Depending on who has their hands raised at the end of the night, we could see the beginning of one rivalry and the conclusion of another.
That’s the baseline of what to expect heading into UFC 270 as Francis Ngannou and Ciryl Gane meet in a heavyweight championship unification bout and Brandon Moreno takes on Deiveson Figueiredo in a flyweight title fight for a third time.
The Ngannou-Gane main event is a battle of two of the most gifted heavyweights in MMA history, a pair of big men who combine undeniable power with stunning agility. Ngannou has vanquished his foes with some of the most terrifying knockouts we’ve ever witnessed inside the octagon while Gane has yet to taste defeat in his fighting career. Sprinkle in plenty of personal drama from the Frenchmen’s shared association with coach Fernand Lopez, and a past sparring session that Ngannou claims ended in with him accidentally putting Gane to sleep, and you have all the makings of what could be a classic series regardless of who wins tonight.
There are complications that could make this a one-and-done collision though. Ngannou has spoken publicly about his upcoming contract negotiations and how he’s looking to not only be properly compensated, but to be given the option to box as he pursues a crossover bout with Tyson Fury. Should Ngannou win, a championship clause could tie him to the promotion regardless of his career ambitions; should he lose, it could actually open the door for him to walk and enter the boxing world. A year ago, it seemed unfathomable that Ngannou’s run at the top of the division was anywhere near its end, but that’s the reality fans face if Gane can prove the oddsmakers right and turn his interim belt into an undisputed championship.
Moreno’s fight with Figueiredo isn’t quite as ripe with drama, due to the fact that they’re meeting for the third straight time despite a pair of obvious contenders waiting in the wings for the champion. However, neither Askar Askarov nor Alexandre Pantoja (the former having previously battled Moreno to a split draw, the latter holding two wins over Moreno) were available to compete at the UFC’s first pay-per-view of 2021, so Figueiredo was given the opportunity to reclaim his title with Moreno eager to compete in January.
A win for Moreno keeps his feel-good story rolling and erases any questions about whether his dominant victory over Figueiredo at UFC 263 was just an off-night for the Brazilian. It would also put Figueiredo either on the long road back to another title shot or perhaps a different path altogether at bantamweight. One could argue it just feels too soon to see Moreno and Figueiredo fight again, but why complain about seeing arguably the two best flyweights in the world throw down one more time?
In other main card action, wild man Michel Pereira welcomes PFL and Bellator veteran Andre Fialho to the UFC’s welterweight division, Cody Stamann fights Said Nurmagomedov in a bantamweight contest, and Trevin Giles moves down to 170 pounds to face undefeated Contender Series signing Michael Morales.
What: UFC 270
Where: Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif.
When: Saturday, Jan. 22. The two-fight early prelims begin on ESPN and ESPN+ at 7 p.m. ET, followed by the four-fight prelims on ESPN and ESPN+ at 8 p.m. ET. The five-fight main card begins at 10 p.m. ET and is available exclusively on ESPN+ pay-per-view.
(Numbers in parentheses indicate standing in MMA Fighting Global Rankings)
Francis Ngannou (1) vs. Ciryl Gane (3)
Despite Francis Ngannou’s absurd highlight reel, it’s actually not often that he’s a massive favorite. He was only slightly favored over Stipe Miocic in their rematch due to Miocic humbling him in their first meeting, and he was an underdog against former champion Cain Velasquez and in his second fight with Curtis Blaydes because of Blaydes’ impressive wrestling credentials. As fearsome as Ngannou is, that’s rarely been reflected in the odds and he heads into his highly anticipated grudge match with Ciryl Gane as an underdog once again.
It’s understandable. While Ngannou confirmed that he was MMA’s preeminent destroyer of worlds by vanquishing Miocic, that achievement occurred a whole 10 months ago and Gane has been busy since then. He rebounded from an uneventful win over Jairzinho Rozenstruik with a slightly more impressive (and no less lopsided) decision nod against Alexander Volkov and then scored a much-needed finish against Derrick Lewis. In this “what have you done for me lately” world, Gane has impressed during Ngannou’s rest and it’s now completely believable that he could soon be the man to beat at heavyweight.
I’m not ready to count Ngannou out just yet. It does concern me that mentally he could have one foot out the door with opportunities outside of the UFC on his mind, but I don’t think his competitiveness will allow him to take Gane lightly. He has shown noticeable growth since teaming with coach Eric Nicksick at Xtreme Couture and adding maturity to his already impressive skill set and physical gifts is almost unfair. If power is the only advantage you want to give him over Gane, that’s fine, but that is one hell of an advantage.
