It was only less than five months ago when it happened. Francis Ngannou: the new UFC Heavyweight champion. His knockout over Stipe Miocic in March was brilliant. At last, a heavyweight champion who looked like he might have staying power. And not just in a physical sense. Ngannou checked all the Just Bleed boxes: photogenic, and hyperviolent. Loved not just by the good people of the small village from where he was forged, but by the good people of the Jackass crew even. It was all going so well. Until it wasn’t.
The restless drama that led to Ngannou being revised from history isn’t interesting or new. If Dana White sees the UFC as Too Big to Fail, then the fighters must be Too Small to See. Can you name another professional sport that could ‘boast’ the image of its fighters thanking what amounts to a charity check just to make ends meet? Sadly, we’ve already heard all the red-faced bluster explaining it away.
“For us to be now looked at as the other big (sport) — the NBA, NFL and Major League Baseball — that’s always been important to me,” Dana told BT Sport in March following the UFC deal with Draft Kings. “For these athletes to be respected and at the level these other athletes are at, we’re finally there. We’re there now.”
Since the bar is set at ‘yea he’s in jail, but the fight’s still on’ let’s ignore the NBA, and the NFL. Let’s talk hockey. You probably haven’t heard of even half the players for the New York Rangers. You probably don’t follow hockey at all. I do. And even I couldn’t tell you what a Libor Hajek was. Despite sounding like a European political party, he’s played seventy-seven games since 2018. That’s not a lot. It means he’s not even a full-time NHL player. This semi-talented defender from the Czech Republic counts for less than one percent of the Ranger’s cap, and yet he’s earned $3.6M to date for his part time services.
That’s more than what A.J. McKee made for winning the Bellator featherweight World Grand Prix. Yet even at $1M, Dana could do nothing but laugh apallingly at the idea a mixed martial arts champ could be worth even half of what a barely-pro hockey player makes.
As much as I’d like to show respect to Derrick Lewis and Ciryl Gane, who are fighting for the interim title this weekend, Ngannou’s shadow looms too large to think about anything else. Imagine Doggett replacing Mulder in season three instead of season eight of the X-Files, and you’d have some idea of how ridiculous this all is. By moving on with an interim title — in which Dana can boast about how one of these guys beat Ngannou — it gives White’s revisionism a little more credence.
We don’t have to talk about Ngannou, and if we do, we can keep re-writing history. Remember how White almost cut Ngannou? Neither do I, but that’s what Dana says. ‘Almost cut’ is another way of seeing ‘wasn’t good enough in the past, maybe he won’t be good enough in the future.’ It’s a goofy admission. With one loss removed from fighting for a title, what would have been the justification? It’s an interesting timeline given that Lewis also lost his the fight following his title bid. If there’s little to no logic, it’s because we know the real reason.
Money. Ngannou has been vocal in his criticism of fighter pay. He doesn’t need to worry as much now. In response, it’s prompted the usual: dirty negotiating tactics, and sketchy behavior. We have some idea of what’s been left on the table. Why would it be about anything else? Interim titles follow pretty typical. Sometimes it’s injuries, as when Andre Arlovski won the heavyweight interim title because of Frank Mir’s horrific motorcycle accident. Renan Barao was the interim bantamweight titleholder due to Dominick Cruz’ string of injuries. Other times inactivity has forced Dana’s hand, as he did with Conor McGregor. It’s tough to keep belts sidelined for too long when they mean so much.
There’s something inherently superficial about belts to begin with. I know that sounds silly, but it’s an acceptable paradox. They represent the best in the division, yet titles always change hands, and they do so with heavy frequency. The best gives way to the next best. And that’s okay, Because it’s the transition that gives the belt credibility, as titles are either retained, or lost. It’s not the titles themselves but how they represent the bridge between past, present, and future. By moving quickly to accept the possibility that Ngannou, it’s present title holder, may not be a part of the division’s future, Dana is accepting that the bridges no longer exist.
Titles depend on performance, sure, but it’s clear that titles also represent which fighters are willing to accept Dana’s arbitrarily chosen rules of engagement. Tiles have a shelf life, and apparently, a price limit too. All this does is add instability to the division. After all, who’s to say the winner Lewis or Gane won’t be asking for what Dana considers ‘too much’ in the future? No one. Sometimes I feel like that’s who’s holding the belt too.