UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones does not sound like a happy man. What began as two fighters collaborating over social media, to make a fight that could earn both fighters fighters – and the UFC – a substantial amount of money, has deteriorated into a hostile back and forth between Jones and UFC president Dana White. Twice over the past week, Jones has requested his release from the promotion.
In mid-May, Jones and former UFC heavyweight title challenger Francis Ngannou seemed to agree on a “big money fight.” But almost as soon as the idea was announced, Jones had moved on from the potential matchup. The longtime Jackson-Wink fighter explained that the UFC had outright rejected any bump in pay for him to move up to heavyweight, without discussing a dollar amount. Shortly afterward Ngannou echoed Jones’ explanation.
However, a few days later, UFC president Dana White revived the seemingly dead subject when he told ESPN, “For the amount of money he’s asking for, it’s not going to happen. You couldn’t be asking for a more absurd amount of money at a worse time.”
White did not clarify what he meant by “a worse time.” However it seems likely that he was referring to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has contributed to both the UFC losing its gate income, and ongoing financial instability for UFC majority owner, Endeavor.
Jones did not take White’s comments well. According to the LHW great, White’s claims that Jones asked for “an absurd amount of money,” were “absolute bullshit.”
The UFC president followed up by saying Jones had asked for “what Deontay Wilder was paid. I think it was $30 million, was what Deontay Wilder was paid.”
In his Twitter retort, Jones called White a liar and asked for his release from the UFC. Jones reiterated that request following White’s remarks during the UFC on ESPN 9 post-fight press conference where White said, among other things, “Being the greatest of all-time doesn’t mean you get $30 million. Being able to sell (does). Jon Jones has done a lot of things to himself. In one of his tweets, he was saying I tarnished him. I tarnished you? You’ve done a very good job of tarnishing you. I haven’t done that.”
At the end of the day, the UFC will almost certainly not release Jones. It has zero reason to do so. The structure of UFC contracts is heavily in favor of the promotion. That is even more true for UFC titleholders, thanks to what is often referred to as the “champion’s clause.”
As outlined in a 2019 story from Paul Gift, “if a fighter is a UFC champion upon expiration of the term, it will be extended by the earlier of one year or three bouts.” In the same piece Gift reports that the “champion’s clause” is not an anomaly, that wording was in 99.1% of the UFC contracts analyzed by the UFC’s expert witness, Dr. Robert Topel, in the ongoing UFC antitrust lawsuit.
That contract stipulation has the potential to hurt fighters in two major ways. First, it extends their contracts without negotiation. Second, it ties them to the UFC while their earning power is at its peak.
If a UFC champion could fight out their contract while also holding a UFC title, they could make a serious bid to cash in on free agency. The champion’s clause crushes fighters’ ability to earn maximum financial returns on their success and keeps fighters salaries from reaching the heights they could in true free agency.
That doesn’t mean Jones doesn’t have options. It does mean he would need to surrender the UFC title to explore those options, something Jones mentioned as a possibility in a conversation with John Morgan. On Sunday, Jones took a harder stance on the subject of giving up his crown. He tweeted, “To the light heavyweight title Veni, vidi, vici.”
It’s hard to tell if Jones will officially follow through and relinquish his title or if this is nothing more than a bargaining tactic to force the UFC to the negotiating table.
If Jones does give up his title, his UFC contract will remain intact.
The immediate downside of giving up the title could be that Jones might face an immediate pay cut, if he decides to continue to compete, since he would no longer be UFC champion. The upside is that Jones could fight out his UFC contract and become a free agent—something he can never do as long as he holds UFC gold thanks to the champion’s clause. That being the case, Jones has a tough decision to make.
Free agency is a misnomer when it comes to the UFC. When an athlete in most other major sports hits unrestricted free agency, it means they’re free to sign with whomever they please. UFC fighters often don’t have that option thanks to the ‘matching clause’ in their contracts.
According to Gift, “Right-to-match is essentially restricted free agency, giving the incumbent promoter the right to match the financial terms of any new offer a fighter gets from a different promoter.”
So even without a champions clause to bind him, Jones could still end up back in the UFC after fielding outside offers. But, one thing Jones has on his side is his intimate familiarity with how other top-level pro athletes are treated. Jones’ two brothers have played in the NFL, something Jones addressed in one of the tweets he directed at White. “And if I wanted to compare money to someone else, I would compare money to my brothers. I see firsthand the way the NFL treats their champion athletes, there’s a huge difference. I’ve kept my mouth shut my entire career.”
Jones has a lot to think about. However, if he honestly feels the UFC is holding him back from earning what he could, his best option is to stick to his guns, return his title to the UFC offices in Las Vegas, fight out his deal, and open up talks with other promotions to see what type of money he could generate. That’s a risky proposition, but it would allow the market to determine what Jones is worth, and that’s something he will never be able to do as long as he holds a UFC title. And as long as he fights under the restrictions of a contract written far more to the benefit of his promoter than to him.