Anaheim, CA — Francis Ngannou showed a new wrinkle in his game at UFC 270, relying on takedowns and grappling to win a five-round decision against Ciryl Gane, unifying the heavyweight title in the process.
Interim champ Gane was served up the first loss of his career in the fight. Ngannou (17-3), nursing a leg injury, surprised many with the approach. Even he wasn’t sure that he’d be taking the fight to the ground on Saturday.
“I didn’t know that for sure, that it would be a grappling match, but I had that as an option, that it could be a grappling match,” he said following the win, which marked the first defense of his heavyweight title. “Basically because I wasn’t very comfortable on my stand[up], I wasn’t very stable, so I was very concerned. I couldn’t move properly, against a guy who moves as well as Ciryl.”
The leg injury Ngannou had suffered prior to the camp, which had been rumored prior to the fight but never explicitly reported, could easily have forced him out. At the same time, the champ had his reasons for staying the course.
“People will always say something. Leading up to this fight, I got injured — you don’t know what happens. I could have withdrawn [from] this fight, then get another fight, get even worse,” he explained. “We are doing this sport that is very dangerous, you can hurt yourself all the time. So if there’s a chance you can do it, I think you have to do it. And I believe in myself, I’ve been through a lot of stuff in my life. That must be a dumb decision, but I didn’t want to withdraw from this fight. I was very comfortable with my skills in this fight.”
Not surprisingly, as it had prior to the fight, talk afterwards soon turned to Ngannou’s contract situation. The heavyweight champion fought out his deal at UFC 270. And while a champion clause may keep him beholden to the UFC for a time, Ngannou could very well be a free agent by the end of the year.
Notably, Dana White opted not to wrap the belt around Ngannou’s waist in the octagon Saturday. Instead, he left that to matchmaker Mick Maynard. Ngannou himself isn’t sure why. “I don’t know, you have to ask him. I didn’t have anything to do about that. I think that was their decision, I’m about to ask about that too.”
When informed that White skipped Saturday’s press conference, a rarity given the magnitude of the event, Ngannou was surprised. “I didn’t know that too.”
On the contract front, meanwhile, the heavyweight champ said it was about more than money. “It’s been a long time that I’ve been wondering about my future in the company, so nothing has changed. I’m still in the same position,” he noted.
“It’s not simply money. Obviously, money is a part of it, but it’s also the term of the contract, that I don’t agree with it. I don’t feel like it’s fair, I don’t feel like I’m a free man, I don’t feel like I have been treated good. It’s unfortunate that I have to be in this position to be able to do that, to say that, but I think it’s something that everybody should at least have a right to claim what’s best for him, because at the end of the day, we put a lot in this job, we take a lot in our body to make it happen. So at least we can have a fair and square deal.”
Asked if he would go to the promotion, or let the promotion come to him, for further contract negotiations, Ngannou replied saying that “I’ve been going to the UFC a lot, so I’ve kind of exhausted all my options.” When it was suggested he could be a free agent by next year, based on the championship clause, Ngannou responded saying only that “I think so.”
Waiting that long, of course, means fighting just once this year. But as Ngannou observed, that’s nothing new for him. “In the past three years, I have fought three times. So what does that mean, once a year? So it wouldn’t be something strange.” Nor is he frustrated with that pace, he added. “I’m not frustrated about anything my friend. I’m at peace with myself and my decisions.”
Could boxing be next, even if the UFC tendered a new contract offer? Ngannou didn’t commit. “I don’t believe in anything. I don’t know yet.”
It’s clear that the contract situation has been weighing on Ngannou. Asked point-blank by Cageside Press if he still felt like he wanted to be a UFC fighter, Ngannou replied that after such a long time and with so much going on, “I think at this point, my feelings don’t matter.”
“I’ve been feeling a lot of things in the past year,” Ngannou stated, referring to a year in which talk of his contract seemingly overshadowed actual fighting. “I’ve expressed my willingness to stay in the UFC, to have the contract, just to be respected. And I the only reason why we are here I think is, at some point, I wasn’t respected.”
“It could have taken way less to get this deal done, but it went to a power position, and got everybody frustrated, got me frustrated, got me [losing my] desire of doing everything. I got in this sport— I didn’t grow up dreaming about this sport, I just got into it because it was fun and other stuff. Then you get to the point where you find the other side of the sport, which is not [fun], which is frustrating, kind of like, messes with your mind. But I’m pretty good, trying to stay focused, just think about the sport and nothing around it, and hope that things are going to go away.”
On a different front, Ngannou gave credit to Xtreme Couture for the noticable improvement in his ground game.
“The wrestling’s been part of my game since the beginning, I’ve been working on [it]. Maybe it wasn’t good enough, but I never had a chance to prove it. In the past three years I’ve been at Xtreme Couture, been working on wrestling. It’s an elite wrestling team, and I have the opportunity to have great partners and great coaches there who are very good at wrestling. And I show up to every class, wrestle with everybody.”
Watch the full UFC 270 post-fight press conference with Francis Ngannou above. More coverage from the event can be found below.