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UFC 270: Ngannou v Gane

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The Champion’s Choices: So what’s going to happen to Francis Ngannou?

As the end date for Francis Ngannou’s contract approaches, the UFC heavyweight champion faces a tough choice that could have huge consequences for him and the sport.

Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images

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Sometime very soon we should know what the future holds for current UFC Heavyweight Champion Francis Ngannou. Will he remain with the company and defend his title, possibly in a megafight against Jon Jones, or will he test the market and potentially try his hand at boxing? Both possibilities seem likely at this point, because neither one is the clearcut better choice.

That such a choice even exists is already something of a win for Ngannou. Not since BJ Penn left the UFC back in 2004 to fight in K-1 (before the TUF (The Ultimate Fighter) boom and the massive pay-per-view sales and revenues that followed) has a UFC champion even been in the position to see themselves exit the promotion while still holding the title. The fighter that got closest between then and now was Randy Couture, who “resigned” from the UFC in 2007, claiming that his contractual obligations ended at the end of his original term. This claim was never decided, as Couture dropped his suit (after spending more than $500,000 of his own money) and returned to the UFC with a renegotiated contract after his case was moved from Texas to Nevada for arbitration.

Unlike Couture, Ngannou seems to have a clear end date for his contract. As reported before, thanks to the Le et al v. Zuffa, LLC antitrust lawsuit, since 2017 a sunset clause has been inserted into UFC contracts. In interviews, Ngannou has confirmed that this same provision is in his current promotional agreement. Thus in the first half of December 2022, exactly five years from when his contract commenced with the signing of his agreement, the promotional portion of the agreement will terminate. (Matching rights will probably persist for another twelve months along with image rights, which will remain with the UFC for an additional three years.)

If Ngannou decided to wait for his contract to end, he would find himself in one of the better environments for a free agent. Right now there are several well-financed promotions trying to make it in the industry. ONE Championship and the PFL (Professional Fighters League) are both flush with cash from investors. Both are also desperate to make a splash. Meanwhile, Showtime could be looking at Francis as a great pickup for either MMA or boxing, both of which they air. Donn Davis of the PFL and Scott Coker of Bellator MMA have each expressed interest in him, as has boxing power players Bob Arum, Eddie Hearn, Al Haymon, and Stephen Espinoza (on Chicken Tawk). All of them seem to think a sellable boxing match can be made between Ngannou and one of their fighters. It must be nice to be desired by so many, especially so many with deep pockets.

Of course, just because they have money doesn’t mean they’re going to spend it on Ngannou. People with money tend to expect to make a return on their investment, and the question is will there be one with Francis?

For the boxing promoters it seems like there would be enough interest in at least the first match to pay Ngannou a sizable amount. But there would be a world of difference between what a match with Tyson Fury would pay versus one against Joe Joyce or Dillian Whyte. There is also the question of whether or not there would be more than one of these paydays. Few would give Francis much of a chance against the top boxers in the world. So unless it was against Fury (or possibly Joshua or Wilder) where they could expect to earn a career making payday (although still paling compared to Mayweather versus McGregor), it’s questionable a one-and-out boxing career would be worth it. Having the option, though, to box whenever such a money making opportunity came up would also undoubtedly be a good thing to have in one’s promotional agreement. Especially for someone that apparently truly desires to box.

In MMA, Ngannou would be in the enviable position of having more than one suitor. Showtime would offer a platform that broadcasts both MMA and boxing, making it easier to compete in either sport. The PFL meanwhile has let it be known how much they have to spend in order to make themselves a pay-per-view product.

Earlier this year the Professional Fight League announced they had raised $30 million in new funding. “With this new capital,” their press release announced, “PFL is open for business to sign the biggest MMA star fighters in the world to our new PPV Super Fight Division,”

A pay-per-view division needs pay-per-view attractions, which is where Ngannou comes in. PFL also has the benefit of selling their pay-per-views through ESPN+, the same platform the UFC uses. Combine a well known fighter who had previously headlined pay-per-views with ESPN’s access to all the data regarding previous PPV purchases, and they should be able to target specific, likely buyers with ads and or emails offering promotional deals catered to that fan. The only thing that could help more would be access to better opponents.

While there may be plenty of MMA promoters with plenty of investors’ capital to work with today, what is lacking are the opponents outside the UFC. When Randy Couture was trying to exit the UFC fifteen years ago, he was looking forward to a fight against the consensus number one heavyweight, Fedor Emelianenko, which would have been promoted by Mark Cuban. Up until the acquisition of Strikeforce in 2011, at least half the top 10 heavyweights fought outside the UFC. During that time Josh Barnett, Andrei Arlovksi, Alistair Overeem, Bigfoot Silva, Fabricio Werdum, and of course Fedor, were not locked into exclusive Zuffa contracts. If the UFC heavyweight champ of that period (Couture, Brock Lesnar, or Cain Valesquez) had the opportunity Ngannou now does, they could at least expect relevant and marketable opponents if they chose to fight elsewhere. Francis will have no such luck.

The biggest possible opponent for an MMA fight outside the UFC would likely be versus the current Bellator Heavyweight Champion, Ryan Bader. If Bader gets past Fedor Emelianenko on February 4, one could see, with creative marketing, there being some interest in a unification bout between the current number one heavyweight and lineal UFC champ and the longtime number two promotion’s champ. But even then it’s very hard to imagine there being enough interest for it to be a pay-per-view attraction and without pay-per-view money it’s hard to expect a purse higher than what one would earn in the UFC.

