PARIS — An Uber arrives for a pickup outside the MMA Factory gym in the Rungis neighborhood, near Orly Airport. It’s a brisk afternoon with a light rain, three days after Christmas. The city, a capital of arts from fashion to culinary, is relatively quiet.
When the driver hears that his passenger is visiting with UFC interim heavyweight champion Ciryl Gane, his voice rises with excitement. The driver, Merouane Brakhli, has been a Brazilian jiu-jitsu student at the MMA Factory for four years — before mixed martial arts fights were legal in France.
With one hand on the wheel, Brakhli opens the Google Translate app on his iPhone, hoping to make it easier to carry on a conversation in English. The Eiffel Tower is a blur in the distance out the driver’s side window of his Kia Niro, and Brakhli nearly misses a highway off-ramp. No matter. He’s immersed in the near-and-dear topic at hand: the recent surge of MMA in France.
Francis Ngannou is the UFC heavyweight champion. His MMA career was born at the MMA Factory as well as Gane’s.
On Saturday, Ngannou and Gane — former training partners under coach Fernand Lopez — will fight in the main event of UFC 270 in Anaheim, California. ESPN’s two top-ranked heavyweight fighters were both brought up by Lopez, starting before they could compete in France, which legalized MMA in 2020.
The MMA Factory was founded in 2012 by Lopez, a former fighter whose career ended due to a neck injury, along with business partner and fellow coach Benjamin Sarfati. Lopez’s dedication has been the foundation of the MMA Factory, which now has two Paris locations, including a 20,000-square-foot, six-month-old facility in Rungis sponsored by Venum, the UFC’s apparel partner.
Lopez, 43, says he sleeps three hours per night at most, and his affinity for emailing at 4 a.m. is a running joke at the MMA Factory. But how he manages the team is serious business. There are 130 pro fighters and 24 specialized coaches. The gym employs a strength and conditioning coach, a mental coach, a doctor, a chiropractor and an English teacher.
That team guided Ngannou to the UFC in 2015. After a falling out with Lopez several years ago over financial and personal issues, the champ moved to Las Vegas to live and train. Gane, who became the top heavyweight at the gym after Ngannou’s departure, said he once uncomfortably viewed his role as “the revenge.”
Drama aside, something significant is happening in the City of Love, and the excitement extends beyond one Uber driver. According to the UFC, its European account on Instagram has experienced a 21% increase in followers from France since the beginning of 2021. There’s now a French TV outlet showing MMA fights, whereas in the past, fans had to watch on a station based across the border in Luxembourg.
“People in France often saw MMA as a dangerous sport,” said Brakhli, the exhilarated Uber driver. “But since it was legalized, the sports channels talk about it more. People are more and more interested in MMA. And Gane, someone very nice, now spends a lot of time on the TV shows. And it conveys a beautiful image.”
That image could blossom Saturday. Two of the best fighters in the world, who share extensive history, are on a collision course for gold. It’s a tale that Brakhli can barely believe he has the opportunity to discuss with one of his holiday week passengers.
“It’s just amazing,” Brakhli said. “It could be a movie script. But this is the reality, and it is [happening] in a few days.”
LOPEZ HAD NO idea who Gane was when the fighter arrived at the MMA Factory in early 2017. Gane, who at the time was competing in Muay Thai, had reached out to Lopez through an intermediary. Gane had a close friend whose father was a chef at a Cameroonian restaurant in Paris that was frequented by Lopez, a Cameroon native. Gane was looking for a gym with solid sparring partners closer to his home, so his friend’s father made the connection. Lopez welcomed Gane as a favor to the chef.
Gane’s first training camp at the MMA Factory was for a Muay Thai bout with Brice Guidon on March 8, 2017. But Lopez didn’t take any notice at first. He was busy with high-level MMA fighters such as Ngannou, who was coming off his fifth straight UFC victory, a first-round knockout of former champion Andrei Arlovski. When Gane told Lopez he would be fighting Guidon, it caught the coach’s attention. He knew Guidon as a French Muay Thai champion.
Lopez was skeptical. “This guy is going to get killed or he’s a big liar,” Lopez remembered thinking.
