Back in March, before Francis Ngannou won the heavyweight title, Stipe Miocic was considered by many the greatest heavyweight of all time. All Ngannou had to do was knock him out for the fight public to drop that cud-chewing GOAT off at the petting zoo. That all feels like a million years ago.
Miocic was like an artifact on Saturday night, when none other than Ciryl Gane squared off with Derrick Lewis for the interim heavyweight title out in Houston. There was an off-road feeling to the proceedings in that neither Gane nor Lewis was named Ngannou, who — all through the refreshing month of April — was in some very public talks to fight Jon Jones in his first title defense. That bout would’ve been a whopper for many reasons.
But that fight, just like Miocic, was hypothesized right out of existence when contract disputes — and published areas of personal value — became too much to overcome. At first it looked like the consolation prize would be Lewis against Ngannou, but when Ngannou said he wouldn’t be ready to roll in early August (just 133 days from winning the title) he morphed into Ciryl Gane, another Parisian with a far more authentic accent. That’s when the interim belt materialized out of thin air.
Sometimes in the fight game context is the burden we suffer, but as everyone knows a good Saturday night for the UFC is when it can double as an Etch-a-Sketch. Gane came in and shutdown Lewis in confoundingly easy ways, out-striking the hometown hero 98-16. Lewis never got into a rhythm. He never found an opening. He never threw caution to the wind. He never tasted such a profound jab, which landed with more and more mustard each time it arrived. He never did the killdeer bit, where he rises up from the dead as he did with Alexander Volkov. Nothing.
It wasn’t a fight so much as a demonstration of Gane’s strikingly agile skill set for those who hadn’t cared to pay attention to his fairly rapid rise.
In the most roundabout way possible from our springtime imaginations, Gane arrived as a threat to overthrow Ngannou. In fact, early lines on the unification bout had Gane as the favorite to do just that. Lewis isn’t usually cast as a gateway drug to awesomeness. When Mark Hunt beat Lewis all he got was a freaking Curtis Blaydes. But with Gane, he got a split of the heavyweight crown and the early Vegas lean for his future unification bout. Times change fast in the UFC. And perception is a Jell-O mold that the UFC breaks out on Saturday nights.
Truth be told, Gane struck on an opportunity and probably turned in the perfect performance. It came dangerously close to boring people at times, but remember, Houston was watching its icon flail in real time. The groans were in part because of what was not happening, what was being bottled up and frustrated and squandered. What actually was happening was Gane — who carries his 240-pound frame on kitten paws — patiently picking Lewis apart. Strategy has never jibed well with the usual heavyweight mindset to pummel and brawl, and it was a lot to process.
In this way, Gane did his job by not only creating doubt about Ngannou’s title, but by becoming something of a revelation. He created those all-too-important questions to be asking.
Is Gane a coach’s nightmare to game plan for? Has he figured out the single biggest key to flourishing in the heavyweight division, which is to flummox and avoid the big blow? How do you counter a cerebral fighter with a keen sense of his bearings, the moment, and his own self-preservation? Can Ngannou blast through all that?
Gane’s general lightness isn’t an impediment, it’s an instrument. His brand of chin music isn’t metal, it’s a series of beautiful little chansons. Does he peel away from engagements from time to time? He does. But when he finishes the job — and beats a thumper in his hometown by a margin of 98-16 in the striking game — it tells a longer story of discipline and strategy than it does cowardice. Gane did what you need to do in the UFC. He made the most of his opportunity.
It wasn’t the heavyweight title fight that was expected. And interim titles are nothing more than symbols that promoters hand out to create a sense of magnitude. The set-up of UFC 265’s main event felt unnecessary and unasked for, yet it got us somewhere. Gane versus Ngannou wasn’t the destination, but it’s the happy place we ended up.