Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Why Ciryl Gane vs. Tai Tuivasa could help provide clarity in a complicated UFC heavyweight title picture

When top-five heavyweights Cyril Gane and Tai Tuivasa square off in the main event of Saturday’s UFC Fight Night card in Paris, what might be lost in the fanfare of the promotion’s debut card in France (along with its main event homecoming) is just how important this five-round bout is for the division. 

If one is searching for a word to describe the heavyweight title picture at the moment, the words exciting and deep must also be paired with the likes of confusing, crowded, uncertain and bottlenecked. UFC president Dana White summed it up best when he spoke to the Las Vegas media following Tuesday night’s “Contender Series” card about who would be fighting next for the undisputed (and/or interim) belt.

“First of all, I don’t make a fight before the fight. Anything is possible,” White said. “We don’t know how any of this is going to play out because the heavyweight champ is still hurt anyway.”

White’s reference was to Francis Ngannou (17-3) who continues to recover from the major March knee injury (ACL reconstruction and MCL repair) he suffered before and during his January decision win over Gane (10-1), then the UFC’s interim champion.

The biggest unknown surrounding the 35-year-old Ngannou’s eventual return (which includes a timeframe that is equally unknown) is whether the free agent will officially decide to re-sign with the promotion after previously claiming he wouldn’t unless given freedom to fight heavyweight boxing champion Tyson Fury. Adding to that confusion is the same unknown about when and if former 205-pound king Jon Jones (26-1, 1 NC) will make his long-threatened heavyweight debut (and what that would mean for former champion Stipe Miocic’s potential return). 

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Remember, no one said this was going to be easy to predict or comprehend. So what does that exactly mean for the winner of Gane and Tuivasa? Despite the volatility of the moment, really big things, according to White, when asked whether this is a de facto No. 1 contender’s match.  

“Yeah, that’s how it works,” White said. “If Tai wins, obviously he is next in line and the Cyril fight [against Ngannou] was close … I don’t know but obviously whoever wins on Saturday is right there.”

Given his incredible five-fight win streak (all by knockout) and the insane fanfare he has created by perfectly embodying the image of a hard-charging (and hard-drinking; often out of shoes) slugger, Tuivasa (14-3) might appear to have the upper hand on crashing the title party with a win. That doesn’t mean the 29-year-old native of Australia, who shocked Derrick Lewis in Round 2 via elbow in February, is expected to win, though. In fact, he’s nearly a 6-to-1 underdog.

Because of that, critics have looked at this type of matchmaking, despite their respectively high rankings in the top five, as a bit of a sneaky, get-well opportunity for Gane, a 32-year-old native of France, who suffered his first defeat against Ngannou and has a fighting style that is all kinds of wrong for Tuivasa. 

“[Tuivasa] is really dangerous and everybody knows this [because] he proves this,” Gane said at Wednesday’s media day. “He is on a good run and has finished every opponent. He is pretty dangerous in his striking so I must be focused.”

“If Saturday I win, after that I am looking for the belt because everybody knows it was really close with Francis.”

True to his character, Tuivasa was largely downplaying any idea that a victory would allow him to cut the line. The reason, he says, is because his focus was and is on the actual prize that comes with being a full-time prizefighter, and nothing more.

“I know a good win over Cyril will put me in a good situation of a new contract and more money. This is what I do to feed my family and it’s all about the dollars. Definitely, the winner gets a say [in the title picture], that’s for sure. But that’s not on my mind at all. I’ve got a big Frenchman coming to take my head off and that’s all I am focused on right now.”

Jones, 35, has teased over social media his want to snap a nearly 3-year layoff on Dec. 10 at UFC 282 in Las Vegas, the final pay-per-view card of the year. In a perfect world, he would return to challenge in Ngannou, in an opportunity to win a title in a second weight class and put to rest any debate as to whether “Bones” truly is the G.O.A.T.

Said perfect world doesn’t exist, however, which means there’s just as much of a possibility that Jones returns against Miocic (20-4) on the same night for either the interim title (if Ngannou is still rehabbing) or the full title (if the champion fails to re-sign). Miocic, 40, hasn’t fought since losing his title to Ngannou in their 2021 rematch and doesn’t appear as if he’s willing to return unless it’s for the belt, which only further complicates an already complex situation. 

Yet, when taking a close look at the division’s top 10, the idea that Gane-Tuivasa is a fight for the future of heavyweight isn’t that far-fetched. Both Lewis and Jairzinho Rozenstruik are riding two-fight losing skids while Alexander Volkov and Curtis Blaydes have been inconsistent (or unlucky). Marcin Tybura and Sergei Pavlovich, meanwhile, still have a lot to do in terms of demanding exposure while Tom Aspinall saw his momentum halted due to serious injury.  

There is a fight for heavyweight royalty still to be had to close this year, but the fighter who will be waiting on deck to have the next say will likely come in Saturday’s featured fight. And despite everything from the odds to him fighting in his opponent’s backyard, Tuivasa hopes to remind everyone not to make any future plans until he gets his chance to pull yet another upset.

“We all know [Gane] is a great athlete, he’s really fast and all this. I know that but I excel in the cage,” Tuivasa said. “Once the cage door is shut, it’s only me and him. As much as people keep telling me I have to worry about Cyril, I think Cyril has to worry about me, too.”

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