ANAHEIM, Calif. — What Francis Ngannou did Saturday in defeating Ciryl Gane with his grappling would be like Usain Bolt setting a world record in the 100 meters running on his hands, or Tom Brady rushing for 250 yards to lead the Buccaneers to another Super Bowl title.
Exactly no one saw that coming, though it shows the growth in Ngannou’s game and the brilliant work of coaches Eric Nicksick and Dewey Cooper that the sport’s most fearsome fighter could win a bout by grappling.
He was a +115 underdog to Gane at BetMGM, but he established beyond doubt that he’s the elite heavyweight in the world at the moment. He won by scores of 48-47 twice and 49-46 to retain his belt in the main event of UFC 270 at the Honda Center.
Where he goes from here is even more of a mystery than if he’d actually come up with a game plan to grapple Gane. Ngannou had a Nurmagomedov-like approach over the final three rounds. He took Gane down in the third and Nicksick knew they were onto something.
“I was watching and I saw how Ciryl was trying to get up, and I understood we had something there,” Nicksick said. “When he came back to the corner, I put the stool down and said, 'We’ve got ourselves something, huh?’ He goes, ‘We’re taking him back down.’ And I said, ‘Yep.’”
The strategy led Ngannou to perhaps the most impressive win of his career. But it puts him in a netherworld, because his relations with the UFC are poor and it’s not clear, even to Ngannou, if he’ll fight for the promotion again. He fought with an ACL and MCL injury in his right knee that was so bad, his coaches were imploring him to pull out.
Worse, his relationship with the UFC, and president Dana White in particular, aren’t good. White didn’t put the belt around Ngannou after the decision was announced. Matchmaker Mick Maynard did that. And then the UFC PR team announced that White would not attend the post-fight news conference. Ngannou said he had nothing to do with White not putting the belt on him, and was surprised that White hadn’t attended the post-fight news conference.
In the ring, he told Joe Rogan after the win that he wants to box at least once before he retired. When he left Cameroon and went to France initially, he did so with the goal of following the path of Mike Tyson and winning the heavyweight boxing title.
He sparred online with WBC heavyweight champion Tyson Fury before the fight, but said he isn’t sure if that fight would be next. He said he’ll probably have knee surgery, and said he believes if he doesn’t fight the rest of the year, he’ll become a free agent.
White may have something to say about that, but Ngannou is one of the few UFC fighters who has taken a strong public stand against the company’s business tactics.
His announced purse was $600,000, though with profits from the pay-per-view proceeds, he should collect over $1 million.
Still, he’s not happy with his pay, but that’s not the crux of his discontent.
“Money is a part of it, but the type of contract, I don’t feel it’s fair,” Ngannou said. “I don’t feel I’ve been treated good. It’s unfortunate I’m in this position, but everybody should have the right to claim what is best for him.”
What is best for Ngannou is his pulverizing power, but with his balky knee and Gane’s movement, it wasn’t the factor that it normally would be. He said he was afraid to move too much out of a concern his knee would give in. A doctor told him before the fight not to compete and said he could suffer damage that would be irreversible.
He had the grappling to fall back on because Nicksick made a point to work with him diligently on it to make him a more complete fighter.
“He works so hard in the gym developing his complete skillset,” Nicksick said. “When something presents itself, he can [take advantage]. That’s been our idea for years. We don’t just want to rely on one-punch power. So if something presents itself, we have to take advantage of it. It’s MMA.”
But Ngannou overcame unbelievable odds to escape poverty and make it to the U.S., where his hard work led him to the top of the sport. He said he doesn’t feel respected by the UFC and said the company kept assuming what he called “a power position” in talks on a contract extension.
So just as he’s blossoming into a huge star, his time in the company may have ended.
But Ngannou is a proud man who gives every indication of being willing to take a stand and accept the consequences.
Have we seen the last of Francis Ngannou in the UFC?
Somehow, though, I think we’ll see him on a big stage yet again, whether he’s with the UFC or not.