Is UFC diluting Francis Ngannou's heavyweight title with Gane-Lewis interim bout?

·Combat columnist
·5-min read

Nothing “happened” to Francis Ngannou when the UFC announced that an interim heavyweight title fight between Derrick Lewis and Cyril Gane would headline UFC 265 on Aug. 7 at the Toyota Center in Houston.

Ngannou is, and will remain, the UFC heavyweight champion, a title he won when he stopped Stipe Miocic in the second round of their title bout on March 27 in Las Vegas at UFC 260.

That victory heralded a potential reign that would hearken back to the days of Brock Lesnar in the UFC or, Mike Tyson in boxing.

Say the words “baddest man on the planet,” and it’s hard not to imagine the power-punching Ngannou. After failing miserably in his first try at the belt, when he was beaten and battered by Miocic in 2018 at UFC 220, Ngannou did what all of the greats do following a loss. He reassessed his situation, corrected his problems and returned a better and more dangerous fighter.

Interim titles are a useful tool when applied properly. The most common use for them is when a champion is injured, out for a lengthy period of time and no challengers will get an opportunity to fight for the title for a long period. Fighters, with very few exceptions in the UFC, make more for competing in a title bout than anything else. So when a champion is out long term, it’s absolutely appropriate to have an interim title fight.

But Ngannou’s reign just passed the three-month mark earlier in the week. Nobody was missing out by waiting.

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - MARCH 27: Francis Ngannou of Cameroon reacts after his victory over Stipe Miocic in their UFC heavyweight championship fight during the UFC 260 event at UFC APEX on March 27, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)
Francis Ngannou has been the UFC heavyweight champion for a little over three months. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

Now, Lewis is from Houston and the Aug. 7 show is going to be at the Toyota Center in Houston. The UFC on Wednesday announced an ongoing partnership with the venue. So being a good partner, the UFC wanted to give Houston a good show for the first card of its deal, and having a hometown hero fight for the heavyweight title was one way to do that.

But when Lewis was scheduled to fight Ngannou, he was going for the title. Now, facing Gane, he’s competing for a title. There’s a big difference.

It’s always easy to point fingers in cases like these, and Ngannou agent Marquel Martin and UFC president White got into a very public dispute. Martin was doing his job, standing up for his client, while White was doing his.

For those who want to take Ngannou’s side, understand that Lewis had signed for the deal, done everything asked of him and had cooperated in every way. Now, because Ngannou didn’t feel he was ready after initially agreeing to Aug. 7 for his first defense, is it fair to push Lewis aside? Doing so also has the trickle-down effect of harming the venue, which wanted the local star in the main event.

Ngannou shouldn’t fight before he’s ready, and after a triumphant return to Cameroon after winning the title, he didn’t appear to be close to being ready to fight on Aug. 7. After all he went through to rebuild himself after those disastrous 2018 losses to Miocic and Lewis, it made no sense for him to fight so quickly if he weren’t prepared.

His coach, Eric Nicksick, tweeted and then deleted a text conversation with Martin in which Martin told Nicksick to have Ngannou ready to go on Sept. 25.

Going on that date would mean it was 183 days from the night Ngannou won the title until he first defended it. By way of comparison, the last four times the heavyweight title switched hands prior to Ngannou, the new champion’s first defense was:

  • 225 days, from when Miocic won the title on Aug. 15, 2020, by defeating Daniel Cormier at UFC 252 to when he defended it at UFC 260 against Ngannou on March 27, 2021.

  • 120 days, from when Cormier won the title on July 7, 2018, by defeating Miocic at UFC 226 to when he first defended it at UFC 230 against Lewis on Nov. 7, 2018.

  • 120 days, from when Miocic won the title on May 14, 2016, by knocking out Fabricio Werdum at UFC 198 to when he defended it against Alistair Overeem on Sept. 10, 2016, at UFC 203.

  • 337 days, from when Werdum won the title by defeating Cain Velasquez on June 13, 2015, at UFC 188 to when he first defended it against Miocic on May 14, 2016 at UFC 198.

So going 183 days for Ngannou to make his first defense wouldn’t be out of line with recent heavyweight history. Of course, that would only be if he went on that date.

Given that, this isn’t a situation where an interim belt was really needed. Yet, given the needs of the Toyota Center and Lewis’ patience, it’s understandable why the UFC went in that direction. It’s also understandable why Ngannou wasn’t crazy about the plan, given the timeframe and his willingness to fight in September.

The only thing Ngannou loses is his first title defense now being pushed back further. It’s unlikely he’d be able to fight the Lewis-Gane winner any sooner than November. But he’s still champion and, if he and the UFC are smart, he’ll be cageside in Houston to watch the Lewis-Gane fight and then head inside after to formally challenge the winner.

One of the reasons for the UFC’s rising popularity is the integrity with which it maintains its belts. It makes its challengers fight the best available opponents as often as possible. That’s why the belts mean something.

Giving the Lewis-Gane winner a belt, even one of the interim variety, does little to advance that goal. But it’s not like much is lost here but a little bit of time.

In the end, it’s really much hullabaloo about nothing.

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