For Fernand Lopez, there were a series of episodes between he and Francis Ngannou that led to their split. But it was never about jealousy over the spotlight.
By now, most of the MMA world is familiar with the bullet points of Ngannou’s departure from The MMA Factory gym where Lopez is a head coach. The saga has been perfect promotional fodder for the undisputed champ’s UFC 270 title unifier against Ciryl Gane, his former teammate and Lopez’s current charge.
Lopez remains frustrated by the public’s perception of what happened. Perhaps his biggest complaint is that there’s no way he can explain himself without looking bitter or jealous over Ngannou’s success, which Ngannou has said is the root of the coach’s discontent. Lopez maintains there were valid reasons for his unhappiness with the champ and added the character flaws he observed during his time with “The Predator” will someday be validated.
“I don’t expect anything from him,” Lopez said on The MMA Hour. “What I’m saying is that in the past, people that know, I’m pretty sure if you have a chance to call other coaches, they will say to you what I’m saying. They can’t say that publicly. If Francis lost a fight, then people will start to talk. Just hold on and see what happens.”
According to Lopez, he asked Ngannou to leave The MMA Factory on two occasions when they were living and training together, once because Ngannou balked at paying the gym’s 600 euro ($686) yearly fee around the time of his 2016 UFC fight with Anthony Hamilton.
“Francis said to me...I’m the one bringing the light in the gym, I shall not pay any membership,” Lopez said. “I said, ‘This is crazy. You must be crazy. You spent four years of your life in my gym. I never asked you for anything.”
Lopez said Ngannou, with whom he shares Cameroon roots, was like many homeless people with dreams of fight game success that he invited into the gym to train for free. When Ngannou started getting traction in the UFC, he believed he was only right to share in the fruits of their labor. But, he said, Ngannou struck a hard bargain.
“You pay me 10 percent,” Lopez said. “On top of the 10, you ask me to pay the sparring partner with that money that you give me. On top of that, you’re saying that would be a shame to know that a big name like you is paying the membership. ... So I said, ‘You know what? You don’t listen to me any more when I’m giving the class. You choose the easy way to train. Please, let’s just split.’ And we did.”
Ngannou eventually made his way to the U.S. to train in Las Vegas. While there, Lopez said, the heavyweight leaned on him for business advice in negotiations with the UFC. When it came to returning the professional courtesy shown to him by his former MMA Factory teammates, whom Lopez said he directed to promote the then-prospect Ngannou, the opposite took place.
During a meeting in Las Vegas between UFC matchmaker Mick Maynard and Ngannou, Lopez said Ngannou actively tried to discourage interest in Gane, then a 1-1 up-and-coming heavyweight.
“Mick asked him if Ciryl Gane is good,” Lopez said. “I said he’s a little bit good, but not good enough yet to go to the UFC. That’s coming from Francis Ngannou’s mouth. And he said that, for him, that was a strategy to not have Mick Maynard get suspicious of me and him being on the same page, which is not true.
“The only thing you can say about that is, you had the opportunity to drag a new guy coming from your gym into the UFC, and you took the liberty to say that the matchmaker that the guy could become a good guy, but for now, he’s not good enough. That’s what I’m fighting.”
Things came to a head again at the 2018 Fighters Only World MMA Awards, where Ngannou was awarded “Knockout of the Year” for his highlight-reel knockout of Alistair Overeem at UFC 218. His acceptance speech was devoid of thanks for the gym and coaches who’d helped him get there, Lopez said.
“Your guy, he’s your coach, he’s from your country,” Lopez said. “He has been through everything hard – I’m not trying to get points, I don’t explain my life I don’t say how I got in France and how I managed to be who I am – but actually, there are tons of Cameroon people that have the same path as Francis, but you guys don’t know. For you guys, it’s like something tragic. It’s a hard story. But for us, it’s like a normal thing. And you have this guy, sitting with you. His business is to sell the gym, sell memberships. It makes sense for you to say, ‘Hey, thank you to my gym.’ It’s not wrong. I should not be ashamed to ask that. I should not even ask him that. It’s putting me in a very bad spot.”
Lopez said he told Ngannou he was “sad” and asked him whether he was aware that he was hurting the people around him. By then, he said, Ngannou’s alleged behavior was also drawing notice from his family members.
The most egregious incident involved his girlfriend, whom Lopez alleges was left stranded at the Paris airport when Ngannou wouldn’t pay for parking.
“She had the car that she left in the airport,” Lopez said. “Francis asked, ‘Can you drop me [off],’ and she said yes. And she asked Francis, ‘Do you mind to pay me the parking, and I will wire you the money?’ and Francis said, ‘Oh, can you find another way?’ This is the mom of my daughter. If you have this experience, this is next level.”
Despite all this, Lopez maintains he is proud of Ngannou’s success and believes the champ has many good qualities as a person. He praises the champ’s move to Xtreme Couture, where he said coach Eric Nicksick did a fantastic job of sharpening Ngannou’s focus. But it appears he has no desire to work with Ngannou ever again.
If offered $100,000 to train Francis for 10 minutes or train Gane for free, he said he would choose the latter.
“I would leave him with my daughter, but I would not leave him with my brother, or my girlfriend, or my wife,” Lopez said. “He’s a nice guy in some part, but in other parts, he’s not that nice. That’s it.”