The Great Divide is a recurring feature here at MMA Fighting in which our staff debate a topic in the world of MMA — news, a fight, a crazy thing somebody did, a crazy thing somebody didn’t do, or some moral dilemma threatening the very foundation of the sport — and try to figure out a resolution. We’d love for you to join in the discussion in the comments below.
When Ciryl Gane flattened Derrick Lewis to capture his interim title at UFC 265, the course was finally set at heavyweight: Gane’s next fight will surely be a title unification bout against his old teammate and sparring partner, UFC champion Francis Ngannou.
But is that really the right move?
With Jon Jones still stuck in no man’s land awaiting his opportunity to dance with the big boys, is it worth the risk to lose a potential Ngannou vs. Jones superfight forever if Gane is able to dethrone the champion? Or has Gane earned the right to play spoiler? MMA Fighting’s Shaun Al-Shatti and Steven Marrocco step up to the debate stage in the latest edition of The Great Divide to figure out how best to handle the UFC’s heavyweight crossroads.
NGANNOU VS. JONES
Marrocco: Recency bias is a very, very strong thing in MMA. We watch a fighter do a great job in the octagon, and suddenly, they’re the most worthwhile contender for the belt. Forget the person who’s painstakingly built critical mass, winning seven fights in a row. Did you see how great this guy/gal looked this past weekend? They should get the next title shot!
If you’re listening to the UFC’s promotional machine these days, it’s deja vu as Ciryl Gane is cast as the next big thing in the heavyweight division. He’s the next generation, the new breed of heavyweight, the most worthwhile contender for Francis Ngannou. That narrative might actually be true. It certainly looks like Gane has the tools to beat his former training partner. He’s even won seven in a row, which is no, ahem, small feat in the heavyweight division. When we’re talking about the sport, interim champions should have the right to unify the belt. But that’s only when there’s a good reason to put up an interim title in the first place, and a month-long delay for a heavyweight title defense is not good enough.
Even more importantly, in the case of Gane, his coronation ignores the man who should have gotten his shot at the throne in his heavyweight Westeros: Jon Jones.
Our collective memory doesn’t need much stretching to remember that just six months ago, Dana White said Jones would face the winner of Ngannou vs. Stipe Miocic. Of all the zags the UFC pulls in zig territory, this was one of the least offensive. Jones had relinquished the light heavyweight title, and the opportunity to fight for the heavyweight title only seemed a fair exchange. Not only that, it was just one of those lip-smacking matchups that only come around so often: The scariest heavyweight champion in recent memory versus the consensus GOAT. To top it all off, it was a move far more in line with a shareholder-driven business model of seizing on short-term profit gain, promoting the baddest man on the planet versus a star shown historically to draw best when paired with the right (read: exciting) opponent. In short, it was an Endeavor special.
There was just one detail to get in the way, and that was Deontay Wilder. More specifically, a payday in the lower quartile of a Deontay Wilder payday. Jones might not have wanted $30 million to fight Ngannou as he did the first time he stuck his neck out, but what he wanted was still outside the range the UFC was willing to pay for. The only difference the second time around was that a belt wasn’t around his waist.
I wrote about this the first time Jones and White clashed over heavyweight money. But I’ll say it again, more or less: In the modern-modern UFC, the promotion is seeking more than ever to maximize margins, and with a big chunk of their revenue guaranteed, those margins are better than ever. The promotion certainly wants to make the biggest fights possible, but not at the expense of the revenue projected for its owners. For all the fighters (even Conor McGregor), that means a big fight if they want a bigger share. And there’s little incentive to for them to negotiate because they have more time and resources. They can always move on to the next big thing.
Jones found this out, and right after that, Ngannou got acquainted when his schedule clashed with the UFC. So important was it to the promotion to book a heavyweight title fight for UFC 265, they pulled one out of thin air by booking Gane and Lewis for the interim belt less than five months after Ngannou concussed Miocic.
