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Luke Rockhold: Kamaru Usman, Israel Adesanya missed an opportunity to ‘step up’ during Francis Ngannou situation and ‘change the landscape’

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A lot has happened in the combat sports world since Luke Rockhold last competed in 2019. But of all the trends to come and go, none has been more impactful than the rise of celebrity boxing and the money suddenly available to MMA fighters able to make the leap to the boxing ring for crossover bouts against popular figures like the Paul brothers.

Within the past year alone, former UFC fighters Anderson Silva, Tyron Woodley, Ben Askren, Vitor Belfort, and Tito Ortiz have cashed lucrative paydays in boxing, and several of the highest-grossing pay-per-views of 2021 have centered around the celebrity boxing gimmick. As he readies for his UFC return against Sean Strickland on Nov. 6, Rockhold has mostly remained an observer watching from afar, but it hasn’t eluded him that every big name involved in the trend is being drawn to boxing rather than MMA or the UFC.

And he believes there’s a simple reason for that.

“Boxing is a much more lucrative business,” Rockhold said Monday on The MMA Hour. “You get what’s called the Muhammad Ali Act. Then you have what’s called [purse bids], when you can bid to promote — the promoters can bid for the fighters. They’re not just monopolized by one company who dictates what you pay and what you get paid. So [boxers are] taking 60 to 80 percent of the revenue, whereas we’re taking 16 percent of the revenue [in the UFC]. Most other sports are taking 50 percent of the revenues.

“So if you want to balance all of that out, yes, there’s a balancing game in the fighting, why people choose different routes. Boxing is getting paid, so why would you fight a much more dangerous sport and not get paid as much? All these celebrity people, they’re not going to jeopardize themselves like that. They don’t want that. They don’t have that dog in them. They don’t have that nastiness. That’s why you box. That’s why you b*tch and you box.”

A former UFC middleweight champion, Rockhold hasn’t shied away from voicing his opinion about the state of the sport ahead of his comeback. He revealed on Monday that he believes he has four fights left on his current UFC deal and said that it was made apparent to him over his layoff that a release from his contract was not an option. While he’s excited for the Strickland fight and looking forward to working his way back into the title picture, Rockhold is also a realist and understands that the only way conditions for UFC athletes will ever change is if fighters band together for a formal unionization effort of some kind.

And frankly, he just doesn’t see that happening anytime soon.

“No one has enough balls,” Rockhold said. “No one has enough cajones. That’s the problem. Not enough to [make a difference]. There’s very few people that have the f*cking balls, but to get the right amount of people together to do that thing, it would never happen. Not in any foreseeable future. [The UFC] gives out enough to make everyone come back for more. You know what I mean? And then someone f*cking sparks up a conversation and they get shelved until they run out of money and they want to come back, and they have to do what they have to do, and they have to take the paycheck they have to take. This is the game they play.”

As an example, Rockhold pointed to Francis Ngannou’s recent complications with the UFC as one situation that he felt became a lost opportunity for UFC fighters as a whole.

Barely five months after Ngannou knocked out Stipe Miocic to capture the UFC heavyweight title in March, the promotion introduced an interim belt at UFC 265 when negotiations with Ngannou for his next fight hit an impasse. Prior to that, a promised superfight between Ngannou and Jon Jones failed to get off the ground because of further stalled contract negotiations between the UFC and Jones. Ngannou currently remains unbooked. He told GQ Magazine last month that he felt disrespected by the whole saga and sometimes wasn’t “even sure if I’m really the champ or not. It’s really confusing.”

Rockhold suggested that Ngannou’s situation was the perfect opportunity for Ngannou’s fellow African-born champions, UFC welterweight titleholder Kamaru Usman and UFC middleweight king Israel Adesanya, to step up and stand behind Ngannou as a united front.

“If they’re going to do that to Francis and then no one else [speaks up], his two brothers aren’t going to get behind him and sack up and be the men they should’ve been when he got shelved — you’ve got two Nigerian brothers, they’re champions, they should’ve just stood by him and been men, and maybe that could change the landscape,” Rockhold said. “But that’s about it. I saw an opportunity there. That’s when I saw an opportunity. Other than that, you need 25 [big-name] guys. Twenty-five guys aren’t coming together. Maybe more, I don’t know, maybe less. Maybe give or take. That sh*t ain’t going to happen.

“That was the only thing that I saw that actually could’ve leveled the playing field and changed things for the better,” Rockhold continued. “When you f*ck with Francis and you’ve got this three amigos Nigerian brotherhood, if those two would’ve stood up, they could’ve f*cked. They could’ve f*cked deep and hard. But the two didn’t step up.”

Of course, there are fighters on the other side of the conversation as well. One recent example is UFC middleweight Kevin Holland, who defended the UFC’s pay structure last month on the The MMA Hour and said he was happy with his current setup. Holland offered a simple suggestion to his colleagues: “Do your job and you will be more than paid.”

Rockhold said he heard those comments and chalked them up to mere youthful naivety.

“I DM’d Kevin Holland the moment I heard that bullsh*t he said,” Rockhold said. “I was like, ‘What the f*ck are you talking about, kid? Come on.’ Yeah, you lose a couple more fights and you’re going to be on the other side of that f*cking argument. He’s naive. He’s a good kid [but] he’s naive.”

As he continued, Rockhold pointed to the UFC’s latest uniform deal with Venum as another example of the UFC making big decisions without any input from the fighters themselves.

“You know what sucks? Is wearing a f*cking snake on my goddamn f*cking thing,” Rockhold said. “Who the f*ck wants a snake on the UFC [uniforms]? Do you the NBA or the f*cking MLB, they’ve got a f*cking snake on their outfit? What the f*ck is this sh*t? That pisses me off. I don’t want wear a snake on my outfit. Basketball players got a basketball player. Baseball players got a baseball player. And then look at what we got — a f*cking snake.”

Rockhold added that he isn’t concerned about what could result from him speaking his mind. If he feels strongly about a subject, he’s going to say whatever it is he wants to say.

Ultimately, though, he doesn’t expect it to make much of a difference. He argued that the revenue split in the UFC isn’t going to inch anywhere near what athletes in other major American leagues like the NBA and the NFL get paid until something drastic changes with the way the majority of high-level UFC athletes approach the business side of the game.

“Those are team sports,” Rockhold said. “Those are team sports getting paid 50 percent. Alright? Boxing is the closest thing related and it’s way less popular, and they’re getting 60 to 80 percent of the revenue. So if you want to really compare it, we shouldn’t be getting 50, we should be getting more if you really want to break that down. But at least have a governing body and split the f*cking [revenue]. We’re a bigger sport than anybody else in this game right now so why shouldn’t we be paid half that sh*t?”