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The Great Divide: What does Francis Ngannou vs. UFC mean for MMA, and how will this all play out?

The Great Divide is a recurring feature here at MMA Fighting in which our staff debate a topic in the world of MMA — news, a fight, a crazy thing somebody did, a crazy thing somebody didn’t do, or some moral dilemma threatening the very foundation of the sport — and try to figure out a resolution. We’d love for you to join in the discussion in the comments below.

Francis Ngannou overcame the odds to defend his heavyweight title against Ciryl Gane on an injured leg at UFC 270, but his biggest battle has just begun. “The Baddest Man on the Planet” broke open his standoff with the UFC in an eye-opening and wide-ranging interview with MMA Fighting on Monday, delving into detail about his struggles with the promotion, his push for greater control over his career, and his murky road ahead in his UFC.

What does Ngannou vs. the UFC mean for MMA, and will he still be a UFC fighter by the end of 2022? MMA Fighting’s Shaun Al-Shatti, Steven Marrocco, Alexander K. Lee, Damon Martin, and Jed Meshew debate the impact of the champ’s unprecedented situation and forecast where it could lead in today’s edition of The Great Divide.

Al-Shatti: Thanks to the exhaustive grind of Bloody Elbow’s John Nash, we have an idea of what Ngannou’s team is working with, at least as it relates to the sunset clause at the center of this debate. Sometime around 2017, seemingly as a reaction to the ongoing antitrust lawsuit against the UFC, the promotion’s contractual language shifted to include a five-year maximum period, which would — at least theoretically — supersede the UFC’s long-discussed champion’s clause. That is why Ngannou’s team is so confident the heavyweight king will be able to walk straight into free agency regardless of his status as champion, because the end of 2022 would mark the end of that five-year maximum period.

The reason Ngannou is the first major UFC fighter to test these new-ish limits is mostly because of the cost it takes to get there. Ngannou said it himself — he had to give up multiple major paydays and lucrative contract offers (to the tune of an estimated $7 million loss) over his last several fights, simply because accepting any of those deals would’ve reset the five-year maximum period back to zero. Few fighters in MMA have, one, the resources to be able to turn down life-changing money during their prime earning years, but also, two, and perhaps most importantly, the conviction to choose long-term principle over short-term gain.

That is what makes Ngannou’s case so damn compelling — and, at least potentially, a case that could impact the sport in a seismic way. Anyone who watched Ngannou’s interview on The MMA Hour this week saw a man who doesn’t appear to be wavering from those principles anytime soon. This is no longer a fight over money; it’s a fight over respect.

Ngannou’s knee injury will likely keep him sidelined for the rest of 2022 anyway, so the champ’s work is basically done. Either he’ll be able to draw out unprecedented concessions from the UFC — and in the process, lay out a blueprint for future champions who share Ngannou’s audacity to follow — or he’ll stroll into the open market as the undisputed Baddest Man on the Planet and one of the most credentialed free agents in MMA history.

My bet? I’d put money on the former, if only because it’d be lunacy to cut bait with a heavyweight champion who was molded by the blood gods themselves, with all the tools and promotional elements needed to become a true mainstream superstar. But the UFC has also shown plenty of times before that it’s willing to take the short-term hit in order to maintain its long-term stranglehold. This could be the ultimate example. Regardless, the result may shape the tenor of these sorts of contractual disputes for years to come.

UFC 270: Ngannou v Gane Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images

Marrocco: I second Shaun’s statement that the reason we’ve arrived at what could be a watershed moment for the MMA industry is directly attributable to the persistence of a part-time journalist with a gift for business reporting (thanks, Nash), and, of course, to the ongoing anti-trust case (thanks Quarry, Le, et al). As a result, we know that the UFC’s decision to place an expiration date on its contracts, potentially to limit its exposure to damages sought by hundreds of additional plaintiffs for anti-competitive practices, carried real consequences for its business. Whether they’re big or small ones, short- or long-term, is the debate.

I can’t imagine the UFC would have made this move in the first place if it didn’t anticipate this day would come. They had to figure there would one day be a champion who wouldn’t take the money, there would be an artificial void at the top of a division, and they would take some bad press. If they didn’t, well, that would be hubris, and just so ... UFC.

Still, it’s rich that the fighter on the verge of this unusual finale trains at the gym founded by the guy who famously resigned from the promotion to get a fight with Fedor Emelianenko. Many have cited Randy Couture as a precedent for all this. The difference between then and now, however, is that the UFC’s business was more reliant on pay-per-view back in 2007. Couture was important to the company’s bottom line. In 2022, with so much of the promotion’s revenues guaranteed via broadcast contracts, the UFC is less reliant on individual stars. When they limited fight deals to five years, they essentially made a bet that no fighter is bigger than the brand. That’s what Dana has been saying for years, anyway. It’s been on the fighters and the public to prove him right or wrong, and the way it’s been going these days, it seems more the former.

