UFC bantamweight champion Aljamain Sterling hopes Francis Ngannou is able to find what he’s looking for in free agency, but he still can’t help but be a little disappointed with how the saga between the UFC and its now former heavyweight champ ultimately played out.
“I’m actually saddened by that, I’m not gonna lie,” Sterling said Monday on The MMA Hour.
“If I’m being honest, I’m going to say I think both sides of the party messed up. I think Francis needs the UFC in regards to continuing his rise into the mainstream. People know who he is, but I think for him to get to that next level, if he beats a guy like Jon Jones. That’s undeniable. Now he goes out, he’s a free agent — how much money is he really going to generate from these other promotions? I don’t know. I have no inside information to know what that looks like. Can he get the Tyson Fury fight? If he does that, OK, good for him, because I think that’s going to do huge numbers — maybe.
“Maybe people don’t think he has a chance. But if it’s the small gloves — like they were teasing the small gloves — that’s a very interesting boxing fight. So I look at it like that and I look at the UFC, you let the baddest man on the planet walk. Over what? Because the guy wants to do a boxing fight while he’s still under contract? Conor [McGregor] did it. Why can’t Francis do it? And I don’t know if that’s the reason why they didn’t agree, I’m sure there’s a bunch of things we don’t see behind closed doors,” Sterling continued.
“Outside of that, I don’t know if he goes to a Bellator, will he do the same? I don’t know if people are going to be tuning in to watch Francis in Bellator. I don’t know. So I don’t know what the strategy really is. I just hope whatever he does, honestly, it’s the best financial means for him. That’s what I hope for it. I just feel like that [Jon Jones] fight should have been a one-off or maybe that should have been some type of negotiating factor, because I think that’s the one that’s going to put him at this meteoric place in his career, if that’s what he even wants. Maybe he doesn’t even give a s***. Maybe he doesn’t even care.”
Ngannou’s departure with the UFC became official on Saturday — an unprecedented move for the modern era of the sport. Not since B.J. Penn left the UFC in 2004 while still holding its welterweight title has a sitting champion departed the promotion with a belt in tow. In Ngannou’s absence, a bout between former 205-pound champ Jon Jones and Ciryl Gane is already official for March 4 at UFC 285 to decide the new heavyweight champion.
Ngannou vs. Jones was the matchup many people within the MMA community wanted to see. The two powerhouses have been publicly angling to fight each other for the past two years, and Sterling counts himself among those disappointed that it never came to fruition.
“It’ll be sad if it’s a missed opportunity, like it would’ve been Brock Lesnar vs. Fedor Emelianenko, or maybe Emelianenko vs. Cain Velasquez,” Sterling said. “We want to see those fights, right? So it’s like, I would rather have that fight and then whatever happens after that, maybe we go back to the drawing board and we negotiate again, because I’m sure there’s enough money to scratch both backs and everyone’s happy.
“I think it’s just a power play, and maybe a leverage thing, and trying to see whose dick is bigger. The UFC has deep pockets, they can go to bat with anybody on this planet as much as they want. So I just go, like, ‘Come on, man. The fans want the fight. Let’s figure out a way to make this fight happen.’ That’s that’s just where I’m at with it.”
Ngannou’s dissatisfaction with the UFC was not a surprise.
The 36-year-old has been publicly at odds with the promotion for some time now. Following his final title defense over Gane in January 2022, Ngannou told MMA Fighting that his grievances were no longer solely about money, but also about issues of freedom and respect that far outweighed the number of zeroes on his checks in terms of importance.
Sterling has had his disputes with the UFC as well, so he can see where Ngannou was coming from. He just wishes the two sides would’ve found a way to make it work.
Sterling also pushed back at the narrative spun by UFC president Dana White on Saturday that Ngannou’s departure was the result of the former heavyweight champion not wanting “to take a lot of risk” by fighting an opponent like Jones.
“It’s it’s easy to say people don’t want to fight anybody,” Sterling said. “At the end of the day, I used to fight for no money. And then when I realized that your body is actually compromised after doing this, after a couple of years in this sport, you go, ‘Maybe I should actually care about the money.’ And I think that’s all it is — Francis cares about the money.
“And he even said it’s not just about the money, it’s about freedom. It’s like you’re giving up the freedom for the money. He thinks there’s a middle ground to have both, and I kind of agree with him. And again, I don’t know if it’s because [the UFC] don’t want to set a precedent for now all the other fighters to have this thing, or, ‘Well, Francis did it. Why can I do it if he did it? And I’m in this position.’ That can definitely happen. But the UFC time and time again has nipped that in the bud multiple times — this ain’t going to be no different.”