Friday, May 27, 2022

UFC 270 — Francis Ngannou vs. Ciryl Gane: Five biggest storylines to watch on a loaded fight card

After a short break to get through the holiday season, the UFC is back on Saturday with its first pay-per-view event of 2022, featuring a heavyweight championship unification atop the marquee.  

Francis Ngannou will make the first defense of his title reign when he takes on unbeaten interim beltholder Cyril Gane inside the Honda Center in Anaheim, California in the main event of UFC 270. In the co-main event, flyweight champion Brandon Moreno welcomes former 125-pound king Deiveson Figueiredo for the third chapter of their exciting rivalry.  

Although a number of key undercard fights have been scrapped in recent weeks due to injury and illness, there are no shortage of storylines entering this weekend. Let’s take a closer look at what to watch for.  

1. This is the most intriguing heavyweight title fight in a long time 

From a historical perspective, one could argue this division has produced title fights over the past decade that have felt bigger, including trilogy bouts pairing Stipe Miocic versus Daniel Cormier and Cain Velasquez against Junior dos Santos. But has a heavyweight fight ever felt this sexy before, with each fighter capable, from the standpoint of a styles clash, to potentially dominate on their own terms should they take control? Ngannou-Gane has everything fight fans should want (and more). Is the undisputed element a bit overblown? Of course. Gane was only given a shot to fight Derrick Lewis for the interim title last summer because Ngannou was not ready for a five-month turnaround amid contract squabbles with UFC brass. But this rivalry even has a salacious backstory, with both fighters being former teammates for a short time at the MMA Factory in Paris before Ngannou left on anything but great terms. There has even been leaked sparring footage to whet the appetite of fans hoping to imagine what this pairing might look like as Ngannou brings his otherworldly power into the cage against Gane’s slickness and Muay Thai base. Even with Jon Jones’ eventual debut at heavyweight, it isn’t out of the question the result of Saturday’s fight directly impacting the division’s future over the next five years. Each fighter enters fresh off their most dominant and impressive performance to date and the winner could very well be the new face of heavyweight for a very long time.

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2. This could be the last time we see Francis Ngannou in the Octagon 

Has there ever been a UFC fight in which the outcome most directly affects a fighter’s future in the organization? As Ngannou enters the final bout of his current deal, the ongoing feud between UFC president Dana White and the champion’s manager, Marquel Martin, has created an unavoidable cloud hovering over the fight. Should Ngannou lose, he becomes a free agent and would be able to test his value on the open market. The result would bring an end to years of frustration over everything from fight purses to the UFC’s decision making over interim titles. Gane, for example, was allowed to fight for one, just months after a still-healthy Ngannou won the belt. But the promotion had previously said no to Ngannou doing the same in 2020 as the Miocic-Cormier trilogy forced Ngannou to sit idle as the No. 1 contender. If Ngannou defeats Gane, however, that’s where his contract situation gets interesting. The UFC’s championship clause states the promotion can automatically extend an expiring deal each time a fighter wins or defends a title. Ngannou has said publicly he not only wants more money, he wants an opportunity to step outside the Octagon and challenge current boxing heavyweight champion Tyson Fury. Sometimes, winning has a way of fixing disputes because of how much money it creates for everyone. But Ngannou’s situation is a bit different. He has fought just twice since 2019 and could become a leader for change in the UFC’s ongoing fighter pay conversation.

3. Wait, are we sure we even know how good Ngannou is?  

This conversation took a profound turn into almost mythical and apocryphal territory following Ngannou’s title-winning dismantling of Miocic last March. For the record, Ngannou has always been terrifying. But his 2018 losing skid, including a wide decision loss to Miocic in their first meeting, exposed some serious limitations to his overall game. Even Ngannou’s subsequent four-fight winning streak leading up to the Miocic rematch failed to tell an accurate story as to how much he has improved simply because all four fights ended within the first 71 seconds. What we learned, however, from the nearly six minutes Ngannou fought at UFC 260 is that it’s just about impossible to put a ceiling on how great he might become. Ngannou added everything from takedown defense to a devastating top game against Miocic the second time, even mixing in head kicks and a clever striking attack from the southpaw stance to stun Miocic before knocking him cold with the stiffest of stiff jabs. Ngannou will still need to prove, of course, he can be just as effective in the championship rounds of fights provided someone can still take him there, yet it’s hard not to rewatch recent tape of Ngannou and not question whether he’s the scariest creature this sport has ever encountered. Despite his relative inactivity in recent years and small amount of Octagon time, Ngannou has put in the work at Xtreme Couture in Las Vegas. For as great as Gane appears to be, it might not matter in the face of Ngannou’s almost absurd punching power. Although …  

4. If anyone can tame this version of “The Predator,” it’s probably Cyril Gane 

Has the heavyweight division ever seen an elite fighter as light on his feet and in command of his gameplan as Gane? The answer is most definitely no. At 6-foot-4, the native of France is a physical specimen on par with anyone in the UFC short of Ngannou, who looks like he was carved out of stone and hand-picked as a terrifying villain for an action movie. But unlike Ngannou, Gane doesn’t rely on power. Instead, he moves like a middleweight. Gane switches stances at will and has the kind of cardio a heavyweight hasn’t shown since a pre-injury Velasquez. To beat Ngannou, who showed an iron chin and incredible will to go the distance with Miocic in 2018, a fighter will likely have to do so in the championship rounds. Gane is equipped just for that yet is physically strong enough not to be dominated either in the clinch or on the ground, where he has shown enough proficiency to record a trio of submission wins in his 10 pro fights. Gane is as accurate and sly in his setups as any heavyweight UFC has ever seen, using angles and movement to overwhelm opponents with shots they have trouble seeing. He’ll likely need to pitch a no-hitter to get there given Ngannou’s danger, but Gane is uniquely skilled to do just that.

5. It may not be necessary but a Brandon Moreno-Deiveson Figueiredo trilogy is still fire 

Just seven months after fighting Figueiredo to a disputed draw in which many felt Moreno had done enough to win, “The Assassin Baby” became Mexico’s first UFC champion when he dominated Figueiredo in their UFC 263 rematch en route to a third-round submission. So is an immediate trilogy bout one that fans have called for? In a word, no. The decision from UFC brass probably had more to do with its hope of building Moreno into a legitimate crossover star in his native country knowing that Figueiredo has the kind of daring style that makes incredibly fun fights. Yet it’s hard to complain about the matchmaking just the same given how competitive and explosive their first meeting was. Moreno’s feel-good story is hard to resist. Not only is he full of smiles at all times as a charismatic personality whom UFC has leaned upon for Spanish language analysis, he was cut from the promotion in 2018 following a pair of defeats only to reinvent himself so successfully. Since returning to the Octagon, Moreno is 4-0-2 overall and has co-authored a number of exciting fights. The 34-year-old Figueiredo will need to prove that his extreme weight cut to 125 pounds is still possible at this point in his career in order to put up the kind of resistance he was unable to in yielding his title last June. But no matter how you slice it, this is still a can’t miss event.

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