For weeks, Francis Ngannou has been pressed for details about his sparring sessions with Ciryl Gane, whom he will face Saturday at the Honda Center in Anaheim, California, in the main event of UFC 270 for the undisputed heavyweight championship.
The videos that have been released on the internet largely depict Gane doing well. Ngannou has repeatedly implied that he did well against Gane, but wouldn’t come out flatly and say so.
But at media day on Wednesday when pressed again, he said he’d knocked Gane out in sparring with a left high kick.
And Gane’s coach, Fernand Lopez, who was coaching Ngannou at the time, immediately rebutted that.
“A knockdown is when a fighter is hit and he goes to the ground off his feet,” Lopez told Yahoo Sports. “A knockout is when a fighter is hit and blacks out. Neither of those ever happened, 100 percent no. What happened was, they were sparring and Francis threw a huge kick with his left leg that touched Ciryl. Ciryl got angry and said, ‘What the f*** are you doing?’ and wanted to go after him. I said, ‘Guys, let’s stop the sparring.’ Ciryl was really pissed off, but I thought it was best not to go forward, so I stopped the sparring for the day.”
Somebody’s not telling the truth, and the truth may never really be known, but it highlights the bitter feelings between the sides.
Lopez and Ngannou split in 2018 after Ngannou was upset with an interview Lopez gave to a Polish journalist. UFC president Dana White had blasted Ngannou after his loss in a heavyweight title fight in Boston at UFC 220 to Stipe Miocic, saying Ngannou had developed an ego.
Lopez said that the Polish journalist called him and asked him if that were correct.
“I feel it is important to be truthful and to address issues and so I said, ‘Yes, it’s true,’ and Francis didn’t like that,” Lopez said.
Ngannou didn’t wish to address the issue, only saying he’s improved dramatically since then.
It’s led to a lot of discussion but it’s something Gane has tried hard to avoid. The sessions were years ago and both fighters are vastly different. At the time, Gane was just transitioning from kickboxing to MMA and Ngannou was an established UFC star.
But Gane, arguably the best athlete among big men in UFC history, has adapted well to MMA and won the interim championship in August when he stopped Derrick Lewis late in the third after a one-sided beatdown.
Gane has great lateral movement, distance control and quickness. Lewis is the UFC’s all-time KO king, but Gane took him completely out of his game and Lewis landed nothing of significance on him.
He knows that’s the plan he’ll need to follow to defeat Ngannou, the hardest puncher the UFC has ever seen. Gane is a -150 favorite against Ngannou (+125) at BetMGM.
Gane, who also played basketball in France, has the requisite physical skills as well as the size to deal with the freakish power Ngannou possesses. He fell in love with MMA as soon as he tried it because so many opportunities to use his athleticism were open to him.
“When I found MMA, I was like really free, really, really free,” Gane said. “The cage is bigger and you can dance, and you can jump. You can run, you can do everything. That's why it was a great feeling [to get into MMA].”
Athleticism is one of his greatest skills, but both Gane and Lopez say it’s secondary to his mind for the game.
Gane went out of his way to stress the importance of his mind to his success, and Lopez concurred.
“When you have the mind for the game like Ciryl, you make better decisions when you’re fighting,” Lopez said. “In this sport, one wrong decision can be [disastrous] and that’s where Ciryl is so good. He’s able to read his opponent and he makes good choices consistently and puts himself in the best position to have success.
“He’s like a computer, getting the information he needs to make the best choices. He knows where Francis is dangerous and where he needs to take him and he can react very quickly to what he sees.”
It’s going to be an emotional fight given the history between them. Lopez said it’s Gane against Ngannou, not him against Ngannou, and he said it’s important not to lose sight of that.
But both fighters learned the basics of the game in France from Lopez, and the fight will have a big impact on French MMA for years to come.
Lopez conceded it will be difficult to be in the opposite corner from a man he’d worked so closely with and shared so much with, but it’s part of the business.
Gane’s as easygoing as they come and he harbors no ill will, but believes a win over Ngannou will be huge for MMA in his native France.
“It would be something very big for my country,” he said. “This will help a lot of other athletes in France get some attention and put some shine on MMA.”