Now-former UFC heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou said he wanted a new three-fight contract he expected to finish in one year before a turn to professional boxing.
Ngannou estimated the new deal would pay him “around” $8 million to fight Jon Jones at UFC 285. He then expected to complete trilogy with Stipe Miocic and then rematch Jones before his move to boxing, where high-dollar matchups with Tyson Fury and Anthony Joshua loomed.
But there was a sticking point that ultimately killed the deal: Ngannou didn’t want the standard UFC contract.
“In that contract, I’m not free,” he said. “I’m not an independent contractor. I have no rights. I hand over all the power to you guys. I’ve seen in the past how you guys can utilize your power against me, and I don’t want that.”
In an extended interview on Tuesday’s The MMA Hour, Ngannou went in-depth on negotiations with the UFC that led to his nearly unprecedented departure from the promotion as a champion, his response to UFC President Dana White’s claims about his exit, and his plans for the future as one of the most valuable free agents in MMA history.
Ngannou is adamant that he made the right choice to depart the UFC. While he doesn’t rule out a possible return to the promotion, he said it must be under his terms, which at this point potentially include permission to solicit outside sponsors, health insurance and a fighter advocate at the promotion’s negotiating table.
“I know that I did everything right,” he said. “I don’t have any regrets. I wouldn’t do anything different if I had to do it again.”
Ngannou said his last message with the UFC came one week prior when the promotion told him it had to move on with the heavyweight division. But he had not budged from his position that he needed certain concessions that went above and beyond the UFC’s standard deal, which he felt left him without any leverage in future negotiations. He wanted a contract that couldn’t be extended beyond the three fights he had agreed to so he could fulfill his desire to box, which he said the promotion had no interest in.
“They didn’t want anything to do with boxing,” he said. “They were like, if, and only if, and in good faith, and I’m like, I’m not betting on that.”
The discussion took place over the phone and involved UFC COO Hunter Campbell and matchmaker Mick Maynard. But Ngannou sensed that White was also in the room when talks took place.
Of the specific value of the deal, which White previously said made “The Predator” the highest-paid heavyweight in UFC history, Ngannou said he couldn’t be sure because he couldn’t verify what he was being told.
“It’s all their narrative, which is their narrative, and it can’t be proven,” he said. “I wish it could work. I really do. I really wanted, but not at any cost.”
Ngannou said he prepared to compromise on several of his requests. He didn’t expect that the UFC would agree to health insurance, particularly for all fighters on the roster, which he initially requested. He felt that there was long-term value for him even if the UFC didn’t grant all of his demands.
“I just wanted them to know it was something I did want, and consider it,” he said. ”They said no, they don’t know business like that.”
“At this point, health insurance for me is not a problem, but how about the guys at the bottom,” he added. “They can’t really afford health insurance. And I have been there, so it’s something I carry in my heart.”
At a certain point, Ngannou said he felt a hard pivot in negotiations when he said Campbell declared, ‘This is it. Let’s work this out.’”
Ngannou’s answer was still no. And he knew from there on out, things would be different with the UFC.
“At some time, I feel like I was slapped in the face by money, like, ‘Take the money and shut up.’ And that couldn’t happen.
“It was just a matter of principle, and at that time, I knew this was it. They didn’t say on the phone, ‘This is what’s going to happen,’ but I knew.”
When the heavyweight champ saw a poster advertising a heavyweight title fight between Jones and his former teammate and one-time opponent, Ciryl Gane, at UFC 285, it didn’t come as a surprise. He said he shut off his phone, which by that time had started to buzz with questions from media outlets.
Speaking to reporters this past Saturday, White confirmed the heavyweight title fight and made a series of dubious claims about Ngannou’s desire to fight top opposition and to be a UFC fighter. There was even a throwaway comment about the champ’s weight, which the exec said was north of 300 pounds.
“At some point, I stopped watching it,” replied Ngannou, who said he’s near his usual walk-around weight of 275. “‘Bulls***.’”
Ngannou said he doesn’t take personally the attacks from his promoter. They were just a symptom of the current situation and the end result of a relationship that began to sour, he said, when he requested to renegotiate his contract on a fight-by-fight basis.
“Dana is Dana,” Ngannou said. “I don’s care about what he says. Dana cannot hurt me. From where I come from, I have heard a lot worse than that, and I’m still here. ... What I know is that I’m here, and I have a good future.
“He’s upset. He’s not happy about this situation. He saw his champion go away, which is something that probably never happened.”
Asked for comment on Ngannou’s MMA Hour interview, a UFC official told MMA Fighting, “Nothing more outside of Dana speaking about it on Saturday.”
During negotiations, Ngannou said execs cited Randy Couture as a cautionary tale of what happened when fighters tried to break free of the UFC. So he asked Couture directly.
Couture in 2007 declared he was retired and would pursue free agency in hopes of getting a fight with then-top heavyweight Fedor Emelianenko. Later, Couture said he spent a half-million dollars fighting the UFC in court, only to return to the fold and fight Lesnar for the undisputed title.
White said the promotion had released Ngannou from his contract and matching period that allowed it to counter offers from other promotions. But Ngannou said he was a free agent in early December, and in any event, the UFC could never match the offer he really wanted.
“Nobody releases me,” he said. “I’ve been free since Dec. 9 or 13, but the only reason I didn’t go public was in respect of our conversation. I wanted to respect that and not talk about it. But I’ve been a free agent since.”
With a new UFC deal in his rearview mirror, Ngannou said he’s open to soliciting offers from MMA and boxing promoters. He’s going it alone after his previous manager, Marquel Martin, was getting “attacked” at the CAA agency’s combat division, which was later shuttered amid a back-and-forth with the UFC.
“People were still trying to come after him,” Ngannou said. “We are in the business where people don’t like you if you do your job. At some point, you’ve just got to kiss the ring.”
Ngannou said he would have been ready to fight Jones in March, despite a serious knee injury that required surgery after he hobbled through a winning fight with Gane at UFC 270.
Now, he’ll look for a new deal in hopes of returning to action by July. What does he want in his next contract?
“I think I just need some respect, more respect at least,” he said. “It’s very important. I need some freedom. I need to feel like a man, own my freedom, control my destiny. I don’t want anybody to decide for me. I think I’m man enough to decide for my own, and so far, I haven’t been doing a bad job at all.”