Long before Gane was considered one of the best fighters in the sport, he was coming up alongside Ngannou as part of the MMA Factory in France under head coach Fernand Lopez.
That’s the team and the coach that Ngannou had by his side while rocketing to the top of the rankings ahead of his first shot at a UFC title against Stipe Miocic in 2018. Ngannou ultimately came up short that night in a lopsided defeat and it wasn’t long after that he had split with Lopez while leaving his gym to begin working full-time out of Xtreme Couture in Las Vegas.
Now with Gane and Ngannou about to clash, skeletons from the past are being drudged up in order to start building the promotion for an eventual fight between the former teammates. UFC president Dana White has even said “you couldn’t script” a better storyline than the one surrounding this heavyweight title unification bout.
Of course, Lopez has become the man in the middle because he’s largely responsible for developing both Ngannou and Gane under his tutelage in France.
Following Gane’s dominant showing to defeat Lewis and become interim champion, Lopez sought to clarify any misconceptions about his falling out with Ngannou, especially the idea that he’s holding some personal grudge against his former student heading into this next fight.
“I don’t know how to explain it,” Lopez said when speaking to MMA Fighting following UFC 265. “Because I have some pride in that [fight]. It’s not something bad for me. To be honest with you, people are meant to find their paths, find their family, feel good somewhere. If a fighter asked me where is the best gym for me? I will say you will know. As soon as you find your place, you will know this is your home.
“People they really misunderstand what was kind of my beef with Francis, that I had the beef with Francis when he left my gym, but they are too wrong. This is me again finding myself talking about this, what I do decide to not talk about it ever.”
In order to clear the air, Lopez detailed his initial issue with Ngannou while adding that nothing between them has resulted in some sort of bad blood that is now fueling him to get Gane ready for their fight.
“This is the thing, a long time ago Francis when he first arrived in my gym and was starting to train, he had two goals — be a professional boxer and live in America,” Lopez explained. “That was his two dreams. Francis always had the American dream. He dreamed so strongly. For him, living in America was the most achievement you can have.
“So when he finally had two, three fights in the UFC, he asked me ‘I want to go to the U.S. can you help me with this?’ and I said yes, no problem. He said will you come with me? I said no I can’t but I will help you.”
According to Lopez, he made several calls in order to help Ngannou find a camp where he could train in the United States including possible work with his friend Rameau Thierry Sokoudjou, who was working out of Team Quest in California. Lopez said he also reached out to Daniel Cormier about possibly sending Ngannou to American Kickboxing Academy but in the end, “The Predator” wanted to call Las Vegas home so he could be close to UFC headquarters and take advantage of the UFC Performance Institute.
At the time, Lopez says he had no problem whatsoever that Ngannou was going to be training at a new facility much less working with different coaches.
“This is just to let you know, I don’t have any problem with my guy moving in another gym,” Lopez said. “People are really misunderstanding my point of view. I don’t have any beef on that. The problem that I had with Francis, which is over my head now, about recognizing people that helped you to grow a little bit.”
At the heart of it all, Lopez revealed that he was really just hurt that Ngannou rarely recognized him for the work they had done together after calling the MMA Factory home for so many years.
Lopez wasn’t sure why Ngannou rarely credited him or the gym when discussing his development and evolution into one of the most ferocious fighters on the planet not to mention his actual entry into the UFC.
“Before going out with this, I went there to speak with Francis. Like Francis, is this normal?” Lopez said. “I was wondering is there any problem? We spent five years together in my gym. You never pay anything, everything is free for you. I took you under my wing, took care of you, everything. What’s so bad for you? What is so hard for you to say that ‘Fernand Lopez brought me the UFC contract.’ Why would you say to a journalist, they ask you how you got to to the UFC and you’re like ‘I was just fighting, I was winning fights and I got the call from the UFC.’
“Is there something wrong cause do you remember the story? Do you remember me fighting to get you in the UFC when you was 3-1? Then Joe Silva said no. When you was 4-1, when you were 5-1 and I eventually called a friend of mine and [work] with him in order to get you into the UFC. Do you remember that? I called to you and said ‘hey Francis, happy birthday’ and I said I have a present for you and you ask me ‘oh you bought me the computer coach’ and I said no, I have [something] even better than a computer. He said ‘what is that?’ I said I have your UFC contract.”
Lopez continued while detailing his past conversation with Ngannou after confronting him over the issue.
“From now this is the story, this is the truth but he never mentioned that,” Lopez said. “I’m like Francis, do you know when you are not mentioning the gym or your management, you’re giving me a hard time to live. It’s painful for me to ask for such a thing. I don’t ask that. You don’t ask people to be grateful to you.
“You’re supposed to not ask them. Cause then you look like you’re only looking at the [spotlight] and this and that and you only want to show yourself. No, you make me uncomfortable talking about this but I really want to get to you and ask you is there something wrong? He’s like ‘no, coach, I just forget, I don’t have that in mind.’ That was the conflict that we had at one point but nothing else.”
The secondary problem came after Ngannou lost to Miocic, which Lopez had addressed in previous interviews regarding the preparation and strategy agreed upon for that fight.
“The fight came with Stipe [Miocic] and we had the fight and then after the fight the same thing goes again,” Lopez said. “I heard him in the press conference tell the journalists ‘congratulations to Stipe, he had a very good game plan.’ I was like f*ck, are you kidding me? I give you the game plan. I was backing you when I found out you didn’t follow the game plan. I called the other coach, we had a meeting, they begged you to follow the game plan and you said no, you don’t need to go to school to beat someone. That’s what you said with your words. You said with the reflex, I will take him out.
“So when this started to touch me, you could have said well, this is my fault. Sorry guys, don’t blame only my coach, cause this is my camp. I’m the boss of the camp. If my fighter loses a fight, I lose right with him. I need to stick with him. But in that case, there’s so many fighters, they apologize to their cornermen. So many guys apologize to their coach like ‘I didn’t follow the game plan.’ So I was like why don’t you say something? I’m bringing that up just because to let you know, there was no actual beef before leaving the gym.”
Regardless of what led to the split between them, Lopez promises he holds no ill will towards Ngannou and he certainly isn’t projecting any of this onto Gane as they prepare to fight.
While Lopez is obviously going to do everything in his power to get Gane ready to win and become the undisputed UFC heavyweight champion, he’ll never forget the relationship he forged with Ngannou over the years.
“It will not be personal for me,” Lopez said. “Not at all personal for Ciryl Gane, which I was always begging to not get involved in that sort of beef. Because I want to be clear in his mind, there’s nothing there. There’s just a friend, a brother saying to his brother, come on, what’s wrong with you? Give a shout out to someone. When you become someone, help people. If today, something happened to me and I die and they ask me, who did you help in your life? What did you do to people, to your community? Now I’m so proud Francis can help people.
“I’m proud to be the one to help him and give him the patience to get to the UFC and now become what he is. Now he’s helping so many people, he has his non-profit organization. He can feed people. He can help his family. I’m proud of that.”
When it comes to the fight itself, Lopez expects Gane and Ngannou to absolutely bring the best out of each other as the two best heavyweights in the sport square off with the UFC title up for grabs.
“I think the fight will be a good fight,” Lopez said. “You cannot get a better fight at this point than this one. If people were doubting Ciryl Gane, after the massacre that they just saw two days ago, you can’t keep doubting on Ciryl Gane.
“This is the fight to make. I will be sad to have my two kids, they were born in the MMA Factory, facing each other.”