Francis Ngannou has made peace with the next step in his career, whether that’s in the UFC or elsewhere.
In other words, the UFC heavyweight champion won’t bend on his demands should he sign a new UFC contract. As he said Monday on The MMA Hour, he estimates he’s already left a lot of money on the table to get to this point.
“You can be free and fight for the UFC,” Ngannou said. “I just want to be free. We are supposedly independent contractors. [An] independent contractor is technically a free person. That’s the reason why they need some adjustments in that contract. That’s what I’ve been fighting for.”
The exact shape of Ngannou’s freedom remains somewhat of an open question, and one that is unprecedented in the promotion’s history. The 35-year-old Cameroon native is still the heavyweight champion after a gutsy decision win over Ciryl Gane at UFC 270 and believes he has fulfilled his contract to the UFC. He is willing to sign another one, but only if the promotion makes concessions on some of its longstanding business practices (even as the promotion appears to have made them less restrictive amid a long-running anti-trust case with former UFC fighters).
“The term of the contract, everything that they put into, they hold you in captivity,” Ngannou said. “You can’t do anything. You have no rights. The contract is one-sided, although you still don’t have nothing. You don’t even have health insurance, even while you’re putting your body on the line to provide to put on the show.
“You’re risking everything. There’s a lot of things. We have no insurance. Nothing. No guarantee, which I understand as an independent contractor, but treat me as such, if I am. Whether I’m going to be an employee or an independent contractor, make it very clear in the contract. It’s very mixed up.”
“That’s probably the thing that I hated most about this, how they hold all the cards, the power to just destroy you,” Ngannou added later. “As soon as you don’t say yes, they just take you down.
“There’s something wrong with me with those kind of things, that I just can’t take it.”
Ngannou said the UFC on several occasions tried to sign him to a new contract as the title unifier with Gane approached. (It’s unclear whether those negotiations took place after his manager, Marquel Martin, said the UFC had gone silent for six months after a contentious meeting.) A chance meeting between Ngannou and UFC President Dana White at a restaurant in Las Vegas was “a good talk, personal-wise,” but avoided the business at hand.
Asked what he thought about the new offers, the champ said, “not a good deal for me.”
“More money, but it didn’t carry any of the things that I have [asked for] ... not really, not at all. The money was tempting, it was good, but this is not just about money. By this point, I think it’s a lot more than just money. At this moment, it’s more than money. Just money cannot fix this situation. I don’t believe that.”
At that point, he said, he had reached the end of his patience and focused instead on the challenge at hand, which turned out to be one of the most difficult ones he had ever endured.
Three weeks prior to the event, a sparring session with a less-experienced training partner resulted in a bad knee injury. A visit to a Los Angeles doctor confirmed the worst and suggested he could suffer a permanent injury if he chose to go forward. At one point, he was unclear on whether he would fight. But given what was on the table already, he decided that no matter what happened to him physically, he would accept the outcome.
In addition to the physical threat, there were other external forces that added to the pressure he experienced. On the day of the fight, he said Martin was threatened with a lawsuit for an alleged conversation with Jake Paul’s manager (and ex-UFC executive) Nakisa Bidarian. (Bidarian and Martin did not immediately respond to a request for comment.) Then, an unknown number with a 702 area code — serving the Las Vegas area — texted a racist message to Martin. (MMA Fighting was unable to immediately verify the authenticity of the text.)
“Honestly, it was a lot,” Ngannou said. “I felt a lot of pressure, but as I said, a lot of people go through a lot of things and they overcome. That’s why me being a fighter, not only in the octagon but in life, people go through a lot of drama in their own life. But that’s still not a good excuse to give up. I think the only moment that you lose is the moment that you give up. But if you keep fighting — that’s not losing, regardless of the outcome.”
“Even when they’re trying to reach out for a deal, they came out with a good amount of money, but at this point that doesn’t even matter,” Ngannou added. “I left all that down on the table. I’m taking my $600,000, I’m going there, I’m doing this and I’m winning everything.
“I left a lot more on the table. Overall, I’ve been leaving a lot of money on the table even since the Stipe fight. By now, I might be down $7 million that I left on the table, but I’m still happy with my $600,000, because I still fight for what I care for. This is the thing. Freedom doesn’t work with money. You give up one for one. Whether you want freedom, whether you want money. You give up one to gain one.”
Despite the storm around him, Ngannou said he felt an unusual calm. Questions about his relationship with Fernand Lopez, his former coach and Gane’s current one, and his contract situation didn’t rattle him. He wasn’t even surprised much when French reporters hounded him with aggressive questions, attributing it to their fair-weather loyalty and Gane’s French roots.
On fight night, Ngannou said he could hear his corners better than ever, and the messages relayed did exactly what they were supposed to do.
After the announcement of the winner, Ngannou looked behind him and saw UFC matchmaker Mick Maynard. Even the absence of White — both in the octagon and at the press conference — didn’t rattle him.
“Bro, I don’t care about that — what’s the difference?” he said. “I made my point. That could have not even bring the belt, I would be OK with it. I’m not here to go after another thing, this happened, that happened. I’m happy. That’s all that matters.”
Ngannou had repeatedly been unhappy throughout his tenure in the UFC with long stretches of inactivity and inability to chase his dream of professional boxing, among other goals. On several occasions, the feeling appeared mutual, with White criticizing the champion for having an oversized “ego” and difficulty behind the scenes.
After all he’d been through, it would be understandable if Ngannou simply wanted to move on. But asked directly about his desire to fight for the UFC, he put the question to his promoter.
“Good question,” he said. “Do the UFC still want me to fight there? You should ask them. They should be the one answering that question. If they make things right, yes [I will fight for them]. I’m willing to do whatever it takes to get what I want. As I said even before this fight, I walked into this fight knowing I could have lost this fight. But I reviewed everything, and in me, if this is it, if this is the end, let it be my way.
“It’s going to be on my way. I’m going to make the call on how it ends. It won’t end on somebody’s rules. It will end on my rules. If this is the end, I am happy. From where I came from, I have done a lot. Some people might not see that, but I have done it and I am very happy about that. I’m proud of myself. That might be my ego, but I’m proud of myself, what I have achieved. But I don’t want all this to take what I have, to change me, to change my principle.”
Ngannou believes in his heart he will get the opportunity to box heavyweight champ Tyson Fury when all is said and done. Even if the UFC elects not to re-sign him — or simply decides to strip him of his belt for turning down a fight — he feels confident that he will win his freedom.
“No, I’m not worried about [the UFC taking away the title], because at the end of the day, it’s just a belt,” he said. “As soon as they take the belt away, I’m a free agent. This belt will not make a champion. With or without it, I’m still a champion. Let’s be clear about that. Nothing will change my status about being a champion.”