When reigning UFC heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou stepped into the Octagon for his first defense earlier this year, he was clearly less than 100 percent.
The ‘Predator’ suffered a knee injury in the lead-up to his fight against then-interim UFC heavyweight champion Ciryl Gane at UFC 270 this past January. Plagued by a Grade 3 MCL tear, a damaged ACL and a torn MPFL, Ngannou was given two options: pull out or fight. He chose the latter, but the choice was potentially career-ending.
Speaking to Luke Thomas and Brian Campbell of Morning Kombat, Ngannou’s head coach—Eric Nicksick—detailed their decision.
“Myself, [striking coach] Dewey Cooper and [manager] Marquel Martin, everyone of us felt like he should pull out of the fight,” said Nicksick. “We’re literally walking around with an NFL lineman knee brace for four weeks.
“The Friday before we leave for fight week, we all sit down and have a meeting,” he continued. “This is at the [UFC] PI, this is our last sparring session. I get a call from Marquel—our manager—and he basically puts it on my lap to say, ‘I think we got to pull out of this fight. He’s in LA, can you be the one to kind of serve this message?’ And I’m freaking in tears because here we are. We put this whole camp together, we’re ready to go, we’re a week away [and] we don’t understand if we’re going to fight or not. Dr. [Neal] ElAttrache basically calls and says, ‘He can have irreversible knee damage if he decides to take this fight.’ We get back to the PI, we have this little meeting and sit down. I look over at Francis—I damn near start crying—and I was like, ‘Bro, we got to pull out of this fight. They’re telling me you might not even be to fight again.’”
Immediately after their meeting, Ngannou and his team had one final sparring session. According to Nicksick, it was one of their best. But there was some uncertainty over whether Ngannou would fight, especially since he still needed to hear from the aforementioned Dr. ElAttrache.
Though implored by the orthopedic surgeon to pull out of the his upcoming bout, Ngannou opted against doing so. He went on to defeat Gane by unanimous decision, in what may be one of the best examples of sheer grit and determination.
“He was in so much pain in the first two rounds,” said Nicksick. “He didn’t say anything to me on the stool, but I could tell by his face and his body language that he was concerned. And he said that. He was like, ‘Man, I could not move. I could not plant my foot. I couldn’t get any lateral movement. I couldn’t track him down. I couldn’t this, I couldn’t that.’ But Francis has a f—k it switch and I’ve seen him pull it. I’ve seen him hit it, where he’s like, ‘You know what? F—k it. I don’t give a s—t about my knee anymore. I don’t give a s—t about what the UFC says. I don’t care about anything. I’m gonna go win this f—king fight.’ And that’s just kind of his mentality.”
Ngannou has since undergone successful knee surgery. A return to competition is not set, as the 36-year-old has yet to sign a new contract with the UFC.