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Fernand Lopez told Ciryl Gane not to kick Francis Ngannou’s knee, thought injury rumors were ‘bait’

Rumors of Francis Ngannou’s knee injury ricocheted around the internet in the buildup to UFC 270. But Ciryl Gane’s coach, Fernand Lopez, didn’t trust them.

“I don’t buy this,” Lopez remembers of his reaction to a screenshot of the news forwarded by Gane’s brother, David.

Lopez, helping the now-former interim champ prepare for the fight of his life against former student Ngannou, believed the injury report was “bait” and didn’t let it factor into his strategy, he told The MMA Hour on Wednesday.

When Ngannou stepped into the octagon this past Saturday wearing neoprene sleeves on both of his knees, Lopez said he grew even more suspicious and called over Gane.

“Don’t go for the low kick,” he told the interim champ. “I don’t believe Francis is hurt. He will counter you.”

As it turned out, the rumor was true. Ngannou on Monday confirmed multiple knee injuries suffered in training three weeks prior to the pay-per-view. Those injuries prompted him to wrestle Gane to a unanimous decision victory, and they will require surgery that could keep him out of action for the bulk of this year as he sits in contractual limbo with the UFC.

Lopez stressed he believes Ngannou’s injury was real. But the way the information was conveyed, just hours before the fight, made him think something else was afoot. (Little did he and the rest of the world know that many things were, most of which were not in Ngannou’s favor as the fight neared.)

“I told Ciryl, don’t go kick a blank low kick [in the open],” Lopez said. “You will get knocked out by Francis. Don’t kick down. Stay on the kick that we’re using.”

According to Lopez, that was a taekwondo-style kick that allowed Gane to keep distance and score points without risking a heavy counter from Ngannou. It worked, at least until one shot to the midsection allowed the undisputed champ to seize Gane’s leg and slam him to the canvas. That started a trend of grappling that led to Ngannou’s win.

Ngannou’s choice to take down Gane rather than stand and slug it out shocked the world, but Lopez was not surprised.

“I knew that they would be wrestling,” he said. “Because I said that in many interviews: I don’t see how in the first two rounds we will be challenged in the boxing department. I knew that [we] wouldn’t be challenged, and that’s what happened.

“Francis is powerful, and I think he did a good job on wrestling. But I wasn’t surprised on that. I’m not trying to say I don’t appreciate it. I really appreciated it, but I wasn’t surprised at all.”

Much was made about Gane’s decision to attempt a leglock in the final round, after Ngannou had evened the score by controlling the action on the canvas. In training, Lopez initially discouraged the interim champ from attempting the submission, as he feared it would give Ngannou a chance to land a thunderous hammerfist that would lead to a knockout. But when Gane continued to attempt it and submitted several high-level grapplers, he gave his approval for Gane to use his discretion.

Lopez took issue with UFC commentary that scolded Gane for trying the move when attempts in earlier fights had brought priase.

“I don’t regret at all,” Lopez said. “If he didn’t hit that heel hook and we lost by decision, I would be killing myself saying why didn’t he try it, because he’s very good at that. This is part of the spectacle. You guys want Ciryl to bring the show. He brought the show. In my team, in Eric Nicksick’s team, in the venue, who didn’t get scared on that heel hook? Everyone was like, ‘Oh sh*t. He’s going for this again.’ But it went bad. So let’s just say we’re back to the drawing board and try to learn again.”

At the conclusion of the fight, Lopez walked across the octagon and shared a brief handshake with Ngannou. It was his way of squashing the beef that had been built up by several competing interviews in the media, the result, Lopez said, of reaction to UFC President Dana White’s opinion that Ngannou had an “ego.”

“100 percent, I’m relieved [it’s over],” Lopez said. “When I crossed the octagon and shake his hand, that was my way to say, ‘OK buddy. I’m done.’”

Lopez wound up speaking with Ngannou’s manager Marquel Martin for several minutes backstage, shared a hug with opposing coach Eric Nicksick, and quickly agreed with the advice of UFC welterweight champion and Ngannou confidant Kamaru Usman, whom he said told him, “Fernand, we’re brothers – let’s stop this.”

The coach doesn’t necessarily regret any of the things he said in the buildup to the fight. He believes what he said is accurate and truthful, and as a sometime promoter, he figures he gave the fighters and the promotion a hand by participating in drama that would sell the fight. He said Gane “made a lot of money” from the fight.

If anything, Lopez regrets that the relationship between he and Ngannou frayed to that point.

“No matter what you say on this topic, you look bad, anyway – no matter what you say, you just look bitter, you just look ex-wife, no matter what you try to say. So if there’s something I regret, it’s on myself that I didn’t make it as a coach.

“You have the responsibility and the duty to give some value to your student and to make the good moves in the gym. I’m sorry that the first four years with Francis was very good, and I didn’t make it to keep the relationship with him in a good mood. So that’s something that is still painful for me, that I feel like I failed.

“Everything started because I went publicly responding to journalists, saying to journalists, ‘Yes, I think that Dana White is saying Francis has an ego is good.’ I do regret that, which is sad to regret that. If I didn’t admit that, I think everything would have gone the same that we used to do.”

Lopez is now resolved to move on from the entire subject of the drama with his former charge, and he won’t answer questions about it from the media about it. Now, it’s time to go back to the drawing board and get Gane ready for his next challenge, whatever that is.

“I’m done,” he said. “I’m tired. I’m exhausted with that topic.”