What were the biggest moments at UFC Paris? Jeff Wagenheim, Brett Okamoto and Marc Raimondi offer their takeaways from a flagship event in France.
During the first eight minutes of the UFC main event on Saturday in Paris, you could have set up the Arc de Triomphe in the space between Ciryl Gane and Tai Tuivasa. That’s how Gane wanted it. For a round and a half he showed why he is considered the most technical heavyweight forward on the planet. As the Frenchman controlled the distance while landing clean punches to the face and kicks to the body, Tuivasa kept pushing forward and throwing huge punches but couldn’t touch Gane.
Then Tuivasa found it with a winged right hand midway through round two, and Gane fell backwards to the canvas, stiffened.
“Honestly, Tai hit me so hard he knocked me out. He turned off the lights,” Gane said through an interpreter. “I fell, but I had to be a warrior. I got up…and came back even stronger.”
Which he did, as Gane immediately attacked, closing in and throwing everything he had. Now Tuivasa was the one in retreat, as the body shots were obviously taking their toll. The round ended with Gane on offense and the crowd at the Accor Arena roaring. The fight was on.
It wouldn’t last another round, though. Gane spent Round 3 mercilessly attacking Tuivasa’s tender midsection, and while the Aussie fighter remained dangerous, Gane was no longer fighting from range. In the final minute of the round, he landed a crushing right uppercut that put his opponent on wobbly legs, then floored him with a succession of lefts before referee Marc Goddard stepped in to finish him off at 4: 23.
It was a hugely successful Paris debut for the UFC, in part because two of its top heavyweights put on a stirring performance in which both had their moments – although the one fighting in his hometown had far more great times than the other.
Beyond that, Gane and Tuivasa showed the spirit of martial arts at its best. There was no bad blood. They were smiling at each other the whole time, which never stopped them from trying to knock each other out. It was a treat for the fans, who sang along throughout the opening round and enjoyed what they were witnessing.
And what was it? Parisian fans were watching the 32-year-old compatriot forcefully get back on track after his only career loss, a five-round decision to UFC heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou in January. The win puts Gane back in the title picture, although it’s a cluttered picture with Jon Jones having the inside route to the champion. The Frenchman’s day will come (again), however, and after watching this sublime performance, I can’t wait for it to be.
And if Ngannou, who was training in Paris, is still in possession of the belt when Gane’s next championship opportunity comes around, hopefully they hold the title fight in the City of Light. –Wagenheim
‘They have to come back’: Paris warns UFC with epic performance
PARIS – Benoit Saint Denis had to pull himself together. He was the first French-born fighter to step out on the UFC’s premier card in his home country and entered the Accor Arena to be welcomed as a hero.
By the time Saint-Denis competed, the building was full and it was only the third fight of the evening. Fans were on their feet chanting his name and treating him as one of the sport’s greatest superstars.
In the first round, as Saint-Denis hit leather with his opponent Gabriel Miranda, a rumble rose from the stands that bordered on fear. It didn’t end up being ominous – it was just the collective sound of over 15,405 fans stomping and clapping in support of their hometown UFC star.
“It felt a bit like a video game, the first minute of the fight,” Saint-Denis said. “It’s huge. The atmosphere. It’s hard for your brain to accept all these guys cheering you on. You have to focus on the [opponent], because obviously you have a job to do. That is what matters.”
Saint-Denis said when Miranda beat him in the first round, he snapped out of his daze. Just 16 seconds into the second round, Saint-Denis dropped Miranda and finished it off with a flurry to the ground – as the fans here went wild with joy. It felt like Saint-Denis was Conor McGregor, Muhammad Ali and Rocky Balboa all rolled into one, rather than a 26-year-old prospect in his third UFC fight.
Fares Ziam, William Gomis, Nassourdine Imavov and Ciryl Gane also received the royal treatment. Ziam said the “energy” of the crowd drove him out of an armbar and poor position when Michal Figlak picked him up. The crowd roared as Gomis escaped a deep triangle from Jarno Errens in the third round and won a decision.
And then there was Gane. The crowd roared as he walked out and the loudest of the whole night (until then) was the opening round, cheering Gane’s name and singing the French national anthem in unison. When Gane knocked out Tuivasa in the third round, it sent the fans into an incredible frenzy. There was cheering, dancing, singing and jumping, and some fans looked like they were on the verge of tears. The atmosphere was unmatched in MMA except for a few unreal cards in Ireland and England over the years. Maybe.
A historic night in France 🇫🇷 #UFCParis
— ESPN MMA (@espnmma) September 3, 2022
“No one on the planet expected this from the fans in France,” Gane said in his post-fight interview. “But brother, look at this. I’m so happy.”
The stands were about 75% full for the first fight and charged with energy, a stark contrast to UFC Las Vegas shows which only begin to fill up at the start of the main card. And the only reason the crowd wasn’t entirely in their place for the first fight in UFC France history was that many were still waiting in long lines outside.
The UFC has installed a mobile UFC store on the side of the Accor Arena, next to a huge “UFC” sign and steps painted with the likenesses of Gane, Francis Ngannou, Georges St-Pierre and the candidate flyweight Frenchwoman Manon Fiorot.
Bernie Tamayo, born and raised in Paris, was near those oversized UFC letters before the event, snapping photos and meeting friends. Tamayo, wearing a Valentina Shevchenko fight kit (his favorite fighter) and a Nate Diaz hoodie, said he has been a UFC fan for ten years. Still, he wasn’t sure the promotion would ever hold an event in his hometown since the sport was illegal in France until 2020.
“I said, ‘I have to be here – no matter what, no matter the cost,'” Tamayo said when he found out about UFC Paris. “It’s so important. For us, that’s it.
“We have to show Dana White that Paris is the place in Europe for UFC shows.”
Just a 10-minute walk from the Accor Arena through the Bercy district, you pass the Nihon Judo dojo and the Team Zeitoun Thai boxing gym. France has long been a mecca for judo, karate and Muay Thai. And now it looks set to be a new MMA hotspot, especially after Saturday night.
“I see no other option for [the UFC]”, said Saint-Denis. “They have to come back and come back and come back. Like they do in London.” –Raimondi
Robert Whittaker is one of the best fighters on the planet
You know what? I love my colleagues at ESPN, and I think we do a great job on this sport at ESPN. But I have to take them to task for a minute. You have to show respect for Robert Whittaker. In ESPN’s current pound-for-pound rankings, only two of six voters have Whittaker in the Top 10. Going into this fight, I had him at No. 7, the highest-ranked non-champion on my roster.
I think some people sleep on how special a Whittaker fighter is. This former champion is 12-2 since moving up to middleweight, and his only two losses have come against generational talent in Israel Adesanya. And when they fought last, two judges gave Whittaker two of five rounds against Adesanya. What he does is great. It’s not as impressive as what Adesanya did, but it deserves to be recognized and valued for what it is.
I love that in his post-fight speech on Saturday he argued that he was still aiming for that No. 1 spot and would still be “hidden” at 185. There were a few headlines earlier this week on a possible move up to light heavyweight, but hopefully that doesn’t happen. Whittaker is world class as a middleweight – and belt or no belt, I appreciate the level of greatness at which he performs. –Okamoto