Every year, the wonderfully unpredictable sport of mixed martial arts delivers a handful of fighters who break through to new competitive heights and stardom. Sometimes they arrive like a bolt from the blue: Conor McGregor and Israel Adesanya entered 2014 and 2018, respectively, as promising prospects and by the end of the year were headliners, title contenders and among the most talked-about fighters in the sport. In other cases, a fighter we once wrote off — or had at least come to regard as a known quantity — shows us the error of our ways. Look no further than Jorge Masvidal, who seemed to have settled into the role of an action fighter and hardcore fan favorite with a penchant for dropping split decisions at the worst possible times, only to author one of the most remarkable mid-career reinventions in MMA history, emerging as the signature star of 2019.
What all three of those men, as well as other former winners such as Anthony Pettis in 2010 or Michael Chandler in 2011, had in common is the element of surprise. It’s almost implied in the name of the award — a fighter breaks through, either from obscurity into the spotlight, or to shatter our previous expectations. By that standard, Ciryl Gane might seem like an unlikely candidate for this award. After all, just weeks before 2021 dawned, the chiseled Frenchman had smashed former heavyweight champ Junior dos Santos in the second round of their meeting at UFC 256 to go 4-0 in the Ultimate Fighting Championship and 7-0 overall. “Bon Gamin” was just 30 years old, endowed with outlandish athleticism for a man of his size, and most impressively of all, he displayed an in-cage poise and intelligence that belied the fact that he had only been fighting in MMA professionally for two and a half years.
Entering the new year, anyone possessing a functioning pair of eyes and a passing familiarity with mixed martial arts could tell that Gane had all the hallmarks of a future champ and potential star, so whatever he did in 2021, there would be no “he came out of nowhere” narrative of the kind Adesanya or McGregor garnered. A better comparison for Gane might be Sherdog’s 2012 “Breakthrough Fighter of the Year,” Ronda Rousey. Most of us agreed that we were watching a fighter with special upside; any surprise would have to come from just how quickly it happened and how effortless they made it look along the way.
Gane entered the new year looking to make up for lost time; due to a series of injuries, the dos Santos fight had been his only fight of 2020. On Feb. 27, he faced fellow kickboxing convert Jairzinho Rozenstruik at UFC Fight Night 186. In his first main event in the UFC and the first 25-minute fight of his career, Gane dominated, sweeping all five rounds on all three judges’ scorecards. Along the way, he demonstrated superiority in every phase of MMA, confounding “Bigi Boy” with footwork and feints, reducing him to increasingly desperate single power shots. It may not have been the kind of sloppy slugfest we’ve come to expect from heavyweights even at the highest levels of the sport, but it was indicative of Gane’s approach: If he was winning a fight, the onus would be on his opponent to make any adjustments. Otherwise, Gane was perfectly content to take his “W” and go home healthy.
Having now firmly established himself as a Top 10 heavyweight, Gane’s next assignment, at UFC Fight Night 190 in June, would put his preternaturally mature mindset to the test. Perennial contender Alexander Volkov was a former Bellator MMA and M-1 Global champion and a veteran of over 40 fights, making his matchup with the then 8-0 Gane one of the most glaring mismatches ever in experience between two ranked heavyweights. At 6-foot-7, 265-plus pounds and with his well-rounded skill set, Volkov was and is one of the toughest outs in the division and a notoriously hard fighter to look good against.
In his second straight headliner and second straight 25-minute fight, Gane once again passed the test with relative ease. While the individual rounds were much closer and harder to score than in the Rozenstruik fight, Gane picked up another unanimous decision (50-45, 50-45, 49-46). Once again, he refused to tinker with what was working, making adjustments only if and when Volkov’s tactics required him to do so. For the second straight fight, another phenomenon could be observed as well: Gane’s calm, his refusal to chase or be caught out of position, his surprise takedown attempts, the threat of his power, or most likely some combination of all those factors, rendered Volkov uncharacteristically inert, just as Rozenstruik had been. It looked less like intimidation than hypnosis; rather than flinch or flee, two Top 10 heavyweights in a row simply failed to pull the trigger, and Gane emerged virtually unscathed from 50 minutes of cage time with two men who boasted a collective finishing rate of over 80%.
Having gone 6-0 to open his Octagon career and with more than half the year left in which to work, Gane found himself on the doorstep of a title shot. When heavyweight champ Francis Ngannou was unable to defend quickly enough for the UFC’s liking, Gane found himself whisked past the doorstep and into the building. That building, specifically, was the Toyota Center in Houston, Texas, where he would face Derrick Lewis for the interim title at UFC 265 on Aug. 7. The circumstances, to put it mildly, were not stacked in Gane’s favor. He would be fighting on six weeks’ turnaround and even less notice, against a foe who had been training for months with Aug. 7 circled on his calendar. He would have to compete in the most hostile environment imaginable; while Lewis is a popular fighter anywhere, in Houston he’s a genuine folk hero.
None of those factors made a bit of difference, and if anything, Gane rose to the occasion, both outside the cage and in it. During fight week, he gave flashes of his affable charisma, aided by his willing, ever-improving English. On fight night, he walked out to Mike Jones’ “Still Tippin,” a Houston hip-hop anthem every bit as synonymous with his foe’s own hometown — if not more so — than Lewis’ customary “Tops Drop.” Whether it was mockery or a shameless ploy to curry favor with the local crowd, it was a cheeky choice and at the very least, it drowned out the boos for two or three minutes.
About those boos: I was in Toyota Center that night, covering UFC 265 as part of the credentialed media. I’ve been to scores of live MMA events, and the crowd during the walkouts and introductions for that main event was the loudest I’ve ever heard. I’ve been to the Toyota Center for several concerts and at least a dozen Houston Rockets games, including packed playoff tilts, and it’s the loudest I’ve ever heard that building. You could not hear a damn thing. Through it all, Gane kept the same calm demeanor and slight, knowing smile.
It was the smile of a man who knew the arena was about to get very, very quiet. For the third time in 2021, Gane completely dominated a top fighter. The difference between Lewis and Rozenstruik or Volkov is that Lewis was not going to fall for the snake-charmer act. Say what you will about “The Black Beast,” but he’s only had one boring fight in years. Lewis came out, as he always does, patient but pressing, waiting for the opportunity to pounce and look for the finish. Gane responded by ratcheting up his own aggression, and put on an absolute clinic. The man who now holds the UFC record for most knockouts landed almost no hard shots on Gane, and when Gane returned fire, he found the mark with devastating effect.
After two-plus rounds of increasingly one-way traffic, Gane found the finish late in the third with a final flurry of thudding hammerfists. A little later, he departed a dead-silent Toyota Center with a shiny interim belt over his shoulder and a presumptive unification bout with his former teammate Ngannou. It was the crowning achievement of a year that saw one of the UFC’s most dazzling up-and-comers exceed even the lofty expectations he had already instilled in us, and it cemented him as Sherdog’s 2021 “Breakthrough Fighter of the Year.”