Ciryl Gane was only 3-0 as a professional fighter when he signed with the UFC in 2019, and no one, not even the UFC braintrust of Dana White, Hunter Campbell, Sean Shelby and Mick Maynard who sought him out could be certain of what they had. Gane was clearly a brilliant athlete who was extraordinarily fit and moved like a middleweight.
A former soccer player and Muay Thai fighter, Gane had shown well early in his MMA career against limited opposition, but what White and Co. couldn't know at the time they signed him was whether it would translate.
Very quickly, though, it did. He won three fights in four months after signing, submitting Raphael Pessoa and Don'Tale Mayes and winning a decision over Tanner Boser. The UFC stepped up his opposition significantly after that, and when he returned following a pandemic-induced break, he didn't miss a beat. He defeated Junior dos Santos, Jairzinho Rozenstruik, Alexander Volkov and Derrick Lewis, winning an interim heavyweight title belt with the vicious KO of Lewis at UFC 265 on Aug. 7, 2021, in Lewis' hometown of Houston.
Now, a little over two years after that crowning moment, Gane is in a vastly different place as he headlines the UFC's second card in France on Saturday when he meets Serghei Spivac at Accor Arena in Paris. He's coming off of a one-sided loss to Jon Jones at UFC 285 on March 4 in Las Vegas where, frankly, he didn't look remotely in Jones' class.
That defeat was also his second in three bouts. He lost his belt to Francis Ngannou at UFC 270 on Jan. 22, 2022, when he made a huge error in the final round, giving up top position to go for a heel hook. Ngannou, one of the UFC's most powerful strikers, took advantage and used wrestling to close out the fifth round of an even bout and win the fight.
There weren't many questions raised about Gane's capacity after the loss to Ngannou, because had he just maintained top position, he likely would have gone on to win and would have been the regular champion. He followed that with a crushing knockout of Tai Tuivasa last year in the first UFC card in France.
But he looked completely out of his depths against Jones, who was moving up to heavyweight from 205 pounds and was fighting for the first time in 37 months. Jones submitted Gane with a guillotine just 2:04 into the fight, making Gane look like a journeyman and not a former world champion.
To his credit, Gane looked in the mirror. He deservedly credited Jones, but also realized he needed to make significant changes in what he was doing to prepare for his bouts.
"Jon Jones is a really great fighter and he did very well that night," Gane said. "We knew he'd like to go in the ground game. But I made a mistake, and it was my fault [I lost], also."
A week after the bout, he said he was back in the gym. He not only changed the way he prepared, but said he cut out a lot of other things. His life now is family, training and fights.
He grinned when he was asked if he expected Spivac to try to wrestle him, particularly since Ngannou, who is not known for wrestling, used it so effectively against him throughout their bout. Jones is one of the best, if not the best, MMA wrestlers in the sport's history, and there was never a question that Jones would rely on a wrestling-heavy plan.
The question was whether Gane could do enough to stop the takedowns and keep the fight standing long enough to let some other perceived advantages kick in.
"I'm going to use everything I can to be a better version of myself for the future," said Gane, who is a -170 favorite to win at BetMGM. Spivac is at +140.
Despite the losses, Gane is still ranked No. 2 at heavyweight, behind only No. 1 contender Sergei Pavlovich and Jones, of course. He's not that far away from getting another shot. No. 4 Tom Aspinall has called him out and should Gane win Saturday, that's the fight that likely could be made.
Ngannou is no longer with the UFC, having signed with the Professional Fighters League earlier this year. Jones, who defends his belt against No. 3 Stipe Miocic on Nov. 11 at Madison Square Garden in New York, has hinted at retiring after the bout. Miocic hasn't been active and the bout with Jones will be his first in 31 months. He's 41 now and it wouldn't be a shock if he were to retire after that bout, win or lose.
And so Gane, despite the enormous criticism he's received, is still very much in the mix. And while the criticism is understandable, it's also unfair in ways because Jones is the greatest fighter who ever lived and has repeatedly made Hall of Famers looked like janitors.
Gane took the loss and the criticism to heart, and he promises a far better version of himself.
"Everything changes," he said, waving his head. "Everything. So we'll see."
We will. But it's still too early to write off a guy as big, strong, quick and athletic as Gane. He may never fully figure it out. If he does, though, this is going to be one hell of a redemption story.