UFC Real or Not: Francis Ngannou-Ciryl Gane is a bigger fight than Ngannou vs. Jon Jones


There were big winners all over the main card of UFC 265. Jose Aldo proved he has something left in the tank and potential in the bantamweight division with his victory over Pedro Munhoz. Tecia Torres defeated Angela Hill to win her third in a row, a victory that will continue her climb the top 10 in the strawweight division. And Vicente Luque clearly established himself as one of the most dangerous fighters in a stacked welterweight division with his submission win over Michael Chiesa.

But the biggest winner of all is new UFC interim heavyweight champion Ciryl Gane. He thoroughly dominated Derrick Lewis for three rounds before earning the TKO win, and the now 10-0 fighter is starting to generate some buzz as the MMA world considers what a fight against champion Francis Ngannou could look like.

While Ngannou vs. Jon Jones is clearly the biggest fight the UFC can make in terms of mainstream appeal in this moment, could a champion vs. interim champion bout be bigger and more important for Ngannou’s career than a superfight against Jones?

As for Luque, his performances inside the Octagon certainly put him into the discussion as a future title contender. If his timing was different, his resume certainly merits consideration for the title shot. But with current title challengers Colby Covington, Leon Edwards and Gilbert Burns in his way, could Luque benefit more from a high-profile opponent like Nate Diaz more than another highly ranked contender?

Looking forward, the long-discussed, twice put off fight between Rafael dos Anjos and Islam Makhachev has been rebooked for UFC 267 in October. Could this high profile fight dictate a future title fight at lightweight?

Finally, Cody Garbrandt‘s loss to Rob Font short-circuited his hopes of regaining the UFC bantamweight title, and likely precipitated his move down to flyweight. Can he afford anything but a splashy knockout in his debut at 125 pounds?

Our panel, featuring Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi, Phil Murphy and Carlos Contreras Legaspi, digs into the biggest stories of the week to separate what’s real from what’s not.

Ciryl Gane is a bigger fight for Francis Ngannou than Jon Jones

Okamoto: Not real. However, it’s not as far off as you might think, and when 2021 started, the mere suggestion that a Gane fight could in any way compare to a Jones fight would have been unthinkable. The idea of Ngannou, the scariest man on the planet, fighting Jones, arguably the greatest of all time, has always been an obvious super fight. It might be the biggest fight the UFC can make right now that doesn’t involve Conor McGregor.

Gane was a nice prospect coming into 2021, and probably could have even been penciled in as a future title challenger down the line. But he wasn’t a box office draw, and certainly not a draw that could compare to Ngannou vs. Jones. The truth is, he still isn’t a draw by himself. But paired with Ngannou, he would be. All of a sudden, Ngannou vs. Gane is a blockbuster fight.

Especially once the backstory is more widely known — that these two were once training partners, and Ngannou left the team and won his title with another gym. And once the public buys into the fact Gane is not only a real challenge for Ngannou, but actually favored by some to beat him, the interest will be there.

If the UFC somehow finds a way to take this fight to Paris, where they trained together, the scenes will be incredible. Because of Jones’ inactivity, and the dominance Gane has shown, there are now multiple money fights in the heavyweight division.

Vicente Luque’s best next move is a fight with Nate Diaz

Raimondi: Vicente Luque has never been hotter than he is right now with four straight wins — the latest a slick first-round submission win over Michael Chiesa Saturday at UFC 265. The multi-dimensional Brazilian has finished all four opponents during this streak, and only one of his 14 UFC victories has come by decision. Simply, Luque is one of the most exciting fighters in the sport, and yet it feels like a lot of casual fans still don’t know his name. He’s not among the biggest stars in the UFC and, frankly, still lags behind several fighters in his own division.

After stopping the extremely tough and talented Chiesa, Luque called out former Sanford MMA teammate Kamaru Usman, the UFC welterweight champion. Luque deserves the title shot. He has won 10 of his last 11 fights in one of the toughest divisions on the planet. But Leon Edwards deserves the chance, too, and he isn’t even getting it next.

Usman is defending the welterweight title against Colby Covington in a rematch this coming November. What makes Covington more qualified than Edwards or Luque right now? Mostly, it’s because he has considerable name recognition, and he drives fan interest, whether it’s positive or negative. Yeah, Usman and Covington had an instant classic of a fight in 2019 that could have gone either way until Usman finished it in the fifth and final round. But Covington’s ability to drum up buzz ahead of a fight is what puts him over the top.

