Ciryl Gane, France’s journey to legalise MMA and why UFC Paris will be ‘special’

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Former interim UFC heavyweight champion Ciryl Gane (Getty Images)
Former interim UFC heavyweight champion Ciryl Gane (Getty Images)

There may be no better man to headline France’s first ever UFC event than Ciryl Gane.

Mixed martial arts’ leading promotion has not exactly had an abundance of French fighters on its roster since its inception in 1993, which is no surprise given the nation did not even legalise the sport until two years ago, but Gane occupies an intriguing place in the timeline of French MMA.

Like many of his combative compatriots, the 32-year-old spent a portion of his career competing abroad. But, having only started training in the sport in 2018 – the same year in which he began his professional career – Gane has not had to wait long for a homecoming. Still, he has more than earned it.

“Bon Gamin” (“Good Kid”) kickstarted his pro MMA career in Canada, securing two stoppage wins in 2018 and adding another in 2019. That was all it took for the athletic anomaly – one of the quickest and most dynamic heavyweights that MMA has ever seen – to be handed a UFC contract, and within two years he had won seven straight fights under the company’s banner to claim the interim heavyweight title. Gane, just three years after beginning his MMA training, had become the first ever French fighter to hold gold in the UFC.

Gane’s path, which he had trodden in uniquely graceful fashion for a man of his size, led to Francis Ngannou. A former teammate of Gane, Ngannou had made it to France after numerous failed attempts to cross the European border from his native Cameroon. When Ngannou won the UFC heavyweight title in March 2021, his own unique journey was complete. He was even celebrated by some in France as the country’s de facto first UFC champion. Five months later, though, Gane would stop Derrick Lewis with ease to take the official title of France’s first UFC champion – if not the official title of heavyweight king.

A huge unification bout between Gane and Ngannou headlined the UFC’s first pay-per-view event of 2022, with Gane outpointed by the injured knockout artist after a surprising show of efficient wrestling from Ngannou. That defeat – Gane’s first – could have been the defining moment of “Bon Gamin”’s career; instead, that moment could come with his historic appearance at UFC Paris on 3 September.

“It’s a really great question,” Gane says, when asked whether the UFC’s arrival in France and the country’s legalisation of MMA came sooner or later than he expected.

Gane reacts to his defeat by former teammate Francis Ngannou (AFP via Getty Images)
Gane reacts to his defeat by former teammate Francis Ngannou (AFP via Getty Images)

“I [actually] don’t know at this moment how much time it’s been legalised! There are a lot of guys, like my coach Fernand Lopez, who fought for this legalisation since a long time ago – and some guys more than Fernand.

“Me, I just arrived. I started in 2018, I did some fights, then France legalised MMA in 2020. And just after, I had this match-up with Francis Ngannou. So, for me it was really quick, it was a little bit normal.

“This is exactly like my career: For me it’s normal to do just four years and to be on top, but some guys tried to do that since a long time ago. But it’s good, because we have a lot of fans and fighters in France, and [the ban] was a real problem for all of these guys.”

Although Gane was not in MMA early enough to campaign in the same way as Lopez and others, he has become the face of French MMA and deserves his spot atop the card in Paris, where he will face rising contender Tai Tuivasa.

“My style is touch but never be touched, like I did against Derrick Lewis or maybe Jairzinho Rozenstruik, so I think against Tuivasa it’s gonna be a little bit the same,” Gane says of the match-up with the Australian.

“My gameplan is gonna be the same, I don’t know if I’m gonna do exactly the same. The [Lewis and Rozenstruik fights are] gonna help me to fight against Tuivasa, but I don’t want to say I prefer [fighting] this guy to that guy, because I want to fight and win against everybody.

“With Tuivasa, it’s really dangerous to keep the middle distance. That’s why I prefer to be far or to be really close in the clinch, but in the middle distance this guy is really, really, really, really dangerous.”

Twenty-nine-year-old Tuivasa (14-3) will enter the French capital on the back of five straight knockout wins. The succession of stoppages and Tuivasa’s tendency to celebrate with a “Shooey” have further boosted the fan favourite’s popularity, but the Paris crowd will hope to see Gane abruptly halt the Australian’s progress and ruin his post-fight ritual.

Gane during his stoppage win against Derrick Lewis (Getty Images)
Gane during his stoppage win against Derrick Lewis (Getty Images)

“Maybe after, if he wants and I want, we’re gonna do [a Shooey] together,” Gane counters. “It’d be my pleasure, but I don’t know... with shoes, that’s really not healthy,” he laughs. “It’d probably be funny... but [I’ll only do it] if I win.”

After the UFC’s record-breaking night in London in March – a scintillating event that has already led the promotion to announce a return to the O2 Arena in July – expectations are high for UFC Paris. Yet Gane, typically composed, is unlikely to be fazed by the occasion.

“For my first fight in Paris, it’s exactly the same like my other fights,” he insists. “My training camp is exactly the same, I’m really focused on Tai Tuivasa. But yes, it’s a little bit special because it’s Paris – the first time in my country, in front of my family and my friends. But this doesn’t put more pressure on me. I’m just happy [about it], no pressure; not now, maybe later...”

UFC London’s success spotlighted the talent within British MMA but also provided a platform for that talent to grow, and Gane hopes to see the same effect in France.

“To have UFC in Paris is gonna help to have more light on the young [French] fighters,” he says. “This is gonna help us have more French fighters in the UFC, 100 per cent.”

For Gane, the “mission” now is to hold undisputed heavyweight gold in the UFC. For some in French MMA, the mission was complete with the country’s legalisation of the sport. For others, simply fighting in the UFC will be the goal, and UFC Paris will help to make that a reality. Gane has done his part.

UFC FIGHT NIGHT®: GANE vs. TUIVASA tickets go on sale from 9am BST on Friday 24 June via Accor Arena and Ticketmaster.

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