After the fight, Gane returned to the MMA Factory and showed Lopez some press clippings on his phone. Gane had beaten Guidon by third-round TKO.
“S—,” Lopez thought at the time. Who is this guy?
Later that night, Lopez opened his laptop and watched all of Gane’s Muay Thai fights available online. The next day, he called Gane into his office at the gym.
“I’m pretty sure you’re going to be a UFC champion,” Lopez told him. “And within two years you will be in the UFC, for sure. But I need you to stop the Muay Thai and focus on MMA. That’s it.”
It wasn’t so much Gane’s elite skills that sold Lopez. It wasn’t his 6-foot-4 height and 81-inch reach, but of course those didn’t hurt. Lopez saw something deeper: a world-class fight IQ.
“When you have a guy that’s making the good decision all the time — almost always making the good decision — then you know that you have something special,” Lopez said. “He barely makes mistakes.”
Gane listened to his new coach but was unsure about the career advice. He had just started to make a little money in Muay Thai and was hoping for an opportunity with Glory Kickboxing, where the purses would only grow. Gane barely knew anything about the UFC at the time. Yet he decided to put his full trust in Lopez. He did take four more Muay Thai bouts, but focused all of his training on mixed martial arts.
“I believe in myself,” Gane said. “I know I’m an athlete. … When he told me this plan — two years and in the UFC — I said, ‘Why not?'”
MMA presented a challenging learning curve. Gane’s first time grappling in training was with Nassourdine Imavov, a wrestler from Dagestan who had moved with his family to France as a child. Imavov, now a ranked UFC middleweight, gave him fits early on. Lopez would instruct Gane to execute techniques on the mat against Imavov, and Gane thought there was no way he could make it happen.
But Gane quickly put it all together. In late 2017 and early 2018, he became a sparring partner for Ngannou as Ngannou prepared to challenge Stipe Miocic for the UFC heavyweight title at UFC 220 in January 2018. They continued to spar, with their most significant sessions occurring in 2019.
“I helped him; he helped me also,” Gane said. “For me, it was a really great experience to spar with one of the best in the world at this time when I just started MMA.”
In August 2018, Canadian promotion TKO needed an opponent for its top heavyweight, Adam Dyczka, in a title fight. Lopez, who had sent several fighters to TKO previously, told promoter Stephane Patry, the former manager of Georges St-Pierre, that he had a fighter in mind: Gane.
Lopez said Patry was offended that the coach would suggest a fighter with a 0-0 record to go against Dyczka, who seemed bound for the UFC. Lopez laid out a bet: If Dyczka could last more than two rounds with Gane, Patry didn’t have to deal with Lopez ever again. Patry agreed.
“And he said, ‘I’m serious on that. I will stop dealing with you,'” Lopez said. “I said, ‘Yeah, let’s go.’ That was how high I was seeing what [Gane] could do.”
Dyczka ended up withdrawing from the bout. Gane submitted replacement Bobby Sullivan in the first round to win the TKO heavyweight title. Seven weeks later, when Dyczka was ready to fight, Gane stopped him via TKO with three seconds left in the second round to retain the title. Lopez’s read was spot on.
Gane retained his TKO title one more time, via first-round TKO of Roggers Souza in May 2019. Three months later, he was in the UFC.
He’s now 7-0 in the UFC, and at UFC 265 on Aug. 7, Gane finished Derrick Lewis via third-round TKO to become interim heavyweight champion.
The event took place in Houston, Lewis’ adopted hometown. When Gane made his entrance, he did so to the rap song “Still Tippin'” by Mike Jones, a Houston classic. The fans at Toyota Center apparently thought it was Lewis walking out to that song, but when they saw it was Gane, they showered him with boos. Gane just smiled, chuckled and bounced around.
“That’s a big quality,” Lopez said. “I was kind of nervous coming into that fight because of the hostility of the place we were going. He took that kind of hostility and could keep on performing.”
After a dominant performance against Lewis, Gane got the interim belt wrapped around his waist but acknowledged that Ngannou was the true champion. Gane couldn’t be considered No. 1 in the world, he insisted, without beating Ngannou. But Lopez was right: Gane was a UFC champion almost three years to the day from his MMA debut.
