Francis Ngannou produced a stunning comeback to earn a unanimous decision victory over Ciryl Gane and retain his heavyweight title at UFC 270 in Anaheim, California.
Seemingly down two rounds going into the third, Ngannou, 35, utilised his wrestling skills to land a series of takedowns throughout the rest of the fight and edge French interim champion Gane on points to unify the heavyweight division.
It was an uncharacteristic move for Cameroon’s Ngannou, whose punching power has earned him the reputation as one of the most fearsome knockout artists in UFC history.
Following the fight, Ngannou admitted his preparations had been hampered by a knee injury in training, but refused to pull out.
He explained: “Three weeks ago, I hurt my knee. But this was a moment for me to make statement and remind people I’m the champ. Some people sleep on me and forget about me.”
In the co-main event, Brazil’s Deiveson Figueiredo reclaimed the UFC flyweight title with a unanimous decision victory over Mexico’s Brandon Moreno.
After a win apiece and a draw in their three meetings so far, Figueiredo called for an unprecedented fourth title fight with Moreno in Mexico.
Ngannou shows he is more than a knockout artist
The main event was one of the most anticipated UFC heavyweight title fights in recent memory, with the destructive hitting of Ngannou pitted against the more technical style of Gane.
Both fighters also have a backstory as they used to be sparring partners with Gane’s head coach Fernand Lopez being Ngannou’s former mentor during a spell in France.
Gane, previously undefeated in 10 professional fights, appeared relaxed on his walk to the octagon, smiling and fist-bumping fans.
Ngannou meanwhile, displayed less emotion, looking stern and intent as he walked out for his first UFC title defence.
In the early stages, Ngannou advanced while patiently waiting for his chance to strike, while Gane used his footwork and movement to maintain his distance and avoid damage.
The fight was largely going how experts had predicted, with Gane outpointing the champion with a series of kicks to the legs and body.
Sections of the crowd inside the Honda Centre, perhaps wanting to see the explosiveness for which Ngannou has become known, started to boo in frustration as Gane continued to nullify his opponent throughout the second round.
Something had to change for the champion going into round three – and it did.
Realising his tactic of waiting to catch Gane with a big knockout blow was not working, Ngannou caught a high kick from his opponent and slammed him to the ground in powerful fashion.
The crowd was stunned, and the momentum had started to shift.
Ngannou took Gane down again at the end of the round and it was the same story in the fourth as the champion controlled the fight, spending over two minutes in the top position.
“Whoever wins this round, wins this fight,” said Ngannou’s coaching team as he took deep breaths on his stool before the final round.
After the action went to the ground again, Ngannou defended a leglock from Gane and gained top position for a final time, controlling his opponent until the end.
As the buzzer sounded, Ngannou stood to his feet and raised both arms in triumph, confident he had done enough to retain his title.
In contrast, Gane went back to his corner, hands on hips with a look of dejection on his face, knowing his undefeated streak and chance at becoming world champion had likely been snuffed out by his former training partner.
More to follow.