“I don’t think he wants to get involved in all this legal crap, but at the end of the day, right is right, and he’s willing to stand up and use his voice,” the former UFC heavyweight champion and Hall of Famer said Monday on The MMA Hour. “I don’t see him giving in.”
Almost 15 years ago, Couture drew a line in the sand when he resigned from the UFC with two fights remaining on his contract. After a protracted court battle to win his freedom and fight Fedor Emelianeno, a saga that personally cost him $500,000, he returned to the fold and re-signed to defend his title against Brock Lesnar at UFC 91.
Couture finds it “interesting” things got to this point in the first place; the UFC, he said, gave Ngannou “some leverage” by allowing him to fight out his contract. But he doesn’t expect the same deference over free agency.
Ngannou’s case is unique from Couture’s in the fact that he said he fulfilled his contract at UFC 270 with his win over Ciryl Gane. It’s even more unique because that contract contained a provision with a five-year time limit – believed to be a UFC strategy for limiting potential damages from the promotion’s ongoing anti-trust case by creating the appearance of a more free-flowing marketplace for talent – that he believes will make him a free agent by the end of the year. The UFC, which holds Ngannou under contract with a “champion’s clause,” will most certainly contest that, according to Couture.
“It becomes determining when that clock started,” he said. “When he signed the contract did that clock start, or did it start when he fought that first fight, which was probably a number of months after that. That’s for legal teams and lawyers to adjudicate and figure out, and that’s the problem.
“These guys have endless – well, not endless – but a lot of money. They’ll drag Francis into court and try and bleed him of the money he has accrued through his fighting, and at some point, you have to make a decision what you want to do. This is what happened with me. I was fighting to try and make that Fedor fight happen, spending a lot of my own money fighting the injunctions and things they were trying to do to keep me from executing what I saw in the language of the contract and being able to go somewhere else, because they couldn’t come to terms with M-1 Global, who was representing Fedor.
“Francis is going to find himself in a very similar situation. If he tries to walk away [and says] the contract ended here, they’re going to contest that, they’re going to drag him into court, force him to spend a lot of money on lawyers that he’s not going to want to do, and at some point, he’s going to have to make a decision ... whether he wants to stop spending money on lawyers and legal issues and go back and doing what he loves to do, which is fight. It’s a shame to be in that situation.”
Couture has witnessed first hand the hard-ball tactics the UFC has used in the past, so he wasn’t surprised to hear that the promotion threatened to sue Ngannou’s agent on the day of UFC 270.
“This is classic Zuffa and Dana White,” Couture said. “At the end of the day, they don’t want Francis to have that power. They would have been much happier if Francis would have lost that fight. I think that’s what they expected to happen, and I think Dana White can say whatever he wants, but he didn’t show up in that cage to put that belt around his heavyweight champion, he didn’t show up to the post-fight press conference, and there’s a reason for that. He can say whatever he wants, but it’s because he was sincerely hoping that Francis would not win that fight and he wouldn’t have to deal with Francis. We’d see Francis being cut right now, but Francis is still the champ and still holding that strap. They’ve gotta deal with him.”
Like Couture, Ngannou has said his demands for moving forward with the UFC are not based solely on money. Instead, they’re about a level of respect and the ability to pursue long-held passions, which in the champ’s case is a boxing match with someone like Tyson Fury.
They’ve used similar language in expressing their plight. But while Couture has gotten on the mat with Ngannou a few times at his Xtreme Couture gym where the champ trains, he said he hasn’t spoken specifically about his history with the promotion. Mostly, he passed along lessons to his longtime Xtreme Couture coach Eric Nicksick, who eventually became Ngannou’s head coach.
Couture doesn’t regret throwing in the towel on his legal battle, though he laments that many of the “loopholes” he saw in the contract were later closed by the UFC, making them even more restrictive. In the end, however, he decided that fighting and being the best in the world was much more important than waiting on the sidelines.
“I wanted to fight,” he said. “At the end of the day, I’m a fighter. I wanted to take a stand for myself and my family for what was best and for my financial interest and future. I wanted to be considered the No. 1 athlete in the world, and that meant fighting Fedor Emelianenko. They had him ranked as No. 1 and me ranked as No. 2. As a fighter, that’s the guy I want to fight, and I’m sure Francis would feel the same way. At the end of the day, we’re fighters. This is what we love, this is our passion. We want to be able to do this.”