Eric Nicksick was just as shocked as everyone else when he was made aware that the next title fight in the UFC’s heavyweight division would not involve his pupil Francis Ngannou.
On Monday, MMA Fighting confirmed an initial report from ESPN that Derrick Lewis and Ciryl Gane will compete for an interim title in the main event of UFC 265. The card takes place in Lewis’ hometown of Houston at the Toyota Center on Aug. 7.
Nicksick and Ngannou were already getting their preparations in place to face Lewis later on this year and the Xtreme Couture coach gave his reaction to the news.
“Pretty much the same [as everybody else’s],” Nicksick told MMA Fighting. “Francis and I had gotten done training in the morning — we train at 10 a.m. — he went upstairs to shower at the gym, came down to the office and said he got an email from the UFC about some of the contract negotiation stuff, and then I helped him load up his car, we did a few errands and stuff. Then I got a text and that was the first I had heard of it, and he was like, ‘What, they’re doing an interim?’ So it kind of came as a shock to all of us but at the end of the day, it’s business. It’s the UFC’s business and we’re just kind of here for the ride I guess.”
After Ngannou captured the heavyweight title with a second-round knockout of Stipe Miocic at UFC 260, it seemed like the path to a highly anticipated bout with Jon Jones was shining brightly for everyone to see. Unfortunately, terms could not be met for Jones to take that fight, so the UFC and Dana White began to pivot towards a rematch between Ngannou and Lewis.
The undisputed champion would not be available for the Aug. 7 date and, according to Nicksick — and also with the reported move of the light heavyweight title fight between Jan Blachowicz and Glover Teixeira to October — the plan was to have Ngannou and Lewis compete in a title fight in September.
“I can give you my timeline: I was told a week and half ago by (Ngannou’s manager) Marquel [Martin] that the date was gonna be Sept. 25 and was I good with that date. I said, ‘Yeah, it gives us plenty of time. By the time Francis gets back home [from Cameroon], we can start a good camp,’” Nicksick explained. “Then I got another message from Marquel last Wednesday that said the 25th looks like the day, we’re locked in. I said, ‘Great,’ and then I got on communication with Francis about when he’s getting back home and we literally started training Saturday. I flew back from the PFL early morning and I was in the gym with Francis at 10:30 a.m.
“We started training, he came to the house on Sunday, we had dinner with the family, and Francis and I went out back and started talking about game plan, about what approach we wanted to take and doing the Xs and Os as far as camp goes. That was Sunday night and then Monday morning, we started training at 10 a.m. and that’s where you saw the pictures of Brandon Moreno, Francis and all the boys in the room. That was literally when we got done training and got the word.”
Putting together an interim title fight three months after the current champion, one who has always publicly stated he wanted to be as active as possible, put a sour taste in people’s mouths. Ngannou, like the rest of the MMA community, was left scratching his head considering the plans that had seemingly been put in place.
“Honestly, I haven’t talked to him at length about the situation,” Nicksick said. “We talked lengthy Sunday about the situation and it had nothing to do with money, it had to do with terms and then we kind of elaborated on some of those things. I told him, ‘Look, my job isn’t to be in the negotiations, my job is to make sure you prepare for whoever comes across the table.’ Now you got to think, too, for us, we were told it was gonna be the winner of Stipe and Francis’ fight was gonna fight Jon Jones, and now I think Jon Jones is on our radar. Those negotiations had come to a standstill and, I get it, the promotion’s got to move on to what they see is best.
“The next guy in line was Derrick Lewis — deservingly so — and that’s who we planned on fighting. And I don’t think September is that big of a deal. Basically, we were one month off. So it’s kind of a whirlwind, and to be honest with you, I really have no problem with Gane and Lewis fighting Aug. 7. It is what it is. I think the stipulations of putting an interim on that knowing we’re ready to fight a month later, we’re prepared to fight, I think that’s where the confusion lies with us.”
With a glass-half-full line of thinking, Nicksick is approaching the situation in his mind like not all is lost. There could still be some pieces to the proverbial puzzle that haven’t been revealed, including a massive question on his and a lot of people’s minds: is it possible that the UFC and Jon Jones got in a room and came to terms?
“I got to look at this from both perspectives and I’ve got to come out of this with a positive aspect because, for me being the head coach, if I’m down and out, if I’m adding fuel to this fire, it’s not helping the situation by any means,” Nicksick stated. “My goal and my position as a coach is to be ready for whatever comes, for whatever they ask for, and whatever time that is.
“So, ultimately, if that means we fight Jon Jones in November or December, I think there’s some silver lining behind this, and then this whole heavyweight division shakes out like it’s supposed to. Lewis and Gane is rightfully a good matchup, obviously it kind of leaves Stipe out in the open — I don’t know what they’re gonna do with him and he’s very much deserved in this title picture as well. But if that means we fight Jon Jones, and maybe that’s a November card in Madison Square Garden or something like that, or even bigger, then I think it’s all gonna work out in the end.”
While an interim title fight is now officially on the books for Aug. 7 in Houston, there isn’t a lot of clarity as to where this officially leaves Ngannou. “The Predator” is in the middle of a historic run in this division with five straight finishes, four in the first round against former champions Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos, and perennial contenders Curtis Blaydes and Jairzinho Rozenstruik.
Nicksick and Ngannou prepared meticulously for the fight with Miocic and would offer the same approach to whoever is next to stand across from the champion. Despite having high admiration and respect for both Lewis and Gane, Nicksick knows who the real heavyweight champion will be after Aug. 7.
“I think we all know, and the fans know where this title runs through and it runs through my man from Cameroon,” Nicksick said. “In my mind it’s like, we weren’t fighting in August anyway, this is just a fight that’s happening in August. All we understand now is we’re probably not fighting in September, so where does this push us, how far out, and who, when and what do we need to prepare for?
“I’m just trying to keep an even head on this whole thing. I understand that the UFC has a business to run; they needed a main event, they needed to fill that spot for Houston. And who better than Derrick Lewis who is going to sell that place out? God bless him. I love him to death and everything he does and represents. This is going to be a great main event. I just think the interim title label being put on it, I think it adds a little bit of shade to it. But, again, it’s not my promotion. They have to do what they have to do, I understand that. I just wish there wasn’t a double standard when it came to other guys and other labels for this interim [title talk], especially when the guy is essentially active.
“We couldn’t fight in June because he was back home and he had some family commitments that a lot of us know and a lot of people don’t understand what he was there for, but it was more for the family element. And then he wasn’t able to get back into the country because he had to redo his visa. So there’s a lot of things for him to not be able to even take these fights just because of formalities. It wasn’t like he was ducking the guy, he wants to stay active. But when it comes to the contract and those negotiations, I have to stay in my lane. It has nothing to do with me and I just have to prepare for whatever opponent they tell us we’ve got to fight.”