A few weeks back rumblings could be heard that France was about to turn a corner on mixed martial arts. France passed into law a ban on MMA in late 2016 which stated that in all combat sports “Punches, kicks or strikes with the knees against a fighter on the ground; any strike with the elbow” were to be outlawed. Most fingers were pointed at the French Judo Federation, who have gone out of their way to threaten bans on judo competitors who have fought in MMA or teach in MMA gyms. Famously Teddy Riner, the French heavyweight judo marvel, used to talk about his admiration for Fedor Emelianenko and toyed with the idea of competing in MMA following his Olympic career but has begun sounding like a brainwashed cult member in more recent interviews where he cites a lack of ‘honour’ in MMA.
What made this especially strange was that the ban was in effect through the rapid ascent of Francis Ngannou in the UFC. Any young Frenchman inspired to take up training by the feats of The Predator would have had to travel outside of his homeland to actually compete in the sport. This might have something to do with Cyril Gane’s surreal career path—taking his first professional MMA fight in Canada’s TKO for their heavyweight title. Gane has fought exclusively in Quebec, presumably because the common language made working with the promotion easier. That’s still a seven hour flight to your first fight though—pretty unusual.
More unusual is Gane’s development as a striker. He had a reasonable kickboxing record from what I can surmise, but looked more like Cheick Kongo than the floating outfighter he is today. Like Kongo he leaned heavily on the inside low kick and kneeing his opponents from the clinch.
A beautiful inside low kick to jab which highlights Gane’s enormous wingspan.
Even watching his Muay Thai bouts it is obvious that Gane understands the importance of head position—he is constantly posting his head beneath his opponent’s to get his hips back and throw the knee up the centre.
This is something he has carried over to his mixed martial arts career. When he is pressuring an opponent along the fence Gane will often force a cover up and simply enter behind his head (almost a nodder and one of the ways that Cain Velasquez marked Junior dos Santos up so badly in their second and third fights.) When the opponent initiates a clinch on him, Gane’s answer seems to be very much to Muay Thai his way out of it—head below his opponent’s and then alternating the heavy knees and the short turning foot block sweep (or sasae-tsurikomi ashi if you’re feeling sort of Danaher about it.)
Gane did a lot of his best hurting in Muay Thai with his elbows in spite of having to wear elbow pads in all of his fights, presumably because of that blanket ban on elbows in combat sports mentioned above. When Gane moves into his head post along the fence, he focuses his ire on the body and then disengages with a hard elbow with the spirit moves him—often throwing his body weight all the way through and walking off.
But what makes Gane stand out in heavyweight MMA is his new approach to striking. Gane’s Muay Thai bouts were fought from a higher, shorter stance. familiar to anyone who has seen traditional Muay Thai. Gane’s MMA striking is fluid and mobile, based out of a longer stance and with many switches between orthodox and southpaw positions. This gives us a chance to get into something more conceptual—the idea of changing stances on the fly.
Of the few coaches who teach switch hitting, most will agree that the best time to switch stances is in motion and usually of the lateral kind. The reasons for this are that movement hides stance changes, especially if you are turning your opponent by stepping past his lead shoulder as you switch, and that as your stance is your defensive base and your balance—better to keep the moments where you are between stances and off balance out of the opponent’s firing line. You will have heard me wax lyrical about Max Holloway’s stance switches in his fight with Cub Swanson and any practitioner hoping to add some stance switches into their game would do well to watch that fight. Another bonus of switching stances in motion that Joe Average might enjoy is that lateral movement will normally allow a fighter to lead the dance and force his opponent to follow—if you aren’t the kind of very special striker who can defend himself well off both stances but do have a nice southpaw left kick you want to sprinkle in, doing it out of a bit of circling is a great way to control the opponent’s ability to test your southpaw defences.
There are heaps of ways to change stance but if you know how to side step, these are the two important movements. The side step into the pivot, and the side step into the skip. The side step can be a classical one—turning the feet to face the direction you are side stepping—or the more modern side step which is to skip sideways with your feet level and both pointing towards your opponent. Either way, get one foot off their line of attack and you can follow it with a pivot or a skip.
Take an orthodox stance, perform a classical side step out to the right. Now pivot around your right foot until you end up in a southpaw stance, a bit further back from where you started. Perform this in front of an opponent and you will have forced them to turn slightly by leaving the line of attack, hidden your stance change in motion, and added a bit of distance to draw them through or kick into.
