New contract change allows UFC to ‘pause’ sunset clauses

John Nash explains the brand new changes to the sunset clause in UFC contracts and why Jon Jones might have lost out on a generational wealth payday against Francis Ngannou.

By: Stephie Haynes | 1 month ago
New contract change allows UFC to ‘pause’ sunset clauses
Icon Sportswire, IMAGO

UFC requests to re-open discovery

Over the course of the last couple weeks, the news cycle has all but been dominated by the Fury-Ngannou fight, but during that time, the UFC made a formal request to re-open discovery and Francis Ngannou was at the center of the request. In the latest episode of the Hey Not the Face! podcast, John Nash explains these new developments to the case.

The pertinent dates in the antitrust lawsuit case, Le et al. v Zuffa, are from 2010 to 2017. The promotion wants to re-open discovery to look at what’s happened from 2017 till now. They mention Francis Ngannou specifically in their request:

“Similarly, former UFC Heavyweight Champion Francis Ngannou, who PFL signed in May 2023, indicated in the press that PFL offered him more compensation than any other competitor MMA promotion, including UFC. Moreover, it has increasingly drawn athletes away from UFC directly rebutting Plaintiffs’ theory that “elite” MMA athletes would not be willing to leave UFC for competitors. If plaintiff’s allegation in this case and Johnson regarding allegedly exclusionary contracts were correct, UFC fighters would not be signing contracts with competitors.”

*Note: The “Johnson” they refer to is the second antitrust case that Kajan Johnson, C.B. Dollaway, et al launched to cover contract dates that were effective after July 1, 2017.

That’s their argument and it basically means if the UFC had an exclusionary contract and were a monopsony, their fighters couldn’t go and sign contracts with the competitors. Nash figures this could be a stalling tactic by the promotion:

“It just strikes me as an attempt that if the appeal process fails, if the appeal isn’t picked up by the Ninth Circuit, they’re trying to delay the case even longer. I thought it was well written, but if you follow the business, if you follow MMA, the arguments they make don’t quite line up with the reality of how the business, the state of the industry is actually like.”

Brand new change to the sunset clause to prevent another Francis Ngannou

It’s important to remember that Francis Ngannou was able to leave the company by waiting out the sunset clause in his contract. That sunset clause was introduced as a response to the Le et al. v Zuffa antitrust lawsuit and ensured that the promotion couldn’t continuously extend the terms of fighter contracts indefinitely, capping those terms at the five year mark. Before 2017, it did not exist.

Since its inception, the clause has undergone changes, and most recently, a significant change all but ensures the contracted fighter cannot just wait out the length of their contract for release. Nash provides some information and context to the new adjustment:

“The first set of changes to the clause was noted when Taila Santos’ contract was made public after it appeared in an unrelated court case. Two alterations were clear:

  • The five year sunset provision would now kick in on the date of the first fight on the contract, rather than the previous iteration where it began the day you singed the contract
  • The contract could be ‘paused’ in cases of suspension (could possibly include medical suspensions)

A further change has appeared in the newest contracts Nash has been made privy to, as well:

“On top of those changes, a brand new one is here, and it’s even more restrictive. Basically, what it says is that if you turn down fights and the UFC doesn’t think you have a legitimate enough reason to turn down said fights, they can again pause the five year period. Let’s say it’s the third year of a fighter’s contract and they decide, ‘You know what, I don’t like what I’m being offered, I’m just going to wait out my contract’. Well, the UFC can say that you are refusing to take a legitimate offer, and that five year period will be paused. So it ruins the whole purpose of a sunset clause.”

He went on to state,

“So their argument is, ‘Oh, ‘Francis Ngannou was an example of how we didn’t have monopoly power.’ But that would only apply to the brief period that you changed your contracts so they were no longer perpetual. That’s only a couple-year window, which now no longer applies to the reason under the new contracts.”

The biggest loser is Jon Jones

When Jon Jones and Francis Ngannou talks were in the earliest stages a few years ago, Dana White was quick to throw Jones under the bus for asking for an “absurd amount of money” to fight the Cameroonian. Ngannou would champion Jonny’s cause, though, echoing the need for a purse bump for the superfight.

Since then, Ngannou has left the UFC, signed a mega deal with the PFL, fought the lineal heavyweight boxing champion of the world and took him to a contested split decision where many thought he won. Jon Jones, by comparison, signed another restrictive contract and locked himself out of the biggest fight MMA—maybe even all combat sports—has to offer.

Nash figures the odds of that superfight happening are between none and a snowball’s chance in the hot place:

“They’d have to co-promote with PFL. That’s never going to happen. They will never co-promote. The next step would be if Ngannou somehow get out of his PFL contract in a reasonable time and then with the UFC, he’s going to want something akin to what he’s making in boxing, right? That might be too much for the UFC to give him because they don’t want to break their business model.

He continued,

“The other step would be for Jon Jones to get out of his contract. The problem is, he just re-signed. My understanding is he probably had a sunset clause and could have waited until next year, been out of that contract, and then fought Ngannou. Everybody I’ve talked to in the industry, they all say that fight is huge. It’d be huge even outside the UFC because of the interest level in it.

If someone fumbled a bag, it might be Jon Jones, because if that fight sells as much as people think, like 1.5 million buys, 1.6, just a huge number of buys that people think it would do, like one of the biggest MMA fights, perhaps the biggest ever, he would have not only doubled what he’s making with the UFC, but quadrupled what they’re paying him. So, he lost out on a generational wealth match and possibly a rematch if they wanted to do it again.”

March 5, 2023, Las Vegas, NV, LAS VEGAS, NEVADA, United States: LAS VEGAS, NV - March 5: Jon Jones meets with the media following his win over Cyril Gane at T-Mobile Arena for UFC 285 -Jones vs Gane : Event on March 5, 2023 in Las Vegas, NV, United States. Las Vegas, NV United States - ZUMAp175 20230305_zsa_p175_006
Louis Grasse / ZUMA Wire, IMAGO

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About the author
Stephie Haynes
Stephie Haynes

Stephie Haynes has been covering MMA since 2005. She has also worked for MMA promotion Proelite and apparel brand TapouT. She hosted TapouT’s official radio show for four years before joining Bloody Elbow in 2012. She has interviewed everyone there is to interview in the fight game from from Dana White to Conor McGregor to Kimbo Slice, as well as mainstream TV, film and music stars including Norman Reedus, RZA and Anthony Bourdain. She has been producing the BE podcast network since 2017 and hosts four of its current shows.

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