In general, the UFC has been letting go of more fighters than ever, either by letting them fight out their contracts or by releasing them to ply their trade elsewhere (this comes in handy when your entire business model is being questioned in court and you want to give the impression of a competitive marketplace). Apart from a little hand-wringing here and there, most of the notable bad press has come from Jake Paul. Has it changed anything?

Ngannou, of course, is the heavyweight champion of the world. If there was a person qualified to lead the charge in changing the business, he seems the perfect candidate. But without hundreds of other fighters behind him, is he a big enough disruptor to force the issue? I think the UFC has already told us he isn’t (see: Lewis vs. Gane at UFC 265). Ngannou is an amazing talent with an amazing story. More than that, he seems to be the rarest thing in the fight game: A guy with principles. He is also a relatively new champion in a division with a revolving door. He and his team have very publicly put the UFC’s business out in the streets. That typically does not bode well for longevity.

I wish it wasn’t that way. I wish we could see Ngannou vs. Jon Jones. But unless Ngannou is willing to bend on his contractual demands, I see him sitting out and moving on to his next promoter. There’s a certain air of inevitability that hangs over the whole thing.

UFC 270 Weigh-in Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC

Martin: It’s awfully hard to believe Francis Ngannou will still be a UFC fighter when 2022 is finished, unless the promotion somehow caves to his demands for more freedom within his contract, which would mean allowing him to pursue outside interests like the potential boxing match against Tyson Fury he’s talked about quite often in recent years.

While the exact details of what Ngannou wants in order to stay in the UFC remain unclear, it would seem that he’s just tired of the restrictive nature of contracts where the promotion holds almost unilateral power over a fighter’s career. Ngannou is also probably the highest-profile fighter in quite some time who has actually been willing to go to battle with the UFC to the point where he’s ready to walk away all together to get what he wants.

That said, it’s almost impossible to believe the UFC will actually cater to Ngannou’s demands and set a precedent that could then allow future fighters to do the same when it comes time to start negotiating a new contract. The more likely scenario is the UFC cutting some backroom deal that would allow Ngannou to cross over to boxing to face Fury, much like what happened when Conor McGregor had the chance to earn a nine-figure payday for a match against Floyd Mayweather in 2017.

It just doesn’t seem like the UFC is willing to do for Ngannou what was once done for McGregor.

Perhaps that’s because Ngannou is being represented by an agent who works for Creative Artists Agency — the main talent agency rival to the UFC’s owners at Endeavor — or maybe the UFC just doesn’t want to allow anybody else to get over on them so the situation repeats itself when it’s time for Israel Adesanya or Kamaru Usman to get a new deal done. Either way, Ngannou seems steadfast in his demands and the UFC appears unwilling to meet him anywhere near the middle.

Regardless of the result, will any of this change what happens in the UFC long-term? Absolutely not.

If Ngannou re-signs, he’ll be happy with whatever terms were reached and that will put an end to the saga. If Ngannou leaves, the UFC has once again proven there’s no bending or breaking, even for the best heavyweight in the sport. It would be grand if Ngannou’s stance would alter the way the UFC does business with its fighters, but unless the government gets involved or the ongoing class-action lawsuit actually penalizes the UFC for unfair business practices, no single athlete is going to change the culture from within.

UFC 270 Press Conference Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC

Lee: Fighters take heed: If the UFC heavyweight champion — regularly touted by Dana White and the promotion as “The Baddest Man on the Planet” — can be viewed as an expendable pawn, what does that mean for the rest of you?

Maybe that’s an exaggeration of what this Francis Ngannou story truly represents, but it’s not far from what’s at the heart of the matter here. This is a fighter who has done everything the UFC has asked of him, fought when he’s been able to fight and sat when he’s been asked to sit, beaten the very best in his division, and even handled all of this public negotiation talk with grace and aplomb. He hasn’t come at the UFC breathing fire; if anything, he’s approached the conflict like the gentleman brawler that he is, sounding more like he’s ready to sit down with company execs with a fine French vintage on the table than sling mud through the media.

Certainly comments have been made by both sides, but Ngannou has only echoed the frustrations of bigger stars that have stared down the UFC before him, such as Conor McGregor and Nate Diaz. Unlike them, he wasn’t even asking to be allowed to do anything outside the confines of his existing contract. Instead, Ngannou’s goal was to complete his current deal at UFC 270 and then negotiate a new deal with expanded options for a contracted fighter. Only in the backwards world of MMA would that be considered unreasonable.

