It probably won’t come as a shock to hear that the lead-up to UFC 270 was the single-most stressful lead-up to any fight of Eric Nicksick’s career.
The head coach of Xtreme Couture, Nicksick already faced the unenviable task of preparing Francis Ngannou for UFC 270’s title unification bout against Ciryl Gane in the midst of the UFC heavyweight champion’s ongoing dispute with the UFC brass. That alone would be enough to give any coach migraines. But then Ngannou suffered a injury in his right knee three weeks out from the most important fight of his life. After that, it’s safe to say Nicksick and the rest of Ngannou’s team didn’t get much sleep ahead of UFC 270.
Following Ngannou’s gutsy decision win over Gane, Nicksick appeared on Monday’s episode of The MMA Hour, where he revealed details of how the champ suffered an MCL tear and partial ACL tear. Nicksick said the injury occurred in a sparring session with a young heavyweight brought from out of town to get work in with Ngannou. Day one went off without a hitch, but on the second day of the training sessions, disaster struck.
“Francis was standing southpaw,” Nicksick explained on The MMA Hour. “Francis was kind of piecing him up a little bit, and I could tell the guy was getting anxious, so the guy shot a very, very low single. It wasn’t like him trying to be mean or anything like that, it was just him taking a shot. But it was really low, and went onto Francis’ lead leg, which was his right leg being southpaw, and with the shin pads and the knee pad on, his knee kind of buckled funny. And he cringed and grabbed it, and then got up and kind of moved around a little bit and then actually finished up the rounds.
“We went to the [UFC] PI and got looked at the next day. He had MRI and it was a full MCL tear, and then he had damage to the ACL as well. So once we heard that, in my mind, I was like, ‘Well, I don’t know how you’re going to be able to move around.’”
Considering Gane’s footwork and abilities as technician, Ngannou’s team was instantly concerned. If the champion’s movement was compromised in any way by his injury, an already immense task at UFC 270 would only grow all the more daunting.
Nicksick said the team took things “one day at a time” in that early going, but as fight week drew nearer, he and those around Ngannou made their thoughts clear: Considering all that was going to be on the line at UFC 270, they believed Ngannou should pull out.
“Myself, [coach] Dewey [Cooper], [manager] Marquel [Martin], we all suggested that he should [withdraw] — that we didn’t think it was the right move to take this fight,” Nicksick said. “But we had that come to Jesus moment Friday before we left — and I was emotional, man. I wanted him to understand, like, ‘Dude, this isn’t about us. This isn’t about a paycheck. This isn’t about anything other than the safety for your health and the rest of your career. And as your coach, I have to vocalize that. I can’t just sit here and not say something.’
“‘But if you tell me, because you know your body — if you tell me that you can fight and you can make this happen, then I’m not going to mention this sh*t again and we’re going full steam ahead, and you’re going to have my support, no matter what. But if something goes wrong, I wouldn’t feel right about myself for not saying how I felt.’ I wouldn’t have been able to sleep at night if I didn’t. So we had that kind of moment. I wouldn’t say he was mad, by any means. I could just tell it was just kind of a downing moment.”
Ngannou was not deterred, though.
“The Baddest Man on the Planet” still wanted to fight, Nicksick said, so he and the team worked around the injury and prepared as best as they could, revamping aspects of the game plan for Gane and getting Ngannou ready to face a challenger who had never before been beaten.
Yet even still, things remained uncertain. Nicksick said Ngannou visited a doctor immediately after touching down in California for fight week. That doctor advised Ngannou not to compete, but by that point Nicksick knew the champ’s mind wasn’t going to change, so Ngannou’s team resolved to play with the hand they were dealt, for better or worse.
“[Ngannou] went into the doctor’s alone, and afterwards, I said, ‘What did he say?’ And he’s like, ‘Well, uh...’” Nicksick recalled.
“So I said, ‘Alright, bro. I know we’re here and I know why we’re here, and I believe in your heart, and I believe in your story. And this is going to make for a better story, to be honest with you. And I feel like we can pull this out. So let’s go. Let’s do it.’ ... And I never brought it up again. I never asked how he was doing. I didn’t look at it. I didn’t make it any other way. I didn’t even want to put it on his mind. I just wanted to focus on the fight.”
When asked if he believed the UFC was aware of Ngannou’s injury and whether UFC officials made any attempts to reschedule the fight, Nicksick responded matter-of-factly.
“They knew about it,” he said. “Yeah, they knew about it. Nah, they’re not going to do us any favors, bro.”
In a separate interview on Monday’s episode of The MMA Hour, Ngannou noted that he knew “for sure” that Gane was also aware of his injury by the time fight night rolled around.
As someone intimately familiar with how Las Vegas works, Nicksick added he knew exactly when the secret was out, because that’s when the betting lines started shifting hard in Gane’s favor.
“I think it’s going to happen inherently, especially when, to me, the UFC PI is kind of flawed by design,” Nicksick said. “I mean, they’re a great facility, don’t get me wrong. But the training room itself is glass, so you can be working out but you can also see Francis getting his knee taped, or getting treatment done, any athlete that’s in there. So if there’s seven or eight athletes that happen to be in there, and they’re seeing this man get taped up, or getting treatment done, or something worked on his knee, it’s bound to happen.
“It’s just flawed by design. It’s not them trying to be mean or anything like that, but there’s enough eyes in there and enough people in there, that eventually some stuff like that’s going to happen. So we were aware of that, and, you know, he’s walking around with a knee brace on and so-and-so sees it, they’re going to tell three people. We had enough time in between where — I think it was about three weeks where — I figured it was going to get out enough. But I told my wife that — I was like, ‘I’m going to keep an eye on this betting line. Because once you see this line move, you’re going to know it’s out.’”
Through it all, though, Ngannou’s mind never changed.
He was a man on a mission, Nicksick said, and even when that decision looked as if it may have backfired as Ngannou fell behind in the early rounds of UFC 270, he never wavered.
“To be clear, man, he kind of calmed me down with his attitude and the way he was carrying himself,” Nicksick said of the champion’s approach to fight week.
“From what I saw out of him, he was just ice water the whole time.”