We can make an educated guess as to what Ngannou has been offered by the UFC. After his victory over Cyril Gane, Francis told Ariel Helwani that by not playing ball and accepting their offer after taking the title from Stipe Miocic he was down approximately $7 million. That $7 million would include the additional money he would have earned in the Gane fight at UFC 270 plus the extra purse he would have received by accepting the Lewis bout over the summer. That suggests he was looking at an offer of $3.5-4 million a fight from the UFC versus the $600,000 he currently receives as defending champion.

This would match what other top stars are thought to earn (McGregor and Nurmagomedov being the exceptions they are, earned even more.) For example, in Ronda Rousey’s last last two fights with the UFC, her contract called for $3 million guaranteed plus a pay-per-view bonus. Kamaru Usman was thought to get a similar $2.5 million or $3 million guaranteed for his last few title defenses while Israel Adesanya is thought to be earning a $4-5 million base. It’s therefore not unrealistic to think that Ngannou was offered $4 million plus a bonus for pay-per-view, or would be offered even more now that he’s on the cusp of free agency.

(A fighter of Ngannou’s status could also expect to make a lot more on sponsorship outside the UFC. Not only could he wear his own trunks with his own sponsor’s logos but he could likely demand a portion of the cage or broadcast that he could sell himself. But the biggest source for income would still be the purse.)

Matching even $5 million or $6 million a fight is not outside the capabilities of other promoters. (A guaranteed eight figures a fight is a different matter but there’s nothing to indicate that the UFC has offered that much - mostly for the simple reason they are still at loggerheads.) All of them could “afford” it, but what’s questionable is if they could sell enough with the fighters they currently have available to cover those costs.

That doesn’t mean it would not be worth it for them, even if it loss money. It’s possible they would be content to sign Ngannou as a loss leader, knowing they’d lose money every time he fought but viewing it as worthwhile trade for the increased profile and brand value that came with promoting the Baddest Man on the Planet.

But is fighting second tier fighters for roughly what you could make in the UFC that much more enticing? What probably make it more appealing is that many UFC contracts call for a lower payout when the fighter isn’t defending a title or headlining a pay-per-view (that Rousey agreement, for example, called for her to earn just $500,000 when she was not fighting for the title.) It wouldn’t be surprising if the UFC’s last offer cut the payout in half or even one-quarter if he was no longer the champion. If Hunter Campbell and the other UFC brass insisted on such a two-tiered payment agreement, facing weaker opposition for close to the same amount might very well be more appealing. Of course, there’s no guarantee they are really easier. As anyone who follows MMA knows, lower ranked and lesser known fighters can often be much better than advertised. Losing to such fighters though can be much more damaging to the higher profile fighter. Fans are much more forgiving when someone loses to another top ranked, well known fighter versus someone they’ve never heard of.

Of course, the quality of opponent is probably of secondary concern. The main appeal of fighting outside the UFC for someone of Ngannou’s status would be for the possibility to keep the majority of revenue an event generates and thus earn the kind of money top level boxers ear. But as we noted, outside of boxing, the opponents that would allow for one to compete in a fight that could pay boxing style pay don’t exist in non-UFC promotions. At least they don’t exist yet.

The best chance for Ngannou to earn a boxing type purse in MMA would be for some other UFC heavyweight to follow him into free agency. A route now made easier by the UFC’s inclusion of a five-year sunset clause in their contracts. It hasn’t been confirmed but Miocic appears to be on the same contract he signed for his July 7, 2018 fight with Daniel Cormier at UFC 220. Jon Jones meanwhile, if he hasn’t signed a new deal with the UFC in recent weeks, is still on the 10-fight deal that commenced on March 2, 2019 at UFC 235.

UFC 260: Miocic v Ngannou 2 Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC

While a rubber match between Ngannou and Miocic is unlikely to be a massive seller, it’s the type of match that would at least be a legitimate pay-per-view. That means even a modestly success would generate enough revenue to cover purses that would probably be multiples of what they had earned to fight in the UFC. For Ngannou, likely multiples his career earnings. Meanwhile, after speaking to numerous individuals in the MMA and boxing industry, a Jones fight is thought to easily be one of the biggest, if not the biggest, fight to currently be made in mixed martial arts. The anticipation and name values involved means that even outside the UFC it has a chance to be a massive success. Enough that asking for “what Wilder got paid” would not be an outlandish request.

If Ngannou remained inside the UFC, then making the Jones fought would obviously be that much easier. A surefire hit as a pay-per-view seller, the competitors would most likely see the biggest payouts of the careers. Eight figures is not out the question. But this is would be a fraction of what they could potentially earn if the could hold this fight where they got to keep a much higher share of the money generated.

The obvious gamble for Ngannou is that other fighters would not follow him into free agency and the truly huge MMA paydays would not be there. Ngannou is thus the one who is bearing all the risk, for these when these other fighters contracts approach their termination date they will have the luxury of knowing an Ngannou fight will be waiting for them. Where he’s stepping into the dark, they’ll have well lit path.

All of this would be moot though if the UFC just offered him something that was commensurate with his position as the Baddest Man in the World (at this point it should probably include what’s also owned for refusing to compensate him as such earlier) and maybe letting him have at least one boxing match. Unfortunately, that might be too much to ask for.

Note: originally I had written that Ngannou’s contract ends on January 20th, 2023, exactly five years after his promotional agreement commenced with the first fight on the deal, which was UFC 220. This was incorrect. The language in current UFC contracts call for the agreement to commence on the effective date, which is the date that appears on the signature page. Francis Ngannou is thought to have signed his current contract sometime in early December of 2017, so five years from this date would be in December of 2022. Apologies for the error.

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