The Francis Ngannou Saga and the (de)legitimacy of an Undisputed Champion: UFC 270

"…Just recently they gave me the UFC heavyweight champion, and months later they’re talking about someone else being the champion. Sometimes I’m not even sure if I’m really the champ or not. It’s really confusing."

Francis Ngannou

What happened? Really… what happened? Francis Ngannou had knocked out everyone in his path. In his quest to re-qualify himself for the chance to fight for the Title, he was overqualified. In fact, the only reason it took so long was to complete the Trilogy between Daniel Cormier and Stipe Miocic for ‘the greatest heavyweight of all time’. Francis knocked out Curtis Blaydes. Francis knocked out Cain Velasquez. Francis knocked out Junior Dos Santos. And he was already the number one contender when Jairzinho Rozenstruick called his name. But he had to stay busy, so he accepted.

On a prelim of a pay-per-view, Francis welcomed fight fans back from the lockdowns with a spectacular knockout of Bigi Boy. Dana White himself said he didn’t want Francis fighting again unless for a title. And that was not the first time Dana White has shown Francis Ngannou too much love.

In the build-up to the first Title fight between Stipe Miocic and Francis Ngannou Dana White sat with the press and read out a glowing tale of the mythical-locomotive strength of a Francis Ngannou punch. To many it was funny. To some it was unnecessary. To Miocic it was disrespectful. To Francis it was praise. It was all going so well. There was no sane person who thought Dana was not a Francis Ngannou fan. So again… what the hell happened?

In life, whenever things happen in public, people say they want to get to the ‘root of the matter.’ By definition, the roots of anything are normally planted in soil; unseen to the viewers. And this matter between Francis Ngannou and the UFC, is one that has kept its roots buried deep. The Timeline is interesting, but it doesn’t tell much. Let’s follow it though.

"Everybody wants a money fight. I want a money fight. You’re not a money fight. Okay? Sit down and do your job."

Dana White

Before Francis Ngannou challenged Stipe Miocic, Dana White declared that "Jon Jones is next for the winner" of that fight. And then Ngannou knocked out Miocic in Frank fashion. Francis immediately asked for a fight with Jon Jones. Jon Jones responded by saying the "money had to be right." And just like that, Francis planted his feet. He too wanted Jon Jones. Unable to come to terms with Jones, the UFC offered Francis Ngannou his first defence against the only other man to defeat him in the UFC – Derrick Lewis. Francis refused the fight. This is where it gets interesting.

Francis claimed he wanted to return to Cameroun and celebrate with his countrymen and that’s why he couldn’t take the fight so soon. I am a Francis Ngannou fan, and that does not add up. The offer was to fight, not a fight. Francis could have accepted the offer, gone to Cameroun, returned and had a full fight camp for the Derrick Lewis fight. That’s what the UFC hoped. They wanted to start promoting the fight immediately. Two heavyweights… knockout artists… weighing 265 pounds… at UFC 265… in Derrick Lewis’ hometown. It sold itself. It sold itself to everyone but Francis. Not because it was too soon; not because he isn’t being paid enough. But because the other name was not going to sell like a Jon Jones fight.

And here is where the UFC makes its cheques. The UFC offered the spot on the pay-per-view to Cyril Gane. Gane, an undefeated phenom who was two weeks removed from a fight accepted in a heartbeat and Lewis was always game. And just like that, we were back on. The fight happened to little fanfare. But in 15 minutes, Gane produced his most technical, intimidating and devastating finish since he entered the UFC. He became the interim champion. And from nowhere, what was not on the cards at all became a fight people now really want to see.

It’s a shame though. Cyril Gane is the epitome of the new age athlete. Dedicated, educated and skilled. He will out-think you. Francis is the definition of a throwback. Big, strong and powerful. He will knock you out. The build-up to this fight should be one that purists get hard-ons for. And the sparring footage that has been a huge talking-point is supposed to be the backdrop to a long line of ‘what ifs?’ But that’s not what is happening.

"There must be boxing in my next UFC contract. I want to test my power against Fury and Wilder."

Francis Ngannou

Right now, Francis’ former manager is talking more than anyone else. Cyril Gane seems to have a mind of his own. Francis Ngannou’s manager has chosen to pick a fight with Dana White. Francis Ngannou wants to fight a boxing match with Tyson Fury or Deontay Wilder. How the hell did we get here?

The irony is that Francis Ngannou is proving the UFC’s point. He is not selling this fight. The UFC is. He is not trying to bring in eyes. He is not playing his part. And the UFC is simply going to sell this PPV on the strengths of whatever narratives they can invent to garner interest. Why then will the UFC give him what he wants? Why is Francis asking now?

Stipe Miocic was a demamding champion. He felt disrespected severally. He made it known. He made his position clear. He didn’t get much to slime about. DC was a company man. He demanded along company lines. He had many smiles. Francis is now Stipe Miocic. He believes he is owed something. Frankly, I just want him to win. Francis needs to win. If he loses here, the UFC will squeeze him. If he loses here, the Fury or Wilder potential match is not going to happen. If he loses here, the narrative of the fickle-MMA-fandom will turn on him faster than the speed of light. If Francis loses, it will be a sour end to his phenomenal story. And that’s the sell of the Fight: Everything is on the line for Nagannou. He has to win this.

That way, Africa still has three UFC Champions to boast of. But Cyril Gane has his own plans. And should he dethrone Francis, this fairytale that we have all celebrated will come to a more lackluster ending than a Disney remake. It’s a shame how we got here. It was all going so well. Bring on 270.