Ngannou demonstrated his honor by signing a lucrative contract with the PFL despite the promoters’ constant doubts.
The issue with the court of public opinion is that it frequently relies on feelings rather than necessarily on the truth. Which means that a lot of MMA supporters may have to apologize to former UFC heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou.
Ngannou (17-3) confirmed his next step on Tuesday by signing a multi-year contract with PFL in their new PPV super fight category. In January, Ngannou resigned his championship and formally parted company with the organization after negotiations for his comeback to the Octagon failed miserably. The terms of the agreement also give Ngannou, who will turn 37 in September, the freedom to pursue lucrative boxing matches, which was not permitted under his prior UFC contract. Additionally, he will represent fighters on the PFL Global Advisory Board and serve as the chairman and equity owner of the future PFL Africa.
If you’ve closely followed Ngannou’s adult life journey—which included a prison sentence in Spain for illegal entry and homelessness in Paris—you know that he left his native Cameroon at age 26 to pursue his professional boxing dreams in France. Tuesday’s news was just another remarkable development in a largely remarkable life.
It wasn’t enough for Ngannou to shield him from the constant abuse from fans online or even his ex-UFC compatriots who spoke publicly, as new narratives were quickly created, because he felt disrespected and lied about for years by the promotion, most notably by UFC president Dana White.
Ngannou is avaricious (despite turning down a $8 million record offer as part of a multi-fight UFC contract to face Jon Jones).
Ngannou is self-centered, despite the fact that many of his demands—which the UFC refused to even consider or address—centered on better fighter treatment and representation.
Ngannou wasted the opportunity because he is a fool, even if his whole tenure of free agency was only four months.
And finally, despite the fact that Jones waited until right after Ngannou’s departure to sign an amended contract and make a comeback, Ngannou is afraid to take on Jones.
Jones’ eventual comeback in March to defeat Cyril Gane, whom Ngannou valiantly outlasted in January 2022 to complete his UFC contract, and win the vacant heavyweight title allowed White to quickly turn the page. White not only declared that Ngannou would never compete in the Octagon again, but he also conveniently hailed Jones as the greatest fighter in MMA history, despite the fact that the two had previously argued over White’s refusal to pay Jones to upsize.
How awful of a person is Ngannou, then, that White would frequently tell the media things about him that were plainly untrue? And why, when it seemed like PFL was the front-runner, would rival promoters release what looked to be deceptive updates on their own unsuccessful negotiations with Ngannou?
Ngannou is a disruptor, but not in the ways UFC brass or fans are used to, which is perhaps why Daniel Cormier, a commentator and UFC Hall of Famer, recently attacked Ngannou and advised him to “bite the bullet” and return to the organization.
It’s difficult not to respect Ngannou’s acts, regardless of whether you think they are honorable or wrong.
He is one of the few fighters who is prepared to use his platform and take on risk in order to improve the future of MMA competitors. Ngannou’s plans to improve everything from health insurance to the abolition of draconian contracts are nothing short of a big threat to the way top promoters like the UFC traditionally conduct business in an era where fighter pay is a hot subject.
A warning sign of the threat Ngannou poses to the UFC’s corporate structure is the fact that the organization immediately made several changes to all future contracts after Ngannou’s five-year “sunset clause” expired. These changes included adding more restrictions and requiring fighters to sign a waiver barring class-action lawsuits in the future.
The contrast between how corporate the UFC has grown while continuing to treat its athletes in such an antiquated way is difficult to ignore, especially in light of the historic ESPN output agreement that was inked in 2018 and the status transition to a publicly traded business under parent Endeavor in 2021. As a possible means of reducing costs, the new trend of watered-down matchmaking has also gained traction, precisely as Endeavor continues to accrue debt following its close to $10 billion acquisition of WWE.
The UFC attempted to put out the fire Ngannou started by offering him a record deal to fight Jones. Fires like the one Ngannou started in public are often put out with money. However, Ngannou’s problems with the UFC brass were never primarily about the money and were instead mostly about respect (or the lack of it for years), which made him dangerous to deal with when it became evident that his morals would take precedence over all other considerations.
Fans of mixed martial arts (MMA) can be furious at Ngannou all they want for delaying such a historic showdown as the bout versus Jones, which could’ve been marketed as a confrontation between the greatest overall fighter and the most lethal heavyweight in the sport’s history. But there is much more to the tale of how events truly transpired than the obnoxious and frequently contradictory White would have any of them think.
The same promoter used UFC social media to advertise his budding Slap Fight league, where resistance is forbidden and head trauma is nearly a given, for the most of 2023. The same person that refused to wrap Ngannou’s title around his waist (and skipped the post-fight press conference) when Ngannou fought Gane on one leg while being nursing ruptured MCL and ACL.
Ngannou would have fought Jones already for money that could have changed his career if he had simply cared about himself. But he went about it in his own way because he knew that even if the PFL agreement or any other potential boxing offers never materialized, he would still be happy knowing that he left on his own terms, for the right reasons, with his head held high and no regrets.
Instead, Ngannou is able to have his cake and eat it too thanks to the news from Tuesday. All of this comes after Ngannou reportedly fought for his rivals during the free-agency season by attempting to negotiate a minimum salary for each so that his signing wouldn’t excessively tip the financial balances in his favor at the expense of everyone else.
That man has moral integrity.