LAS VEGAS — The day that Fernand Lopez first laid eyes upon Ciryl Gane, his mind began to race. He took one look at the Frenchman and immediately began to calculate all he could do with a guy who not only stood 6-foot-6, but who was so athletically gifted that professional basketball leagues in France were interested in him after he’d just taken up the game.
It didn’t take Lopez long to realize Gane could be something special in the fight game.
This was the second time, though, he’d had a would-be champion wander through the doors of his gym and basically fall into his lap. A few years earlier, it was Francis Ngannou who showed up at Lopez’s gym in Paris, The MMA Factory, with the hope of becoming the next Mike Tyson.
Lopez helped turn Ngannou into the world’s scariest MMA fighter before they split following a loss in a UFC heavyweight title fight in 2018 to Stipe Miocic.
Gane doesn’t have the sheer power that Ngannou has — who other than Tyson himself does? — but he has plenty of it. And he’s one of the best athletes in the UFC despite being so big and hulking.
He didn’t play basketball for the first time until he was in his early 20s. Immediately, he was among the best players in his area and was quickly drawing interest from professional scouts in France.
He’s quick and agile, and like Ngannou before him, has seamlessly adapted to MMA. On Saturday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN+) at Apex, the seventh-ranked Gane will challenge No. 4 Jairzinho Rozenstruik in an important heavyweight bout in the main event of UFC Vegas 20.
A win would make Gane 8-0 overall and 5-0 in the UFC and certify him as a legitimate championship contender.
“This is such an important fight for me,” Gane said. “Everyone wants to fight [for the title] but that is in the future. Right now, all I am thinking about is this guy.”
He’d better be thinking of his striking defense, because Rozenstruik might be the second-hardest puncher in the UFC’s heavyweight division behind Ngannou. He has the ability to win any fight at any time with any punch from either hand.
Gane said he knows that Rozenstruik’s power is legitimate, and he’s not dismissing it. But he also believes he has better footwork and a more complete overall game.
Both men are coming off of knockout victories over former heavyweight champion Junior dos Santos, with Gane defeating him in December and Rozenstruik in August.
Prior to dos Santos, Gane hadn’t fought in a year, but he was in the gym consistently. He had a series of bouts scheduled and then postponed or canceled.
“It was difficult because a fight was canceled and we were told to stay ready because it would be pushed back a little,” Gane said. “And so we would stay in the gym and work and then it would happen again. So I ended up just training five, six months in a row with nothing going on.
“That was the difficulty, but I couldn’t risk leaving the gym because who knew what would happen.”
It turned out well, though, as he got the big win over dos Santos that moved him into position for the Rozenstruik match. Lopez had little doubt from the beginning — well, almost from the beginning — that Gane would be capable of such big things.
The first time they met, Gane told him he had a fight against a renowned heavyweight kickboxer. Lopez said he thought that Gane would be beaten badly. He said he even questioned if Gane, whom he said appeared skinny at the time, was in fact a heavyweight.
Lopez knew the French kickboxing scene and quickly came to a conclusion: Gane would be in trouble.
“I thought he was either a liar or he was going to get killed,” Lopez said.
Gane won the fight in the first round by flying knee, and sent a newspaper clipping to Lopez, who was suddenly very much impressed.
Gane told him he hoped to make it to kickboxing league Glory, but Lopez talked him into taking up MMA.
And Lopez feels that Gane’s decision to do so will reap big dividends in the near future.
“I told him if he gave me a couple of years, I could make him a UFC champion,” Lopez said. “And I believe that now more than I ever have. I really believe that and I think Ciryl is just beginning to show people the abilities that he really has.”
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