There is almost an embarrassment of riches in the UFC’s heavyweight division right now. The only thing that’s holding it back is that many of them are injured and unable to fight.
Ciryl Gane was the latest heavyweight to show his stuff, winning a Fight of the Night battle by stopping Tai Tuivasa at 4:23 of the third round in the five-round main event of UFC Paris before a hugely partisan sell-out crowd at Accor Arena.
Gane looks like the prototype of what a modern heavyweight should be. At 6-foot-4, nearly 250 pounds, he’s got the perfect build: Thick and powerful, but not so big it limits his agility. He’s quick and fast and has footwork on a par with guys who weigh 80 or 100 pounds less.
He showed that in the finishing sequence Saturday. After pummeling Tuivasa’s body with kicks to the midsection all night, Gane again landed two powerful kicks to the body. As Tuivasa finally had enough and bent over, wincing in pain, Gane showed his athleticism and great footwork.
After landing the second kick, he quickly shifted his feet and landed a blazing right cross that ended any question that Tuivasa may miraculously survive. It was the kind of footwork one routinely sees from lightweight boxer Vasiliy Lomachenko and not the kind to expect from a hulking, powerful, 250-pound heavyweight.
There are any number of lucrative and entertaining fights available for Gane now. A rematch with heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou is probably chief among them. Ngannou used his wrestling when he was fighting on an injured knee in Anaheim, California, at UFC 270 on Jan. 22 at the Honda Center to win a unanimous decision.
Eric Nicksick, Ngannou’s coach, told Yahoo Sports on Saturday that the most likely timeframe for Ngannou’s return to action is in the first quarter next year. Gane said Saturday he fears he has a broken right hand.
The great Jon Jones is moving up from light heavyweight to heavyweight and is now ready to fight. Former champion Stipe Miocic hasn’t fought since losing to Ngannou in Las Vegas on March 27, 2021, but the UFC has discussed a Jones-Miocic match. A Gane match with either of them would be amazing.
And then there is Curtis Blaydes and Tom Aspinall, among others, who would provide a fun battle with Gane. But Aspinall recently underwent knee surgery.
The UFC brass, though, has no lack of options given the unprecedented quality and depth at the top. Asked if he agreed the UFC’s heavyweight division is now at its apex, UFC president Dana White didn’t hesitate.
“One-hundred percent,” he said.
The Ngannou-Gane fight is the one that is perhaps the most intriguing. Ngannou fought injured in that bout while the match was a major step up in competition for Gane. Ngannou lost to Miocic and came back to defeat him. Miocic lost to Daniel Cormier and came back to beat him.
With as good of an athlete as Gane is and as well as he’s coached by Fernand Lopez, there is no reason he can’t do the same.
Nicksick, who is one of the sport’s sharpest minds, figured Gane would rely on kicks to stay away from the devastating power in Tuivasa’s hands. Tuivasa caught Gane with a right hand to the cheek in the second that not only dropped Gane, but also he said momentarily put him out.
“Tai hit me so hard, he knocked me out,” Gane said. “He put the lights out. I had to be a warrior and come back stronger.”
Gane came back stronger by relying on the kicks that Nicksick predicted he would. But he’s not so sure Gane is going to be able to cover enough ground to beat Ngannou in a theoretical rematch. Ngannou, remember, is arguably the hardest puncher in MMA history, but he fought on just one leg the last time he met Gane.
“I thought Gane used his range brilliantly [Saturday] other than when he got backed up to the cage in Round 2,” Nicksick told Yahoo Sports. “I think the rematch would look a lot different [between Ngannou and Gane]. Francis wasn’t able to use his kicking game, so with a healthy knee, I think we’d be able to get Gane out of there.”
Jones and Miocic are both wrestlers and so if Gane were to go against either of them, he’d face the issue he did against Ngannou. Now, nobody on the planet expected to see Ngannou wrestle so much, and he may never do so again. He’s an elite striker and that’s what has made him a superstar. Gane, though, would have to solidify his takedown defense were he to take on Jones or Miocic.
“We laid out the blueprint [for Jones and Miocic],” Nicksick said. “If I was involved in either camp, I’d make Gane prove he’s shored up his wrestling.”
This is not, however, intended to make Gane look like some sort of flawed prospect. He’s an elite athlete who showed he could keep his wits about him and recover from adversity when he was knocked down by Tuivasa.
How many fighters have turtled in self-defense after having been hit by Tuivasa? But Gane found an escape route, quickly got to his feet and hurt Tuivasa so badly with kicks that he wound up winning the round on all three judges’ cards despite being floored. That doesn’t happen often.
It’s also not often that an athlete of Gane’s stature graces the UFC’s heavyweight division, nor is it often that there are so many worthy opponents for him.
Gane won a sensational fight on Saturday, but one gets the impression this is only the first of many sensational fights we’ll see out of UFC heavyweights over the next few years.