This time, perform the same classical side step off to your right, but instead bring your left foot up towards your right and point it at the opponent. Kick the right foot back and you will be in an orthodox stance.
Now you will notice this hasn’t actually changed your stance—but the motion can be hidden in lateral movement perfectly and by switching between the two above movements you can very easily thrown the opponent off the scent of your stance switches.
And of course, both motions can be performed while side stepping in the opposite direction. But if you take a side step to your left from an orthodox stance, the pivot will take you back into an orthodox stance and the skip will take you into a southpaw stance. This means you can keep up a game of circle, switch, circle back, fake switch.
Notice here that Gane is performing the side step and skip method, but by side stepping to his lead side each time he is able to change stances.
Gane does this constantly in the opening rounds of his bouts. It works a treat and allows him to enter with long strikes while his opponent is turning, but in each of his three MMA fights he has also managed to put himself on the fence with little provocation from the opponent. One of the reasons that I am so excited for Gane’s future is that there aren’t really any other heavyweights in MMA who make use of a movement based outfighting style, and much of that is to do with weight and endurance.
Ahead of Horiguchi vs Nasukawa we discussed the many benefits of a distance based bursting style of striking, but also pointed out that it almost never holds up as well as more measured, economical forms of striking over the rounds. Sure enough Horiguchi looked fantastic in round one and was far less puzzling for Nasukawa in the third round. A lot of legwork has to be done to maintain that karate style distance and the bursts of activity over the greater distance are taxing. What is more, you’re relying heavily on your calves and after a while even the best point fighters come down off the balls of their feet.
As you can see, the bursts are shorter and the speed isn’t the same, but seeing a 250 pound man bouncing into a flurry is pretty remarkable.
But more than that, for a gigantic man like Gane, every slight drift in the wrong direction is going to take him considerably closer to the fence. It’s a common complaint among UFC fans that flyweights are dwarfed by the UFC’s cage and can run in circles for minutes without reaching the fence. Gane seems to have the opposite problem. Study how much of Rizin’s gigantic ring Kyoji Horiguchi uses, then consider that Gane could probably eat him in a couple of sittings.
Gane struggles to keep the bouncing up as the fight progresses, but that is when he falls back on the arsenal of more orthodox techniques that got him by in Muay Thai. In his second fight he ended up waiting on his opponent’s right hand and throwing catch and pitch counters every time it came, and the stepping knee remains one of his best hurting weapons—though he hasn’t quite combined this knee with his outside game as well as Lyoto Machida was able to.
One of the things that jumps out at you when looking at Gane is his reach: a whopping 83 inches. In his kickboxing bouts, Gane’s hands were somewhat inaccurate and very much used to force cover ups so that he could step in with knees.
Though even here you can get a glimpse of the bounce that Gane would come to rely on more heavily in MMA.
In his MMA career smaller gloves are certainly helping him sneak through long, single shots, but mounting straight blows on his movement, bouncing, and feints has also massively improved his success rate with straight blows. While he loves a rear handed straight from the open guard, Cyril’s last fight was actually something of a showcase for his jab. We often talk about “karate-boxing” but one of the best methods a fighter can use combining the two styles is to bounce into his jab.
We have discussed the bounce extensively before but the important point here is that if you bounce into range with both your feet—taking your back foot with you—you maintain your stance while closing the distance.
Add a long lunging jab on the end of that and you have pretty much the longest form of the longest hand strike you can manage. Georges St. Pierre and Robert Whittaker have both done wonderfully with this sort of technique and also with a step-pause-step again and extend sort of jab. Roggers Sousa had a nightmare with Gane’s jab being flicked with little commitment out of the bounce the other night.
What makes me so keen on Gane, however, is that he isn’t some karate or point fighting guy coming into the sport and trying to make that style work. He’s a good kickboxer who is experimenting with elements of other styles to improve his striking in an MMA context. The old school style of thinking was “it’ll take a very good point fighter who also learns to handle himself as a grappler to make this stuff work in MMA.” But now you have fighters like Henry Cejudo adopting elements of that longer traditional striking game and having tremendous success.
In the course of writing this article, Gane received his call up to the UFC and he is set to fight the 9-0 Raphael Pessoa next month. Pessoa seems a decent heavyweight but if Gane can do the things he has shown up until now, there’s a good chance he will be the talk of that card.