Former UFC owner Lorenzo Fertitta liked to say the UFC booked fights fans wanted to see. That wasn’t always true (Anderson Silva vs. Georges St-Pierre), but it was true a lot more often than it wasn’t.
That’s no longer the case.
If it were, we’d be talking about UFC heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou vs. ex-light heavyweight kingpin Jon Jones. Instead, the UFC is fixing to book a rematch between Ngannou and Derrick Lewis and considering a scrap between Jones and ex-heavyweight titleholder Stipe Miocic. If one were to poll fight fans, I’d expect more would want to see Ngannou vs. Jones than either of the other potential matchups.
It seems as if the UFC is no longer in the “give ‘em what they want” business. Instead, it feels like the promotion has entered the “watch the bottom line” era.
When Lorenzo and his brother Frank sold the UFC to WME-IMG, it was initially business as usual. Today, matchmaking seems more about putting names into an empty spreadsheet than putting on meaningful fights. As for main events, the promotion does attempt to deliver consequential matchups at the top of its cards. However, if someone gets snippy over money, the promotion isn’t afraid to move on to a cheaper option. We saw that with Tony Ferguson vs. Dustin Poirier and we’re seeing it to a more noticeable degree with Ngannou vs. Jones.
In May 2020, there was some talk that Jones, who was then the light heavyweight champion, would face Ngannou, who had yet to defeat Stipe Miocic to become the heavyweight champ.
That talk hit a snag when White claimed Jones was looking for $30 million to step into the octagon against Ngannou. Jones shot back by calling White a “f—king liar” and saying he would settle for “half of that,” before proclaiming he “never even threw out a number.”
Jones vacated the light heavyweight crown in August 2020. His plan was to add muscle to his frame and move up to heavyweight. He seemingly did this without talking money or matchups with the UFC.
In March 2021, Ngannou knocked out Miocic to claim the heavyweight crown. Jones, perhaps ready to negotiate with the UFC about the heavyweight title fight, sent a message to the promotion via Twitter. Jones tweeted that he didn’t want the promotion to offer him anything in the $8 to $10 million range to face the freshly minted champion.
In April, White, who remained stuck on that $30 million number, even after Jones refuted that talk, seemed to have turned his focus to the rematch between Ngannou and Lewis.
“In his deal, he’s talking he wants $30 million guaranteed,” White said. “The way that this works is these guys all share in the pay-per-view, so you just said yourself you think that this is gonna be a big fight. I agree with you and think it’s gonna be a big fight, well he will share in the profits of the fight. That’s how it works. That’s how you run a business and you don’t go broke, that’s how that works.”
“What we do is every Saturday night I put on fights and whoever wants to fight, we’ll make it and we’ll put ‘em in there,” White added (via MMA Fighting). “We tried to work with Jon and we eventually have to move on. Because realistically, in all honesty, Derrick Lewis is the guy who deserves the fight. Derrick Lewis is a heavyweight, he beat Francis Ngannou, he’s looked good in his last couple of fights, he’s ranked in the top-three, I think. He deserves the fight, so that’s the fight that should happen, we’ll just roll and do what we do.”
Things have progressed little since then. Today, the UFC remains unwilling to meet Jones’ asking price for a title fight.
I doubt I’m alone when I recall the days of Fertitta telling me not to worry, that the UFC gives fans the fights they want. But then I quickly picture Fertitta lounging on his yacht after doing several dozen sets of curls with a protein drink in his hand and no worries about the UFC.
Even if the UFC gives us what we don’t want in the Ngannou vs. Lewis rematch, don’t expect to see Jones step inside the cage with Miocic.
For the sake of argument, say Jones agrees to face Miocic (he isn’t going to) and Ngannou vs. Lewis 2 happens. The worst-case scenario is that both Ngannou and Jones lose. If that happens, Ngannou vs. Jones becomes worthless and the UFC would have flushed tens of millions of dollars down the toilet through its own stubbornness.
In the best-case scenario both Ngannou and Jones win. Where does that leave all parties involved? Exactly where they are today.
Jones would not ask for less money to fight Ngannou. Ngannou would probably ask for a raise because he would be coming off a title defense. The UFC would be unlikely to meet either of those request. And that’s the biggest reason Jones is correct to dismiss the Miocic fight, it does nothing to move him closer to the money he wants to face Ngannou.
I get what White is doing by suggesting Jones face Miocic. He’s planting more “evidence” that Jones doesn’t want to fight and that allows him to paint Jones as the ingrate who will let the UFC know when he wants to fight, even though Jones obviously wants to face Ngannou.
It’s hard to argue against the fact that the UFC has changed. These days, the bottom line is what’s important, not the fans. That was true when White’s only bosses were the top executives at WME-IMG. It’s even more true now that the UFC has stockholders who purchased shares of Endeavor when the company went public last April. Don’t be surprised if we never see Ngannou vs. Jones and if more and more fights fall apart over money.
With Endeavor going public, the organization that was once tarred as “human-cockfighting” is now no edgier than Wal-Mart and as focused on profits as any pharmaceuticals company.