Boring Win Made Francis Ngannou a True Champion at UFC 270

Scott Harris@ScottHarrisMMAMMA Lead WriterJanuary 23, 2022

Francis Ngannou
Francis NgannouFREDERIC J. BROWN/Getty Images

If you had "Francis Ngannou escapes a leglock" on your UFC bingo card, congratulations.

On Saturday in the main event of UFC 270, the heavyweight champion and baddest man on the planet brought a deeper bag of tricks to the cage than he ever had before. He needed all of them to overcome Cyril Gane—and a preexisting knee injury—to retain his title in Anaheim, California.

This was not a scintillating contest. Neither man landed 20 strikes in any single round, according to UFC stats. Offense was at a premium, meaning a few pivotal moments made all the difference. More often than not, it was a burst of much-improved wrestling from Ngannou—and one crucial misstep from Gane—that led to Ngannou's 48-47, 48-47, 49-46 unanimous-decision victory. 

"I knew he was going to be a tough opponent. ... I had to stay composed," Ngannou told famous broadcaster and podcaster Joe Rogan after the fight. "Calm down. Don't chase him, trust yourself and, yeah man, we did it. It's been an incredible journey."

Gane is a smart fighter with an effective read-and-react style in the cage. His footwork—downright Vitaly Lomachenko-esque for an MMA heavyweight—is exceptional. But he's not always fun to watch.

In the first round, as Ngannou pressed forward, Gane kept moving around the cage, switching stances and directions, basically doing whatever he could to mesmerize Ngannou. Gane outworked the champ overall and likely took the first on most fans' scorecards.

The second round picked up where the first left off. It was entirely too late at night for it to be one of those fights. But there it was, positively plodding. As Ngannou huffed and puffed, Gane out-landed him 19-10, according to the official stats.

Oh no, here came the third, and there was Gane touch-kicking the champ as Ngannou simply refused to pull the trigger. It was indeed one of those fights.

Adel Brkić @AdelBrkic

Im ok not watching another Gane fight

But then at about the 4:15 mark, Ngannou charged forward, scooped up Gane and body-slammed him to the ground, landing in perfect side control. Gane worked his way up to standing, only for Ngannou to hit another one at roughly the 2:20 mark.

"My ground game is now evolving," Ngannou told Rogan. "And I'm going to be on another level."

Gane started the fourth with more sticking and moving, only to see Ngannou land two more takedowns that led to nearly three combined minutes of control time.

ANAHEIM, CALIFORNIA - JANUARY 22: Francis Ngannou of Cameroon (L) tackles Ciryl Gane of France in their heavyweight title fight during the UFC 270 event at Honda Center on January 22, 2022 in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images)
Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images

Then came what looked to be a decisive fifth round. With Ngannou gassing hard, Gane still appeared hesitant to make the first move. About a minute into the action, Gane went for a takedown and got it.

Then, for the first time in the fight, Gane took a gamble, and it didn't go his way.

From top position, Gane reached for Ngannou's leg to try for a leglock submission. Ngannou reversed the position to get on top, and just like that, Gane's advantage in the sequence was gone. The rest of the round was lackluster, with Ngannou again managing the action with control time.

"It was a moment for me to make a statement and to remind people I'm the champ," Ngannou told Rogan. "You guys might sleep on me, you kind of forget about me."

ESPN MMA @espnmma

Who had @francis_ngannou wrestling his way to victory at #UFC270? 🤔 https://t.co/5uoFoCFFtM

That doesn't seem true. He's now 17-3 and hasn't lost since 2018. Before this fight, he had five straight knockouts. His work with supercoach Trevor Wittman—also the coach of welterweight and pound-for-pound kingpin Kamaru Usman, who was in the champ's corner Saturday—is paying dividends.

There's also the small matter of his contract. 

As many fans know, that was the last fight on his UFC contract, and another one seems far away if president Dana White's public statements are to be believed. Would Ngannou really box Tyson Fury? Could he possibly go to another MMA promotion? What role would the knee injury, a surgery or potential time off play in the negotiations process?

Ngannou addressed that issue after the fight, and while he stopped short of making any hard proclamations, he did hint that he might be wearing heavier gloves in the near future.

BONY @JonnyBones

If this is the Apex of heavyweight fighting, I’m excited about it. Got some more records to break

"Boxing is always in the back of my pocket. It is something that I must do before the end of my career," Ngannou said. "And right now I'm really looking toward any opportunity to do that. Because it's not like I have a lifetime here. I better start thinking about it." 

The 35-year-old is one in a small handful of fighters with a claim to be the world's most famous non-Conor McGregor fighter. If UFC brass wants to keep him—perhaps for an ultrawatt matchup with Jon Jones—they'll have to pony up. 

Saturday's win may not make as many highlight reels, but it sure had a lot of grit between its teeth. It cemented Ngannou as someone with the tenacity, smarts and heart to win when the main weapon isn't working. That's championship-level stuff, no matter what sport you're playing.