However, that is the world we inhabit, and legally the UFC controls Ngannou’s fighting future, at least until December. Then he’s free to walk, presumably into the realm of boxing where a tantalizing — but still strictly theoretical — matchup with Tyson Fury awaits. Even if that opportunity doesn’t materialize, Ngannou and his team should be able to secure at least a few significant boxing paydays for the highly marketable heavyweight.

As harsh as it sounds, the UFC will be fine with letting Ngannou go. MMA is arguably the ultimate “what have you done for me lately” business, and with Ngannou guaranteed to be on the shelf for the better part of the year as he recovers from impending knee surgery, you can bet the gears are already in motion to make him a distant memory. It took less than a year for Ciryl Gane to become the man to beat at heavyweight, remember?

Imagine if Jon Jones finally makes his heavyweight debut or if Gane gets right back on the winning track, or Stipe Miocic comes out of hibernation or they strike gold with one of the emerging names in the division like Tom Aspinall, Alexandr Romanov, or Tai Tuivasa. Then White will be happy to wish Ngannou a hearty farewell and a “don’t let the door hit ya...”

As for fans, they’ll likely follow Ngannou into his next venture with great interest, but they won’t be clamoring for him to return to the octagon. Not as long as the UFC always has another warm body to throw in there.

UFC 239: Ultimate Media Day Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Meshew: Man, this has really been a party in here, huh? When the most optimistic opinion voiced is “maybe the UFC won’t cut off their nose to spite their face this one time, but it’s 50/50,” you know the situation is bleak. But fear not, dear friends, for I am here to buoy the spirits of all with that most rare and dangerous of things: Hope!

Because I believe that this will be a turning point moment for the UFC. Not the paradigm-altering, seismic shift that would be the UFC finally equitably compensating fighters for their services — that is still years away from happening, if it ever does — but something much more subtle but nonetheless important: This is what will finally get the UFC to stop being such royal turds about the smallest things.

While the UFC brass being cutthroat businessmen is certainly nothing new, things have changed decidedly since the organization’s pay-per-view deal with ESPN. The way that deal is structured gives the UFC a guaranteed payout every year, and as a result has left the company significantly less beholden to fighters than they ever have been. That, coupled with the influx of cheap talent entering the UFC on 10-and-10 deals off the Contender Series, has created one of the most hostile environments for workers we’ve seen since the Rockefellers. It’s why we’ve seen the UFC cut ties with so many established fighters over the past few years: Why pay Anderson Silva a bunch of money when you can replace him with the same functional labor for a fraction of the price? But with any predatory business practice like this, there comes a point of no return, and I believe Ngannou represents that.

As other’s here have noted, Ngannou is the Baddest Man on the Planet, widely regarded, and imminently bankable as a promotional tool. On top of that, he has handled this entire situation as gracefully and respectfully as possible, even with the UFC not-so-subtly disrespecting the crap out of him. Most important, though, is that Ngannou is not asking for anything unreasonable. Certainly, Ngannou wants to be paid more, but his core request is that he be treated with respect by the company that he literally bleeds for and that he be allowed to pursue other non-MMA business interests, aka boxing. There is no good reason for the UFC to deny him either, especially as Ngannou has made it clear he wants to box with the UFC’s promotional help and not on his own. And that, I think, is what will make all the difference.

Perhaps I’m naive, but at some point, rationality has to win out here. The cost of what Ngannou is asking for is just so comically low. He wants to be treated like a human being and he wants to take part in what will assuredly be an enormous cultural moment that ups the UFC’s profile and lines their pockets. And with the eyes of the MMA world watching here, not paying that cost simply to assuage Dana White’s ego or hold to some idiotic hard-line stance about co-promotion would simply be too dumb to be believed.

White still runs the UFC, but with the company on the precipice of a mass exodus of stars soon with Ngannou, Nate Diaz, Dustin Poirier, and Conor McGregor all potentially shorting the gate in 2022, at some point they are going to have to take a good hard look at how they run things, because while Ngannou has been respectful thus far, just wait to see what he and Diaz and McGregor have to say about Dana White and the UFC when the organization no longer has any sway over them. The biggest stars in the sport all running the UFC down in public while Jake Paul continues to put their woeful fighter pay in the spotlight is A LOT of bad press for Endeavor to stomach.

At the end of the day, there is so much more to be gained by working with fighters than trying to subjugate them, and I’m hopeful that, at least with Ngannou, the good guys will finally win one.


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