We can’t put that hay back in the barn. Gane is the interim heavyweight champion, and Ngannou is the guy he has to fight to unify the title if we’re pretending like this all came about organically. But can anybody really say they want to see that fight instead of Ngannou vs. Jones, and that wouldn’t wind up being better for the UFC’s bottom line? Instead of cooking up this narrative that Ngannou was MIA for work and Gane and Lewis were two hungry contenders that just couldn’t be denied, could the UFC instead use the one it’s used more and more in the past decade: A dominant champion vying for supremacy in a new division? In this case, a once-in-a-generation talent that had painstakingly (and literally) built critical mass over the past year in trying to be more than a quick flash in the champ-champ pan? Gane isn’t going anywhere from the looks of it. Would Jones going first be that bad of a zag?
NGANNOU VS. GANE
Al-Shatti: I want you to know this pains me, Steven. It really does. It pains me because we shouldn’t have even gotten to this position in the first place.
I agree: Jon Jones was the fight. Emphasis on that pesky “was.”
From the moment Stipe Miocic hit the canvas at UFC 260, the UFC should’ve been dialing up Jones and figuring out a way to make this work. Ngannou vs. Jones could’ve been a genuine benchmark fight for the sport — a historic collision with stakes galore that had the potential to be the highest-selling non-McGregor event in MMA history. It was the layup of all layups. Instead, we ventured down a side road no one asked for and introduced an interim strap no one actually wanted. But that still happened. It’s too late to pretend it didn’t.
The fight belongs to Ciryl Gane. I understand that interim titles mean nothing anymore, but just look at the bigger picture here — the heavyweight division has been an absolute shit show for the last three years. The Miocic vs. Cormier trilogy took an eternity to play out. For as great as their actual fights were, the odyssey itself was a once-a-year slog that left every other UFC heavyweight stuck treading water in the worst sort of ways.
We’re finally freed from that mess. And now you’re really trying to dive headfirst back into another diversion and delay this entire division all over again?
There’s spillover to these kinds of decisions, Steven. Why are we trying to keep a monster like Gane on the sidelines for another year just as he’s cresting? What was even the point of UFC 265 if the UFC was going to immediately bail on the stakes they so forcefully tried to shove down our throats when selling Gane vs. Lewis as a fight that mattered?
It’s not as if we’re talking about some silly squash match either. Three months ago, it felt as if there may not be a heavyweight alive who could stand a chance against Ngannou’s near-superhuman death touch. Now a No. 1 contender suddenly lands in our laps who not only possesses a unique enough skill set that he opened as the betting favorite against the champ, but who also brings a fascinating narrative element of his own into the fight — and you already want to banish him to limbo until late 2022? Tsk, tsk, Mr. Marrocco.
The history between Gane and Ngannou is the kind of story promoters dream of. Just listen to the pain in coach Fernand Lopez’s voice when he told our own Damon Martin about how much it hurt when the homeless kid who he took in off the streets left him so unceremoniously. Ngannou’s exit from the MMA Factory was supposed to doom Lopez’s gym. Instead, his understudy rose to match the same heights overnight. Now Lopez’s new star has arrived with a set of skills diametrically opposed to Ngannou’s own, hoping to bring the MMA Factory the same glory that Ngannou denied them when he lost at UFC 220.
Let’s also be honest here for a second. Can we do that please? This is a circle of trust, after all.
(*Whispers*) Is Jones really going to beat either of these monsters?
Now before you jump down my throat as a blasphemer, just think about it. We’re not talking about 2011 Jon Jones or even 2017 Jon Jones. We’re talking about the Jon Jones who struggled mightily to squeak by Thiago Santos and Dominick Reyes, and who probably should’ve lost to at least one of them if MMA judges could do their damn jobs. The days of peak Johnny Bones are gone and aren’t coming back. Why the sudden urgency?
Jones has already expressed his willingness to sit out until 2022 and watch this story play out. Let him. He’ll still be hanging around next year ready to fight the winner.
And hell, if Ngannou flattens Gane in the same way he’s done with everyone else? Then Ngannou vs. Jones is right back on the menu and even bigger than before.
What’s your pick for Francis Ngannou’s next fight?
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Francis Ngannou vs. Jon Jones
Francis Ngannou vs. Ciryl Gane