camp. A very tough 10 months. A lot of s—.”
The Cameroon native’s relationship with UFC president White has always been a complicated one. White’s snubbing of wrapping the belt around Ngannou is a telltale sign just how contentious the relationship has become. Combined with the cancellation of White’s post-fight press conference – – normally a mainstaple after every UFC card – – it is clear behind the scenes relations have been anything but cordial.
The rift is simple. Ngannou wants more money, White won’t give it to him.
Should Ngannou leave, it’ll be a huge stain on the heavyweight division. And unlike the situation with then featherweight and lightweight champion Conor McGregor (22W-6L-0D) boxed Floyd Mayweather in 2016, the likelihood that White would hold up the UFC’s premiere division to wait for Ngannou to return from boxing is slim to none.
Tyson Fury has expressed an interest in a crossover fight with Ngannou, while eyebrows may be raised Fury sees the potential in a mega-fight with the 6ft” 4 African star, or more aptly sees the box office potential it could generate.
Should Ngannou step away from MMA and his duties as UFC champion the heavyweight division is not short of talent. Former Champion Stipe Miocic (20W-4L-0D) remains in the mix, as too does top contenders Derrick Lewis (26W-L-0D), hot-prospects Tai Tuivasa (14W-3L-0D) and the aforementioned Gane. Not to mention the UFC’s resident badboy Jon Jones’ (26W-1L-0D, 1NC) arrival at heavyweight set to shake up the division after years terrorising the light heavyweight scene as champion.
But Ngannou is box-office even in the absence of knockouts, and whether White likes it or not makes the heavyweight scene is a far more enticing place with the man nicknamed “Predator” in it.