MMA Factory head coach Fernand Lopez has been engaged in a public war of words with former student Francis Ngannou over the past couple of years but that doesn’t erase the time they spent together working in France.
While Ngannou eventually moved to the United States where he now trains full time at Xtreme Couture in Las Vegas, his formative years in the sport were under Lopez’s watchful eye as he helped develop “The Predator” into one of the most devastating heavyweights in UFC history.
At the same time, Lopez was also working with Ciryl Gane, who sought him out when he decided to pursue mixed martial arts as a career and for a brief period of time two future UFC champions were training under the same roof.
Since the split with Ngannou, Lopez hasn’t maintained any relationship with his former student outside of comments made through interviews or social media but that doesn’t take away the work they did together. That’s why the veteran coach admits it will still be hard to watch Ngannou and Gane battle to determine an undisputed heavyweight champion at UFC 270 this weekend.
“It’s not often that you’re facing someone that you trained deeply,” Lopez told MMA Fighting. “That already happened with me at small stages. This is the biggest level of fighting ever and having a guy that I spent five years with, sleeping in the same room sometimes during some fight weeks, traveling the same flights, sitting by his side and translating for him when he didn’t speak English — and now his English is better than mine — to spend all this time with the same person is not something that’s usual.
“So it’s kind of weird to have him in front of me, to have to prepare against him. But again, it’s part of the job. It’s almost four years that I knew this would happen. I knew that as soon as Ciryl Gane signed at my gym, I knew this would happen. I have time to prepare for this a long time ago and it’s about processing so I have processed as I do with all of my fighters.”
Lopez may have been preparing himself for the inevitable showdown since welcoming Gane into his gym but that doesn’t erase his past with Ngannou and it’s something he can’t ignore during fight week.
“I think on fight day, it will be a mix of emotions,” Lopez said. “Like a little bit proud of what my gym and my people made by having two people on top of that mountain. I will be a little bit scared because my guy that I love, which is Ciryl, [but] I know he’s working a lot so he’s confident. I am confident but you’re never confident enough when you’re going against Francis Ngannou.
“You need to remember and know that he’s a monster. He can just rip you apart with a punch. You need to keep that in mind. I think it will be a mix of pride, a mix of a little bit emotional, a mix of joy, a mix of sadness because of [the downfall] of our relationship. I guess it will be something like that. What I’m trying to do is just focus on my job, do my duty, have my process, I have my protocol going on and that’s it.”
Outside of the contentious relationship that has spiraled downward between Lopez and Ngannou, there is still a lot of knowledge shared between them because they trained together for so long.
Of course, Ngannou has been working more recently with his new head coach Eric Nicksick while Lopez has been pouring all of his wisdom into Gane as he made a rapid rise up the ranks before becoming UFC interim heavyweight champion.
That said, Lopez isn’t ignoring everything he knows about Ngannou heading into the fight but he also acknowledges that it’s a two way street when it comes to how well they know each other.
“I spent I think more than 14 fights with Francis. That’s a lot,” Lopez said. “I don’t think that’s a big deal. Because I know Francis but he knows me also. You journalists keep saying I know Francis but Francis came out and said there are three years that we didn’t meet so I don’t know anything about him. But the same guy is saying he knows me. He said ‘I know Fernand Lopez, I know how he’s thinking, I know his game plan, I know everything about him but he doesn’t know anything about me.’ I don’t know how to analyze that. I don’t think it’s possible.
“I think if I know Francis, he knows me. It makes sense for me. I think he will try to profile what I’m thinking and think about my mindset. I’m not sure of his mindset because of the lack of three years of knowledge on him but what I do know, I know his personality. I know his moves. I know his body. I know what his body allows him to do and what his body does not allow him to do.”
Combining what he’s already known about Ngannou along with watching video from the past three years they weren’t training together, Lopez feels like he has a good beat on what to expect when he sets foot in the octagon on Saturday night.
He knows Ngannou possesses fight-ending power — he’s arguably the biggest puncher to ever compete in the UFC’s heavyweight division — but Lopez also understands that technique can’t be ignored and that’s where he sees a massive advantage for Gane.
“[Ngannou] can’t box properly,” Lopez said. “If they take out the ‘UFC’ — they take out the three letters UFC — who makes you champ and then give you the opportunity go to boxing if they take out that UFC, your boxing is irrelevant. You will not have the lessons to box even in amateur. You don’t have the level of that but you’re still a killer. You can still kill someone with one punch. That’s something that no one can take from you.
“For me, Ciryl is the best athlete that I’ve ever coached. I’ve been coaching tons of guys. Having someone that understands the life, the business industry, the fight that way, you don’t have a lot of people can understand the fight and then understand the life choices to make and then understand the fight game.”
More than anything else when Lopez takes himself out of the equation, he’s just expecting an all-time great fight between the two best heavyweights in mixed martial arts.
As much as he fully expects Gane to walk away victorious, Lopez is excited to see the chess match play out with Ngannou at UFC 270.
“If we take everything out and we just speak about the sport, this might be one of the best fights we ever have in the heavyweight division,” Lopez said.
“Honestly, as a person, I’m jealous to the people that will be just watching the fight. I hope I can have my popcorn, sit there, and just enjoy the fight, enjoy the process.”