If there are two things that are consistently misunderstood about mixed martial arts, it’s the time it takes and the time it gives. As such, a young prospect on the rise often faces two competing narratives that can be entirely misleading.
The first of those is one seemingly built by fans more than anyone else in the MMA sphere, and looks something like the question, “But when are they going to be truly tested?” A top athlete with an instinct for finishing is almost always going to find a host of voices wondering why they aren’t fighting the biggest and best fights available as fast as they can. After all, any bout a young fighter wins easily must not have been a truly meaningful experience.
The second of those narratives is one of hope. That the neophyte on the brink of fame today is tomorrow’s superstar. And in ten more years, who knows? Maybe the best mixed martial artist the sport has ever seen. It’s the shared dream of everyone in the sporting world, that those willing to devote themselves to the life of a professional athlete will find a long-term payoff. No one wants to believe that an 18-year-old ‘future hall of famer’ won’t be fighting by the time they’re 30.
That said, while coaches, managers and even promoters may be happy to see fighters take a slower, more careful path up the ranks, it’s hard for a relatively inexperienced talent brimming with confidence and self-belief not to get caught up in that first narrative. Why not fight the best? Why not prove themselves now, and silence any doubts?
Athletes who believe themselves to be among the best in the world are invariably going to believe they can also pass just about any physical test put in front of them.
The truth is, however, that for most the path to becoming an elite talent is long. Fighters like Jose Aldo, Anderson Silva, Conor McGregor, Khabib Nurmagomedov, and many, many more put in years and years of work – both regionally and in the UFC – honing their craft before they got the chance to compete for gold. ‘The Spider’ may have won the title in just his second Octagon bout, but that was eight years after his MMA debut.
Few fighters can truly fast track the process, although many try. For every Jon Jones or Chris Weidman out there, there’s 10 fighters that wanted to fly up the rankings and flamed out hard somewhere along the way. Some turned their losses into lessons and found themselves top contenders once again, later than they’d planned. Others became punchlines and cautionary tales.
Fighters who break the curve are rare. But it’s their success that re-writes the script in the minds of the audience. If Jon Jones can do it, why not this guy? If Ronda Rousey can do it, why not her?
Even among those fighters who find huge success relatively early in their MMA journey, there are cautionary tales to be told. Running to a UFC title essentially guarantees that every fight for the rest of an athletes career will be against the toughest, most damaging, unquestionably brutal opponents that can be found. The fact that Jon Jones spent a decade riding that wave to victory after victory is amazing, considering the cost that fighters like Cody Garbrandt and Shogun Rua have paid.
At heavyweight (where it has to be openly admitted that the path to contender status has often been shorter and simpler; fighters all the way from Ricco Rodriguez up to Brock Lesnar have made astoundingly quick runs to a UFC belt) the aftermath of that success is no less fraught. Cain Velasquez seemed like a surefire killer for years and years to come, but fought just eight times in eight years after first winning UFC gold.
Long story short, it’s the rare fighter that sprints up the mountain and stays king for long.
Which brings me back around to Ciryl Gane, whose title fight with Derrick Lewis was announced in the middle of my penning this editorial. He’ll be fighting for the strap on August 7th in Houston, TX. Almost 3 years to the day since he took his first pro MMA bout against Bobby Sullivan at TKO Fight Night 1 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.
In that time, Gane has unmistakably solidified his place as an elite talent—behind a persistent jab, heavy kicking game, and constant footwork that few other men north of 205 lbs are able to match. His victories over Volkov and Rosenstruik weren’t just instantaneous displays of athletic ability or singular skills. They showed him fully capable of fighting a smart, high level bout for round after round after round against highly capable, dangerous competition.
It’s safe to say he’s knocking on the door of some rarefied air. The latest talent to break the mold, to burst on the scene and do in an instant what it takes most people years and years and years to achieve.
Against Derrick Lewis, his particular skill set may very well be exactly the ticket to claiming his first piece of UFC hardware. After all, the ‘Black Beast’ has had real trouble in the past with strikers that can keep him on the end of a jab. But, does that mean ‘Bon Gamin’ is here to stay? It’s a question that can really only be answered after the fact.
There are few promises from here beyond the reality that every bout Gane takes going forward is likely going to be against the very best competition the UFC has to offer. He’s set himself up to be an overnight success, hopefully that also positions him for a long and healthy career at the top. Because history is quick to remind us that whether glory is gained through brutal struggle or swift victories, there’s no guarantee that anything will last long in the fight game.