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Editorial: This Jones, Lewis, Ngannou debacle shows dangers of big MMA management teams

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Big MMA management teams can hurt all fighters, not just their clients

Jon Jones and Derrick Lewis are both in the running for a Francis Ngannou fight
Jon Jones and Derrick Lewis are both in the running for a Francis Ngannou fight
Photo by Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

On the April 23 edition of “The Bill Simmons Podcast,” UFC president Dana White said that former UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones was looking for a $30 million guarantee to face current UFC heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou.

During that same podcast, White said Derrick Lewis would be the man to face Ngannou in his first heavyweight title defense.

That same day, Jones said he never discussed a $30 million payday with the UFC while also wondering if someone other than he was speaking to White about the Ngannou fight.

On April 26, First Round Management who had represented Jones for 11 years, announced it was no longer working with the fighter.

Interim UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Jon Jones Press Conference Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

To give a little background, it’s worth pointing out how there are no barriers to becoming an MMA manager. If someone calls themselves an MMA manager and can get a client to believe they are an MMA manager, they’re an MMA manager. There are no limits to the amount an MMA manager can take from their client. If a manager says their services are worth 20 percent and the client doesn’t balk, well, that’s what the manager gets. In short, it’s a business with few — if any — checks and balances. That’s not to say there aren’t above the board managers who operate with their client’s best interests in mind. It’s also not to say that some managers might be nothing more than grifters who see easy marks in MMA fighters.

Something that can make the MMA management world less black and white is when a big management firm ends up pitting two fighters against each other in a negotiation. This happened with Jones and Lewis, who until earlier this week were both represented by First Round Management and both shooting for the Ngannou fight.

Jones and Lewis have differing goals at this point in their careers. Jones, with a record of 26-1-0-1, gave up the light heavyweight crown hoping to get a shot at the heavyweight title and the biggest payday of his career. Lewis, who is 25-7-0-1, wants a shot at the title, but he’s also competing to get the most money he can before he leaves the sport. In short, Jones is fighting for history, while Lewis is fighting for money before legacy.

Neither fighter is wrong in their desire, but the idea that a management team won’t end up working against the better interests of one of its clients in a situation like this is a fantasy.

At the end of March, Jones said that a purse of 8-10 million dollars would be too low for him to face Ngannou. Lewis was quick to add that he would take the fight for $8 million. Jones then pointed out that Lewis doesn’t have anywhere near the championship resume he has.

For the sake of argument, I’ll say Jones wants $15 million for the Ngannou fight and Lewis, let’s say, wants $8 million. It’s unlikely the UFC will meet either of those numbers. It’s also unlikely that First Round Management really cared about who got the fight (when it represented both Lewis and Jones) because no matter the outcome, the management team wins. The management team gets its money no matter if the fight goes to Jones or the fight goes to Lewis. And with the UFC already reluctant to meet Jones’ asking price, the management team has to weigh out a few things before it decides which fighter it will push for.

A negotiation for Jones could get ugly, and that could affect the management team down the line. “Friendly” managers have an easier go in the UFC. Managers who fight for every last penny they can get for their clients are labeled difficult, and that can trickle down to every deal they attempt to strike.

The UFC has a history of pettiness, and a “pleasant” negotiation keeps the wheels greased between the management team and the promotion. And let’s not forget what might be the most important thing — if Jones gets the fight, the management team gets paid. If Lewis gets the fight, the management team gets paid. But if things get nasty, the management team risks the UFC going elsewhere, and then the fighters and the management team lose. That last one is unlikely to happen.

With all that stated, it’s easy to understand why a management team might opt to get the cheaper fighter the deal. Why? Because that’s the one that will make the UFC the happiest, and that’s the deal that will be less of a headache for the managers. While that will put money in the management team’s pockets, that not only hurts the fighters involved in the deal, but all fighters because it keeps overall wages low.

When one or two management teams represent most UFC fighters, this situation can and will raise its head over and over, and that’s something fighters should do their best to avoid. If there’s a handful of fighters in the same weight division represented by the same team and they’re all on their way to the top, that’s when those fighters need to look out for their best interests.

If the same team manages five of the top ten fighters in a weight division, that’s a bonanza for the manager and the UFC. That UFC can pit those fighters against each other in negotiations, and it will force the manager to take a low offer or lose a title fight for their client. In that case the manager wins, the UFC wins, and the fighters lose.

Why is that? Because it’s always been easier for everyone from media to fighters to management to go along to get along with the UFC.

As Ali Abdelaziz (head of Dominance MMA) said it himself, “My job is to make peace with the fighter and the promoter.”

That statement is 100 percent false.

A manager’s job is to extract as much money as it can from the promoter and do his best for the athletes he represents. If a manager is looking to “make peace” with a promotion, that manager is thinking about his future, not their clients’.