The biggest – and maybe toughest – fight of Francis Ngannou’s career began in earnest the moment Bruce Buffer announced that the ‘Predator’ had defeated Ciryl Gane in the main event of UFC 270. That fight, which started with a few test jabs thrown all the way back in March of 2021, could get ugly. And it will probably last at least until January of next year.
Ngannou won the UFC heavyweight title early last year with a knockout win over Stipe Miocic. Afterward, the Cameroonian-born Frenchman said the UFC wanted him to ink a new deal, one that he apparently didn’t care for.
“I don’t want to sign a new deal on certain terms,” Ngannou said on the MMA Hour in October. “I don’t feel protected in those terms. In the past two years I fought twice and I have to borrow money to live. Nobody cares about that. I have no guarantee and I have no protection, so based on that experience I want to get something better, better terms on my contract, and obviously paid what I deserve.”
The reason the Xtreme Couture-trained talent was making himself heard in media channels largely had to do with the fact that the UFC – just a few short months after UFC 260 – booked an interim title fight between Gane and former title challenger Derrick Lewis in Lewis’ home town of Houston.
According to Ngannou’s agent, Marquel Martin, Ngannou had agreed to fight in September, but the UFC wanted the August date and location, so they created the interim title fight. Ngannou, who Martin said needed the time off, wasn’t happy with how the UFC portrayed him during the promotional material for the interim bout.
“What bothers me is the fact that to promote that fight they were trying to discredit me and pretend, ‘If you want to go on vacation, keep yourself and when you want to fight, we are here.’ No, I want to fight and I wasn’t on vacation,” Ngannou told the MMA Hour. “And they use a video from ‘Embedded’ to play that game, to pretend to discredit me and show that I was on vacation. That bothers me because that’s not right. I know that is not true, it’s just to discredit me, to control the narrative. I don’t have a problem if they want to do the interim, just do the interim without sabotaging me.”
If Ngannou had suspicions that the UFC wasn’t deeply invested in his success, their actions over the months following his victory over Miocic – leading to that interim bout – very likely confirmed those feelings.
Instead of trying to smooth things over with Ngannou, the UFC, took aim at his representation, with UFC president Dana White telling ESPN that Marquel Martin is “so full of sh-t” and claiming that the former UFC employee was “incompetent” at his job handling professional athletes. White even went so far as to make it clear that if push came to shove the UFC would do just fine without him.
“Look, if you want to be with us, we’d love to have you. If you don’t want to be with us, no problem. It’s all good,” White said of Ngannou in December.
Leaving the Octagon behind, however, has rarely appeared to be quite so simple. For years UFC contracts have contained what is commonly called the ‘champion’s clause’. A bit of legal wrangling that allows the UFC to extend a fighter’s contract by either three fights or one year if they are a UFC champion at the expiration of their current deal. With Ngannou fighting out his deal – and retaining his title at UFC 270 – it seems very likely that the promotion enact that clause once again.
And while, in the past, that would have more or less spelled the end of any need to negotiate for the world’s largest MMA organization, as a likely result of the ongoing class-action lawsuit filed by former fighters, UFC deals now include an endpoint. According to Bloody Elbow’s John Nash, that end comes five years after the first fight on any new contract. That would put Ngannou’s end date at January 20, 2023.
The 35-year-old seems to have taken the UFC’s words and actions to heart, potentially resigning himself to the fact that he would not fight again for the promotion.
“It’s not simply money,” Ngannou said at the UFC 270 post-fight press conference regarding his contract issues with the UFC. “Obviously, money is a part of it, but it’s also the terms of the contract that I don’t agree with.
“I don’t feel like it’s fair. I don’t feel like I’m a free man. I don’t feel like I’ve been treated good. It’s unfortunate that I have to be in this position, that I have to say that. I feel like everyone should have the right to claim for what’s best for them. At the end of the day, we put a lot of work for this job and we take a lot on our body to make it happen, so we can have a fair and square deal.”
“In the past three years I have fought three times, so what does that mean? Once a year,” Ngannou added. “It wouldn’t be something strange. I’m not frustrated about anything, I’m at peace with my decision.”
Ngannou, who was paid a reported $600,000 for his UFC 270 win, said before the event that he would not fight again for the pay the UFC is offering him.
“I will not fight for $500,000 [or] $600,000 anymore. It’s over. I took this fight for personal reasons, because I want to make sure that regardless of [whether] it’s fair, I can make my case that I have completed the fights.”
And more than money or respect, he’s also made it clear that a new deal needs to include the ability to compete in boxing bouts at some point in the future.
Unfortunately for him, the UFC has historically seemed more interested in promoting their brand over individual talent. It doesn’t necessarily create the easiest working realtionship between the company and their stars, but it’s pretty unquestionably been a wise business decisions; always allowing the promotion to move on from any one person’s time in the limelight with ease. That “next up” mentality has a way of keeping fans invested in what lies ahead without getting too attached to any one athlete. And if that approach doesn’t work all by itself? The promotion isn’t at all averse to using the media to get the message to the fans, that the talent causing the UFC problems is acting against everyone’s interests.
So, barring a sea change in the UFC’s business approach, I don’t think we’ll see Ngannou fighting in the Octagon again. And while it may cost him a year of his career, I’m also not sure severing that relationship will be a bad thing for him. Ngannou has made himself a valuable commodity. It just might be that he can earn more on the free market than blazing his own trail.
The only question left worth asking is if the UFC will let him walk away with his reputation as an elite performer still intact.
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