The UFC tried to book an undisputed title fight between defending champion Francis Ngannou and Lewis in June and then targeted it again for UFC 265 on Aug. 7. Ngannou informed the UFC that he wouldn't be ready to defend the title by August, however, and the promotion opted to create an interim title in the meantime.
White told ESPN the company believes Lewis and Gane are both deserving of a title fight. Lewis holds a victory over Ngannou from 2018 in a lackluster three-round fight. He is on a four-fight win streak.
"As a team, we're all really excited for the opportunity and that after all the work put in over the years, we're confident that Derrick will be leaving with his belt," Lewis' manager, Lou Di Bono, told ESPN.
Gane, a former teammate of Ngannou's, is undefeated in the UFC and coming off back-to-back main event wins.
"This is the type of challenge that we love in MMA Factory: How to finish Lewis without getting caught by that bomb he possesses," Gane's manager and coach, Fernand Lopez, told ESPN. "Ciryl and myself are so excited for this one."
The heavyweight title fight will headline UFC 265, which will officially take place in Lewis' hometown of Houston. Defending bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes will defend her title against Julianna Pena in the co-main event.
Representatives for Ngannou (16-3) told ESPN the heavyweight champion was "shocked" by the news. Ngannou won the title in late March by knocking out Stipe Miocic at UFC 260. He visited his native Cameroon during the entire month of May and only returned to the U.S. in early June. He also recently visited Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on a business trip.
"This comes as a complete shock," Ngannou's agent, Marquel Martin, told ESPN. "To make an interim title so soon, if you look at the history of this division, it comes as a surprise.
"Francis is just now returning to the States to begin training, and he just won the title three months ago. We're unsure of what the reasoning is behind this, but we hope to get clarity soon and figure out something with the UFC soon. At the end of the day, they're in control of these decisions."
In a public comment on social media, White took aim at Martin's sentiment of feeling "shocked," as he claimed the UFC informed Ngannou and his team of the potential interim title fight multiple times. He went on to refer to Ngannou's management team at Creative Artists Agency as "incompetent."
In a response to White's comments, Martin defended his position and reiterated Ngannou was willing to defend his title one month later in September.
"Incompetent management??," Martin wrote on Instagram. "I think we've done a damn good job. I think you REALLY don't like the fact that Francis is being represented by not only me but an entire agency ... one of which you can't control."
Ngannou also took to social media and questioned the interim fight. He referenced his desire last year for the UFC to make an interim title fight in May 2020 between him and Jairzinho Rozenstruik, as the champion at the time, Miocic, was holding up the division because of health issues and training circumstances related to COVID-19. The UFC declined to make it an interim title fight; Ngannou beat Jairzinho by knockout and fought Miocic for the title 10 months later.
"I remember my interim title fight against Jairzinho ... oh wait," Ngannou wrote Monday.
Ngannou, 34, has lost in the UFC only to Miocic and Lewis in 2018. Since then, he has won five in a row, all by knockout. According to Martin, there was some discussion about a potential title fight in September, but the UFC never officially offered a September date and Ngannou never fully committed to one either.
Ngannou has been vocal about the fact that he'd like to defend his title against Jon Jones next. Jones, the UFC's former light heavyweight champion, has been mired in a contract dispute with the UFC regarding the potential fight but has indicated he intends to fight in 2022.