ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Francis Ngannou is perhaps the most frightening power-puncher in UFC history. But he reminded everyone Saturday night that he is not only that. Ngannou showed off a well-rounded game -- and immeasurable heart -- befitting the champion he is.
Down on the cards early and dealing with a knee injury, the hardest-hitting man maybe ever in MMA went to his wrestling and Brazilian jiu-jitsu to gut out a unanimous decision (48-47, 48-47, 49-46) win over Ciryl Gane in the main event of UFC 270 at Honda Center.
With the victory, Ngannou unifies the UFC undisputed heavyweight title. Gane came in as the interim champ.
"My ground game is evolving," Ngannou said in his postfight interview.
The fight had a rich back story, outside of the high stakes. Ngannou and Gane were sparring partners at MMA Factory until Ngannou had a public falling-out with their coach, Fernand Lopez. The two overlapped on and off at the Paris gym from 2017 to 2019, when Ngannou moved his training permanently to Las Vegas. Lopez was in Gane's corner Saturday night.
Ngannou and Lopez have feuded over money and recognition. Ngannou believes Lopez has taken too much credit for his success, while Lopez thinks Ngannou has stopped acknowledging MMA Factory as a key cog in his development. Ngannou and Gane embraced after the fight, but Ngannou and Lopez did not interact.
"They're trying to use him," Ngannou said of Gane and MMA Factory. "He's a good guy and I have nothing against him."
ESPN has Ngannou tied for No. 4 on its pound-for-pound top MMA fighters list. At heavyweight, ESPN has Ngannou at No. 1 and Gane at No. 2. Ngannou won Saturday's fight as a +125 underdog, according to Caesars Sportsbook.
Afterward, Ngannou said he tore his right MCL and damaged his ACL ahead of Saturday's bout, but could not see himself withdrawing because he wanted to "remind people I'm the champ." Ngannou said in the postfight news conference that he saw a doctor Tuesday and the physician advised him not to fight, saying there could be permanent damage if he got kicked there.
Ngannou decided to compete anyway, though he didn't feel steady on his feet.
"It's been an incredible journey," Ngannou said, adding that he'll likely need surgery. "It's been a very tough training camp. A very tough 10 months. A lot of s---."
That includes his contract situation and acrimonious relationship with the UFC. Dana White, the UFC president, did not put the belt on Ngannou on Saturday night, as is customary. In White's absence, UFC matchmaker Mick Maynard completed the ritual. White also did not come to the postfight news conference.
Ngannou has indicated that he plans on venturing into the boxing world at some point. He has said he does not plan on competing again under this current UFC deal.
"I don't feel like I'm a free man," Ngannou said. "I don't feel like I've been treated good. It's unfortunate I have to be in that position in order to say that."
Had Ngannou lost Saturday, he would have become a free agent. With the win, he is still under UFC contract due to a champion's clause. Ngannou has said he could sit out an entire year until that expires. He said at the postfight news conference that he didn't know where his future would lie.
"Boxing is always in the back of my pocket," Ngannou said in the Octagon after the fight. "It is something I must do before the end of my career. ... It's not like I have a lifetime here."
On Saturday, Gane kept Ngannou at bay with his excellent movement and speed in the first few rounds. Gane was active with kicks to the legs and spinning back kicks to the body and head. He didn't do a ton of damage but was very effective in staying away from Ngannou's power and scoring points.
Ngannou turned things around in the third round with a huge slam, of all things. Gane landed a beautiful spinning back elbow in the round. But Ngannou hit another takedown toward the end of the five minutes. Ngannou landed takedowns in the fourth round, as well, and had success in keeping the fast-footed Gane grounded.
In the fifth, Gane landed a takedown and Ngannou showed off his grappling acumen from the bottom to sweep back into top position. Gane went for a leg lock, but it didn't work. Ngannou ended up finishing the fight on top.
Ngannou went 1-for-3 on takedown attempts in his 13-fight UFC career leading into Saturday. At UFC 270, he landed 4-of-5 attempts, according to UFC Stats. Ngannou pointed out that he trains at Xtreme Couture, a gym founded by MMA and wrestling legend Randy Couture. Working on the ground game there is a requirement.
"It's an elite wrestling team," Ngannou said. "I have the opportunity to have great partners and great coaches there who are very good at wrestling."
Judges Ron McCarthy and Derek Cleary had Ngannou winning the final three rounds. Judge Sal D'Amato gave Ngannou those last three rounds, as well as the first.
Ngannou (17-3), 35, knocked out Stipe Miocic to win the UFC heavyweight title at UFC 260 last March. The Cameroon native has won six straight, with all but Saturday's win coming by KO/TKO.
Gane (10-1) won the interim heavyweight title by stopping Derrick Lewis via third-round TKO at UFC 265 back in August. The France native was 7-0 in the UFC coming in. Gane, 31, is a former Muay Thai star and TKO heavyweight champion in MMA.
"I'm disappointed," Gane said. "I'm a little bit sad. But it's a good experience. I think I've just arrived in this game. The future is ahead of me."