Gane definitely has the potential to outwork Ngannou and even possibly put his Cameroonian counterpart down for good. “Bon Gamin” has preternatural patience and won’t force the action, preferring instead to let Ngannou come to him while tactically picking him apart. He’ll have a counter ready to drop Ngannou at the first hint of a mistake. Ngannou knows this though, so we should all be prepared for a few rounds that resemble Ngannou’s infamous staring contest with Lewis.
Everybody loses and the best get better from those losses. That’s what I expect to happen to Gane, a superb fighter who is running into one of MMA’s pound-for-pound best at the wrong time. These two will fight again and when they do, it will be Ngannou who will have the lead.
Ngannou by third-round knockout.
Brandon Moreno (1) vs. Deiveson Figueiredo (2)
Deiveson Figueiredo has been saying everything you want to hear from a fighter attempting to earn their first win against a rival who appears to have their number: He’s healthy, his diet is better than ever, he’s focused, he’s had the best camp of his life, and so on and so on. He even has a whole new media persona (though coach Eric Albarracin may be influencing this more directly than either man would like to let on). It wasn’t long ago that Figueiredo was the boogeyman of the flyweight division, so why can’t he finally beat Brandon Moreno?
Because Moreno’s win over him wasn’t a fluke. It’s possible that Figueiredo wasn’t at his best, but a more plausible explanation is that “The Assassin Baby” is just better. Moreno’s grappling was his bread-and-butter when he originally burst onto the scene as a wide-eyed 22-year-old and that played a major role in him finishing Figueiredo. He’s also taken his striking to another level, to the point that he was legitimately busting Figueiredo up on the feet. Even buying into Figueiredo’s most optimistic projections, I can’t imagine that he’s suddenly found the secret to beating Moreno.
I do expect this to skew closer to their first fight than the second, which means we should see scorecards again. However, this time it will be a definitive victory for Moreno and quite possibly the last we see of Figueiredo at 125 pounds for the near future.
Michel Pereira vs. Andre Fialho
As unpredictable as Michel Pereira can be, this should be a highly favorable matchup for him. Especially when you consider that he’s shown a more steady side as of late as he strives to become a legitimate contender at 170 pounds (boring, I know).
Andre Fialho is a qualified slugger. He’s going to march forward, wait for the right moment, and fire straight heat at Pereira’s chin. The problem is that Pereira rarely stays in one spot for long. At his most active, he’s a hummingbird, and you can be sure that he won’t allow Fialho to cut off the cage. Fialho is a dangerous power puncher, there’s no questioning that, but he’ll struggle to connect clean against Pereira.
Eventually, frustration will get the better of Fialho and he’ll wander into one of Pereira’s acrobatic techniques before being finished by a flurry before the third round.
Cody Stamann vs. Said Nurmagomedov
The name Nurmagomedov carries a lot of expectation (even if Said isn’t directly related to Khabib) and — not coincidentally — Cody Stamann’s best path to victory is pressure, pressure, and more pressure.
Nurmagomedov is an exciting striker who excels at range, but can also quickly generate power in close. It’s on Stamann to throw him off his game by timing his flurries, mixing in takedowns, and just generally making this fight as ugly as possible. He’s more than capable of doing so, though not having a reputation as a finisher is going to limit his ability to intimidate Nurmagomedov. If he can’t at least occasionally get this one to the mat, he’s going to end up in a standup battle that he won’t like.
Even if Stamann can push the pace and attack with volume, it will be difficult for him to avoid Nurmagomedov’s creative and precise strikes for 15 minutes. All it will take is a knockdown or a stagger to swing the scoring in Nurmagomedov’s favor, and by the end of this one, I expect he’ll have done more than enough damage to earn a decision win.
Trevin Giles vs. Michael Morales
Trevin Giles showed a lot of potential competing at 185 pounds, so it will be exciting to see what he can do a weight class down. He’s a great athlete with sharp hands and excellent cardio. He lacks a standout, A+ skill, but being well-rounded can take you far inside the octagon and perhaps a lighter frame will open things up for him.
Predicting how Michael Morales will look in his debut is even more difficult. At just 22 years old, the Ecuadorian is a work in progress and he’ll likely have made considerable improvements since we saw him on the Contender Series in September. Morales has a solid wrestling base and has already proven himself to be a smart, technical striker.
I lean towards the experience of Giles here as Morales has faced relatively inferior competition so far. He’s certainly shown he’s a class above the opponents he’s faced, but Giles has all the tools to defuse this version of Morales. If this fight happened a year later, it might be completely different; right now, I see Giles giving Morales a reality check and surprising him with a submission off of his back.
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