When Francis Ngannou knocked out Stipe Miocic to become UFC heavyweight champion, all the attention for his next opponent shifted to two likely options: Derrick Lewis or Jon Jones.
At the time, Lewis was riding a four-fight win streak and held a win over Ngannou, albeit in a very lackluster outing from both heavyweights. Then there was Jones, the longest reigning UFC 205-pound champion in history and arguably the greatest mixed martial artist of all-time, who had already been planning his move up to heavyweight.
It turned out neither of those fights became a reality. Jones became stuck at an impasse with the UFC over his contract, so he was removed from the title talk conversation rather quickly, while Lewis ended up suffering a fourth-round TKO loss to Ciryl Gane this past August to become the UFC interim heavyweight champion.
While Jones got most the attention and Lewis owned a previous win over Ngannou, Xtreme Couture head coach Eric Nicksick argues that Gane is actually the most dangerous opponent out of the three to draw for a fight with “The Predator.”
“Here’s a guy who carries this weight naturally in Ciryl Gane,” Nicksick told MMA Fighting. “He’s a natural heavyweight. We’re talking Jon Jones, who’s now trying to put weight on to get up to that heavyweight division, and how’s that going to look for him when it comes to understanding the body mechanics and the cardio and all those little things? Really, the one time you’re going to figure that out is in the cage.
“Obviously you can have sparring and everything else, but for him to figure this out on the fly, for Jon Jones to move up to heavyweight and feel what the heavyweight power feels like, the movement, all those things, I think it’s a tall task for him. So when you look at the guy who’s probably best suited for this heavyweight division right now to fight for the title, it’s got to be Ciryl Gane, in my opinion.”
Jones undoubtedly possesses more career achievements than Gane, but he’s also never competed before at heavyweight, and that division presents a whole new set of problems that don’t necessarily exist when fighting at 205 pounds.
To add to that, Nicksick views Gane as a special kind of heavyweight, thanks largely to the way he moves inside the octagon combined with defensive capabilities that have kept him from taking much damage on the feet since his UFC run began.
“I think it’s just kind of that new puzzle,” Nicksick said of Gane. “When you see ‘Wonderboy’ [Stephen Thompson] hit the division, you’re like how is anybody going to beat this guy, and it’s going to take a while to really understand him. It’s like that in football. You get that new offense. Pistol comes out — well, how do we stop the pistol? It takes a little while to understand it and start breaking it down. And slowly but surely, people start understanding how to attack it. I think it’s kind of the same way when you see Ciryl Gane.
“For me, it’s movement at the heavyweight division that you just don’t see. That type of movement. That type of athleticism. So it’s just very different from what we’ve seen in the past. I think it’s beatable, of course, but I think for right now, he’s probably the best guy that we’ve seen in quite a while.”
Because Gane is such a dynamic heavyweight, who can also end the fight with just a single shot, Nicksick knows that victory at UFC 270 will require Ngannou to be prepared for anything and everything that could potentially happen.
Of course, Ngannou still possesses the kind of power where even a glancing blow could take off an opponent’s head, but Nicksick believes the matchup with Gane will finally allow the world to see all that the UFC heavyweight champion has been adding to his arsenal in recent years.
“I don’t think you can come in there just thinking, ‘Hey, I’m going to touch this guy and we’re going to put his lights out,’” Nicksick said. “Would you be surprised if that happened? No. I mean he’s pound-for-pound the hardest hitter in the world. But at the end of the day, Ciryl doesn’t really get hit all that often. He doesn’t get squared up all too often. I haven’t really seen him get dropped or really wobbled. So banking on the fact that we’re just going to find this guy in this chaos and we’re going to hit him on the chin and we’re going to knock him out, I think you’re doing yourself a disservice.
“I think you have to have smart angles and elements on how you can create that hand drop or find him to the body, or get back upstairs or threaten a takedown. You’re going to have to blend a lot of this stuff in there. Because I do think this guy is that good, but I also understand the fact that you can’t always rely on the fact that you can knock somebody out just with power.”
Make no mistake, Nicksick heaps praise on Gane because that’s how seriously he’s been taking this fight since the French heavyweight knocked out Lewis and earned the title shot.
That said, Nicksick knows firsthand the kind of talent that Ngannou not only possesses, but the desire he’s shown to get better in every facet of the game since they joined forces.
In other words, if you thought Ngannou was scary before, just wait until you see what he does next.
“I really feel like he’s just scratching the surface and getting to understand who and what he’s actually capable of,” Nicksick said. “That’s pretty scary to think, because he’s already got the belt.
“Now, we get through Ciryl Gane, I could see him winning another four or five in a row and possibly fighting Ciryl Gane two or three times in our career as well. I think that division, the landscape, if Francis is on top of that, I think he’s going to consistently get better over time, and you saw that with Kamaru Usman since he’s been champion. I think every time out, he’s been getting better and better.”