“I believed in myself,” Gane said. “I believed in the plan. And I believed in Fernand Lopez.”
LOPEZ SAID THE last time he spoke with Ngannou was about a year ago. It was after Ngannou did an interview in his home country of Cameroon. Lopez’s mother lives in Cameroon and watched the interview with two friends. After it was over, Lopez said, his mother called him and said she was hurt that Ngannou didn’t mention the MMA Factory or Lopez at all. When asked about his defeat to Miocic in 2018, Ngannou said he lost because he didn’t have any coaching.
Lopez said he called Ngannou and told him their relationship was over.
“I felt sad because I was there to help him,” Lopez said. “I was there to give him advice. But he wouldn’t listen. He didn’t want to listen. He felt like he knows everything now. Him saying that [in the interview] affected my mom.”
The relationship between Ngannou and Lopez had started to fracture much earlier, according to Lopez. He confronted Ngannou about overdue gym dues and payment of the coaching and management percentage of his fight purses going back to 2015, Lopez said, and tension grew from there. Ngannou, who departed the MMA Factory in 2019 to train full time with Xtreme Couture in Las Vegas, declined to comment for this story on his relationship with Lopez.
However, in an interview with the UFC’s Megan Olivi, Ngannou said that he was going through personal issues after a loss to Lewis in 2018 and sought out a psychiatrist. In those sessions, Ngannou said, his doctor pointed out his relationship with Lopez as a potential issue affecting his mental health.
“If you look at the psychiatry notes, it’s funny because even three years ago she pointed out Fernand as a problem to watch out [for],” Ngannou told Olivi. “I thought she was crazy. She started to break it down and put it in the notes. Now, I think she was all right.”
Ngannou told ESPN’s Tim Keown last month that Lopez took much credit for his success. It wasn’t Lopez who discovered him and steered him toward MMA from boxing training, he said. It was another coach — Didier Carmont.
“People just assume that everything is Fernand, and Fernand is keeping that story: ‘I did this, I did that,'” Ngannou said. “I’m like, ‘Bro, the guy who really did it? Nobody even knows him.'”
Lopez says he just wants to be acknowledged by his former fighter. “I’m proud to say that because of Francis, I become a well-known coach,” he said. “Because of Francis Ngannou, because of him becoming famous, it [gives] me that power. I’m proud to say that. Why don’t he say that? Why don’t he recognize that? The narration of saying, ‘No one believed in me’ is a lie.”
The negative dynamic between Ngannou and Lopez affected Gane at first. He didn’t like the idea that he was considered part of Lopez’s “revenge” on Ngannou. But that’s something Gane has gotten over, and Lopez said he has tried his best to shield Gane from the drama.
“When I started, I was a little bit uncomfortable with that,” Gane said. “That’s true. … This was not easy for me then. But today, I’m comfortable here. This is not my deal. This is my career.”
LOPEZ UNLOCKS HIS cellphone and opens WhatsApp. He clicks on his conversation with Gane, and it’s seemingly endless. Messages, links, documents. Correspondences at all hours of the night. Lopez scrolls and scrolls until he finds what he’s looking for: a file that reads “game plan” and “UFC 270, Francis Ngannou vs. Ciryl Gane.”
This is one of the finished products of Lopez’s process, though he never feels like things are finished. Once one of his fighters has a fight booked, the coach gets to work. He watches every past fight of his fighter, then does the same thing for his fighter’s opponent. Then he goes back and watches them all again. He takes detailed notes as he goes, and once he has pored over everything, he compiles his notes into a PDF document, which he sends via email to his fighter and the other coaches involved in that training camp. No one else is allowed to see it.
“I’m going back on my guys’ tapes,” Lopez said. “So I have been watching Ciryl Gane tapes over and over and over again. I need to make sure I’m not leaving any stone unturned. I don’t want to miss something.”
