Ngannou Should Have Been the Biggest Star in MMA
The baddest man on the planet has a name, and his name is Francis Ngannou. Debuting in the UFC in 2015 and overcoming career adversity, Ngannou became UFC heavyweight champion in March 2021 to make his claim as the scariest S.O.B in MMA.
Here we had the heavyweight champion of the world, with the hardest punch, the biggest heart, and a backstory straight out of the movies. The UFC had a star on its hands, but they fumbled the bag. What went wrong?
The Interim Belt Fiasco
After reaching the pinnacle of the sport by defeating his long time adversary Stipé Miocic, Ngannou took a short hiatus to visit Cameroon, his home country. Three months after claiming the title, the UFC requested that Ngannou defend his new title in August the same year.
Training camps often take between 6-8 weeks. This gave Francis hardly any notice to defend his belt. It would also mean organizing travel, accommodation, management, training, dieticians, and so many other factors that all contributed to it being an unfair request.
With great reason, Ngannou asked to delay the defense 1 month to September, but the UFC declined and organized an interim title bout between Ciryl Gane and Derrick Lewis for UFC 265 in August. This undermined Ngannou’s position in the sport, and exposed the UFC for putting pressure on its athletes with unfair techniques.
“I was there expecting to fight, and they just come up with some sort of interim title. That was very surprising because in the past we didn’t get an interim title, because Stipe wasn’t active and they didn’t even consider that at all. They didn’t want to talk about it.”
“Radio silence,” Ngannou said. “It’s been radio silence. Hopefully they will not come out and be like, ‘Oh, you’re fighting this day.’ Then I’m like, ‘It doesn’t make sense.’ Then they’re like, ‘Oh, he doesn’t want to fight.’ I won’t do that again, because apparently they are really good at this type of thing.”Francis Ngannou talking to Sirius XM
Ngannou went on to defeat the interim heavyweight champion Ciryl Gane, effectively “unifying” the heavyweight belts.
Knee Injury And Contract Renegotiations
Francis Ngannou made his first title defense on two bum knees. He revealed he tore his MCL and damaged his ACL less than a month prior to the fight. Facing a potential 9 month recovery period, and only being tied to the promotion for 12 months since his last fight (per the champion’s clause), Francis was essentially open to renegotiate his contract.
The heavyweight champion wanted to retain his title, but open his contract so that he could have some semblance of free agency. All UFC athletes are independent contractors, but they are tied into a deal where they can’t fight outside of the promotion. Ngannou in particular, wanted to explore boxing alongside defending his UFC belt, but the UFC wasn’t entertaining this idea at all.
The issue with the UFC is that the fighters are the product. When fighters get bigger than the promotion, they gain leverage (McGregor, Rousey). The UFC doesn’t want fighters to become bigger than the promotion, so they stifle them in as many areas as they can:
- Terrible starting contracts (£10k show / £10k win or less in some cases, for several fights in a row)
- No in-cage fighter sponsors (this would mitigate the terrible pay)
- No health insurance for fighters
- Miniscule revenue and sponsorship shares for fighters
- The champion’s clause locking high value fighters into the promotion
Francis Ngannou Released From The UFC
In January 2023, the UFC heavyweight title was stripped from Francis, and he was subsequently released from the UFC. This was because the UFC and Ngannou couldn’t come to an agreement.
What Did Ngannou Ask For?
“I really wished it could work out, I always saw myself in the UFC. But it’s a matter of principle. Money is a part of it but its not all about money.”Ngannou on The MMA hour
Not only did Ngannou ask for a pay-bump and freedom to explore other sports, he also used his platform to ask for:
- Health insurance
- The right for a sponsorship
- Fighter advocates at board meetings
Whilst the UFC was able to offer a pay-bump (reportedly in the vicinity of $8million), they didn’t meet the other demands in any capacity, which was the final straw for Ngannou.
What’s Next For Francis Ngannou?
Ngannou has mentioned that plenty of MMA organisations have reached out to him. He estimates that he’ll have his next fight in the boxing ring, preferably around July. Any other details are speculation.