And it’s for all those reasons that I’ll say “real” to this statement. Luque needs a little something to get him more “over” with fans, to borrow a line from pro wrestling. A fight with Nate Diaz will get that job done. I know what the rebuttal will be here. Edwards just beat Diaz three months ago and it didn’t do much for Edwards. Well, that’s because Diaz managed to nearly finish Edwards in the fifth round and Edwards was not aggressive enough to go for the kill earlier in the fight when he had Diaz on the ropes. That just isn’t Luque’s game — his entire brand is going for the kill. He’s the division’s most consistent finisher. You’re telling me Luque vs. Diaz wouldn’t be an absolute banger?

Diaz remains one of the biggest names in the UFC. And there is interest in that fight from both sides. Luque called out Diaz, respectfully, after beating Tyron Woodley in March. Diaz is the kind of guy who appreciates that kind of challenge. Plus, sources told ESPN that Luque was part of the conversation between the UFC and Diaz’s team before Diaz ultimately fought Edwards.

Luque isn’t getting the next title shot and he might not even get the one after that, especially if Edwards decides to sit and wait for the Usman vs. Covington winner. Luque will need to fight again and there aren’t a whole lot of foes who can elevate him like his team surely wants. Jorge Masvidal could potentially be someone like that. But Diaz works even better. Luque will be the favorite, the fight will be exciting and there’s little doubt Luque comes out of that one a bigger star than he is now.

Cody Garbrandt’s flyweight reset hinges on spectacular debut

Murphy: Cody Garbrandt‘s bantamweight resurrection lasted all of one knockout. While his KO of Raphael Assuncao will make every promo reel until Garbrandt retires, a fairly one-sided loss to Rob Font as an encore put him at a crossroads. Trading wins and losses generally causes more harm than good in any weight class, and it’s particularly costly in the 135-pound second tier.

A long-considered flyweight flirtation suddenly made more sense than ever. Except unlike his first booked endeavor down — a title challenge against then-champion Deiveson Figueiredo in November that never materialized following a biceps injury and a COVID diagnosis — this divisional debut won’t have a belt at stake. He needs something big against the famously durable (and natural flyweight) Kai Kara-France, so I’m going to say this point is “real”.

The best case scenario for “No Love” is that his power carries down and he scores a knockout of Kara-France on par with that of what he did against Assuncao, Thomas Almeida or Takeya Mizugaki. However, between Garbrandt and that first taste of flyweight glory is a weight cut that several before him struggled to handle: TJ Dillashaw, John Lineker, Tyson Nam and Scott Jorgensen among them.

Another question is what value beating the seventh-ranked fighter presents. Being a former bantamweight champ could yield a cut in the queue, but only if Garbrandt’s performance inspires demand. A coin flip decision, like the one that former nemesis Dillashaw recorded over Corey Sandhagen, will likely keep Garbrandt behind the divisional elite, despite his résumé. This booking against Kara-France is a high-risk, moderate-reward situation, and it may have been his only option.

The winner of Islam Makhachev vs. Rafael dos Anjos is an instant title contender

Legaspi: Not real, at least not just yet. This fight became an obsession for both camps after falling apart twice at the end of 2020, and Makhachev thinks that beating a former champion like RDA can give him enough credit to make him a challenger.

Both coach Javier Mendez and his “assistant” coach Khabib Nurmagomedov believe that Makhachev can be as dominant as he was in his outings against Drew Dober and Thiago Moises against RDA, and they know that they have to show something spectacular for Makhachev to get a title shot in a division that has a stacked top 5.

For dos Anjos, who has been waiting to fight Makhachev for over a year, he’s well aware that if he’s able to overcome a wrestler of Makhachev’s level, he can get on the fast track to returning to title challenger status.

No matter how the fight goes, they still have a lot of competition to cut through to get to the top. Fans are excited about the guaranteed slugfest between recent title challengers Justin Gaethje and Michael Chandler in November, and Dustin Poirier is far and away the likeliest fighter to challenge champion Charles Oliveira next.

The winner of Makhachev-RDA will step up the ladder, but they will have to wait until mid-2022 and earn at least one more victory before they challenge for the UFC lightweight championship.

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