As the antagonist in Jon Jones’ long-awaited comeback, and with the added significance of a world title on the line, Ciryl Gane might just be feeling the strain.
Far from it, as it happens.
“Not too much pressure,” Gane tells The National a few days from this weekend’s headline heavyweight bout at UFC 285 in Las Vegas. “More pressure than normal because it’s a big fight … because all of this.”
“All of this” references the highly anticipated return of Jones, the former long-time light heavyweight champion who competes in his first UFC fight in more than three years.
The American, who holds myriad records within the promotion such as youngest champion (23 years, eight months) and most title-fight wins (14), is considered by many the greatest MMA athlete of all-time.
Jones, now 35, has been beaten once in a 28-fight professional career (one was a No Contest). Consequently, he boasts the longest unbeaten streak in UFC history, at 18 bouts.
For extra intrigue, at T-Mobile Arena on early Sunday morning UAE, Jones will debut at heavyweight, where he will battle for the belt vacated in January by free agent Francis Ngannou. Win, and Jones becomes only the eighth two-division champion in UFC history.
So the pressure should really be pinching – for both combatants.
“It’s going to be a new Jon Jones, a new division, but he’s still going to be really sharp, really fast, with a high level,” Gane says. “So we did a camp on Jon Jones like he was before, but with more prime. That’s it. We’re expecting this.
“And apart from that, I’ve no pressure because I’m still confident. I’m going to have a pressure, but the good stress you see when you’re to jump in the cage. Like every time."
In Gane's mind at least, Jones has more weighing on him.
“I started MMA five years ago; the pressure is maybe not on my shoulders. It’s maybe more on him, because he must prove [himself]," he says. "Because he knows the situation, that he’s going to be more uncomfortable.
“I’m about the fight; how can I beat my opponent? That’s it. So that’s why this doesn’t put me in more pressure. I’m really focused on the guy in front of me.”
Gane, who excelled initially in Muay Thai, may have started MMA in 2018, but he has packed in a lot already. It took him only three years to race to a 10-0 record, the last bout in that stretch securing the UFC’s interim heavyweight belt.
Gane suffered his sole pro defeat in the next outing, losing the undisputed clash against Ngannou by unanimous decision at UFC 270 in January last year. Rendered redundant for the majority, he was smothered by the imposing Cameroonian.
Yet Gane rebounded last September with a display of mettle and might at the top of the bill on the UFC’s first event in France, the dynamic heavyweight’s homeland. There, he defeated the surging Tai Tuivasa by third-round knockout.
On Sunday, Gane says, the experiences of UFC 270 and UFC Paris will serve him well.
“Of course,” he offers. “This is going to help me for sure. I’m young in my career, but I’m known as a veteran. People talk about me like I’m here from a long time.
“My first fight in the UFC was 2019, and there was one year break because of the [Covid-19 pandemic]. But we did a lot at the top already. This has handed me more experience, for sure. The fight in Paris, the fight with Francis, all my main events, are going to help me with this.”
Gane, 32, says the main feeling this week is pride, pride in having achieved so much in a short space of time. Pride in that it has led him to Jones and a second shot at undisputed UFC gold.
While Jones has not competed since his contentious decision victory against Dominick Reyes at UFC 247 in February 2020, Gane has fought six times between now and then.
How Jones performs following his lengthy lay-off – much of which was self-imposed, with personal issues and a pay dispute with UFC – provides one of the principal plotlines heading into UFC 285.
Will he be affected adversely by the break?
“I think he tried to do a lot of sparring to balance this,” Gane says. “We like to say in my gym that it’s very important to do sparring because sparring looks like a little fight.
“So even if you don’t fight for one or two years, or three, if you do some big sparring, this is an experience. So I don’t put this on my mind.
“But, yes, it’s not exactly the same as when you’re in the real competition, of course. It’s always better to be, not in a rush, but to have some activities. Maybe it is going to an advantage for me on this.”
Although, given Jones’ credentials, Gane is taking nothing for granted.
“We know he has a really good wrestling game,” he says. “I’ve got good striking. So I’m thinking he doesn’t want to spend a lot of time on his feet; he wants for sure to go to the ground game. So we did a lot during the camp about that.
“And after that we’ll see. I can’t say it’s going to be like that, or like that. We will see how he’s going to do … how I’m going to do also.”
Jones has been increasingly vocal in the build-up, primarily on social media. Last week, he suggested Gane was being overhyped for the fight, questioning the Frenchman's kickboxing and ground game, even the opponents he has faced thus far in the octagon.
Again, though, Gane doesn’t seem particularly perplexed.
“I don’t have a really good answer for him,” he says. “Just the people who look at my fights on the striking game know I have good striking game. I did well against some guys who really, really dangerous in striking, so I think I proved it.
“If he doesn’t want to say that, no problem.”
Gane finishes that sentence with a huge laugh, reinforcing that the pressure is not consuming him this week, after all. However, he is aware of what is at stake: it is not simply the heavyweight belt that serves as motivation, but the reputation of the man standing across the cage.
“This is a title,” Gane says. “This looks like a title. You have the belt, but you have also this title. Because a lot of people talk about this guy as a GOAT [Greatest Of All Time], all the stuff like that.
“So, this is going to put something really beautiful on my CV. For sure, it’s something big.”