Among the many reasons why Saturday’s UFC 270 main event is so appealing, from the soap opera backstory between ex-teammates to the unification of combat sports’ biggest prize, is the alarming contrast in styles between defending champion Francis Ngannou and unbeaten interim titleholder Ciryl Gane.
Ngannou (16-3) is quite possibly the most devastating striker and one-punch knockout artist in MMA history. But if the native of Cameroon, who learned the sport in the same Paris gym that produced his opponent, is the immovable object in this fight, it’s clear that Gane (10-0) is the irresistible force.
The simplest way to sum up what this weekend’s title bout held inside the Honda Center in Anaheim, California, is this: if there’s a heavyweight alive capable of disarming and outslicking Ngannou over five rounds, his name is Gane.
But Gane isn’t just uniquely skilled to be the potential Kryptonite to slow down Ngannou’s extended reign of terror inside the Octagon, fight fans might also be looking at the future of the heavyweight division in the 31-year-old Muay Thai fighter.
For a division that has seen the most turnover of any in UFC history, heavyweight has long been a showcase for violence at its most pure and destructive core. Yes, there have been innovators and a steady flow of evolution along the way, including former champion Cain Velasquez’s introduction of a cardio heavy wrestling style, but the crux of the division’s history has often come down to which hulking behemoth can land the knockout blow before receiving one first.
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With a body cut out of granite and eight first-round stoppages in his 11 UFC victories, Ngannou has long presented the scariest example of what type of danger is present at all times at the division’s highest level. The mathematical equation of Ngannou’s power plus the vulnerabilities of the human chin has regularly produced the same sum.
Unfortunately for Ngannou, and potentially the rest of the division at large, Gane’s game is anything but a simple equation. The fighter known as “Bon Gamin,” or “good kid” in English, has introduced a fighting style to the sport’s glamour division that is more advanced calculous than simple arithmetic.
“I think I’m the new version,” Gane said at Wednesday’s UFC 270 media day. “This is a new era. You have the guys like Tom Aspinall, another new guy in this division, [and] we are a little bit different. I think we understand something more and that’s why it’s going to be different. This is not a disrespect [to former Ngannou opponents] like [Alistair] Overeem or Jairzinho [Rozenstriuk]. These are excellent fighters, too.
“But this is very different, this is very different.”
At 6-foot-4, Gane is the same height as the 35-year-old Ngannou and has a reach just two inches shorter than the frighteningly long one utilized by “The Predator.” Gane also brings the kind of physical frame that prevents him from being manhandled in the clinch or on the ground, where Gane produced a pair of submission wins to kick off his UFC run in 2019.
But unlike anyone Ngannou has faced, what makes Gane the most different is that he moves like a middleweight. Constantly switching stances and mixing in feints, Gane is the first heavyweight on the elite level to employee the “hit but don’t get hit” style that is ideal to longevity in the combat space but all but impossible to pull off with four-ounce gloves on the heavyweight level.
“I can see everything with my eyes and I can understand that,” Gane said. “In this division, I have the best footwork. I’m well-rounded, I can finish the fight on my feet but I’m in the ground game too. Everything is possible with me.”
The architect behind Gane’s rapid transition from kickboxing to interim UFC champion is Fernand Lopez, the head of MMA Factory who just so happens to have guided Ngannou to both his first title shot — a unanimous decision loss to Stipe Miocic in 2018 — and his recovery from a pair of Octagon defeats before the two parted ways on bad terms.
Lopez, who talked at length with “Morning Kombat” in October, found it easy to sum up what makes Gane so different from every other heavyweight.
“Most of the time he’s being cerebral,” Lopez said. “This kid is a computer, he’s just a computer. What is good with Ciryl is that he picks up quick what you tell him.”
Once Lopez saw the huge potential from a striking standpoint that the still green Gane brought to the table early on in his transition to MMA, the veteran coach made a strategic decision. Instead of worrying about takedown defense or whether Gane had the chin to stand in with elite heavyweight strikers, Lopez focused on teaching his prized pupil how to avoid two-way conflict altogether.
“I told him that instead of trying to knock people down, I need you to not get touched,” Lopez said. “I told him, ‘I want you to finish your training in the vertical. If you get into the horizontal, you will have failed me. Just be on your feet and in order to do that, just change your direction every time and make people miss the way you are going. If you can do that and stay on your feet, you will kill everyone.’
“Fighting at distance allows you to not get touched. I told him that if he can block a punch, he’s still in the distance to allow a wrestler to take him down. I told him, ‘Don’t block a punch, I want you to step in and step out. I want you to take an angle to not get touched.'”
Through 10 pro victories in just three years, and seven straight since debuting in the UFC, Gane has shown an evolved style the division has never seen on this level. In December 2020, Gane scored an eye-opening TKO of former champion Junior dos Santos. Dominant five-round decision wins over Rozenstruik and Alexander Volkov followed until Gane captured the interim title last August by wearing down and stopping former title challenger Derrick Lewis.
“How do you have a fighter go up against Volkov and get to the bell without a bruise on his face? That’s crazy,” Lopez said. “How do you have a guy who has never been [put] on his back once? This is because [Gane] is very smart. If you are not smart enough, you will get yourself in trouble and then you will have to show that you have a good takedown [defense]. But if you are wise, you will not even get into this situation to have a sprawl.
While Lopez’s utopian ideas of avoiding any and all dangers in a division that is overwhelmed with potential pitfalls at every turn is ambitious, it takes a special kind of athlete to implement it. That fighter is Gane, who could prove with a win on Saturday to be the kind of heavyweight 2.0 model that all fighters will look to model their game after moving forward should they have the skill and IQ to do so.
Again, it’s something that is much easier said than done.
“Heavyweight is one division where people rely on their strength. They are so powerful. When you are powerful, it’s easy to rely on the power,” Lopez said. “It’s very hard for you to try to swim when you can just push someone and punch him. You don’t want to think about trying to swim. Techniques are hard to teach to a heavyweight. The x-factor for a heavyweight is fight IQ because you need to have a big one to think about a need to be smart and rely on IQ and cardio instead of strength. When you use your brain, you can save energy. Ciryl Gane does not get tired.
“The future about heavyweight will be who is the smarter guy.”