Last June, Gane was preparing for a fight with 6-foot-7 Russian kickboxer Alexander Volkov. Lopez gleaned from film study that there was good news and bad news for Gane, and he wrote that in the PDF. The bad news was that Gane was going to get hit often by the enormous Volkov, likely to the body. The good news? “If you accept that,” Lopez wrote, “then you will win the fight for sure.”
Gane did indeed take damage. Volkov landed 115 total strikes, the most by an opponent in Gane’s UFC career. But Gane landed even more to earn a unanimous decision, winning all five rounds on two scorecards. So Lopez was correct on both counts.
“He made a big boat, and he’s the captain,” Gane said of Lopez. “And you need to manage everything in the boat — the fighter, the doctors, the management, everything. Everything. I don’t know how he can do that.”
Lopez’s obsession with preparing his fighters with the perfect game plan each time out has led to a grueling routine. Lopez is at the gym all day, then studies film, answers correspondences and makes PDFs until 4 or 5 a.m. He’ll then sleep for a short time before waking up, making breakfast and taking his daughters, ages 9 and 6, to school by 8 a.m. After driving his kids, Lopez heads back to the gym.
“Some people like to smoke or drink,” Lopez said. “I never drink. I don’t try to smoke or anything. I guess my job is just it. I’m f—ing in love with what I’m doing. That’s my addiction.”
Gane said one of Lopez’s best traits as a coach is how much he cares, how he’s a friend first. But Gane said Lopez’s sleeplessness has led to health problems, and the coach had an issue with his heart recently. Lopez didn’t want to talk about that.
“He’s crazy. He loves [this], but he works too much. He must calm down a little bit,” Gane said.
The amount of time Lopez spends crafting customized game plans for each of his fighters has paid off thus far. Gane said Lopez is a great coach because he’s able to modify what he does based upon the athlete. He doesn’t treat two fighters the same way.
“He’s gonna adapt if you need to get pushed a lot,” Gane said. “Me, I don’t need that. You don’t need to scream after me.”
Imavov added that Lopez’s true gift is his vision. He saw incredible potential in both Ngannou and Gane. And though they’re very different people — Ngannou is quiet and reserved; Gane is jovial and fun-loving — he took them both to the top of the UFC.
“He can see in the future,” Imavov said. “He can see someone — an athlete or someone who is not an athlete for the moment — and he can see in the future what he can do.”
Lopez, though, doesn’t feel like he’s any kind of genius. Ngannou and Gane both showed up to his gym without him having any idea who they were.
“I didn’t do anything special,” Lopez said. “I feel like I’m just a lucky person to have the two guys at my gym. My part of the job that I did was to keep them in the gym. Keep Francis in my gym almost five years. Keep Ciryl in my gym four years. You have to give them something for them to stay there.”
Gane scoffs at the notion it was luck.
“Maybe not the best coach in the world, but one of the best for sure, man,” Gane said. “This is not lucky work. He did a lot. And he did it twice — with me and with Francis Ngannou. It’s not by chance. He proved it.”
The hard feelings between Lopez and Ngannou have been difficult to ignore during the lead-up to UFC 270.
Back in November, Gane, Lopez and Imavov were in an interview position backstage following Imavov’s win at UFC 268 in New York. UFC cameras caught Ngannou passing by them in a Madison Square Garden hallway without acknowledging their presence. Gane was a bit perplexed at that, especially because Imavov is Ngannou’s former training partner.
“For me, he did wrong,” Gane said. “If you asked to my daughter, is this right or is this wrong? It’s wrong. You don’t say hello? You must say hello. Your former partner, me, Nassourdine Imavov. Nassourdine Imavov did a lot for Francis.”
Regardless of that interaction, Gane said he feels no extra emotional motivation from Ngannou being the opponent across the Octagon from him. He believes he’ll be loose and cool, like always. Lopez admits he cannot say the same.
“There will be mixed feelings on Jan. 22, for sure,” Lopez said. “Because you have a guy you love — I do love Ciryl, definitely. He’s a good kid and he deserves it. He will be there fighting against Francis, a guy that I spent five years with, traveling together in the same flight, sleeping in the same bed sometimes in some organizations. We spent a lot of time together. So yeah, I will be emotional.”
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