“Go ask Randy Couture.”
Francis Ngannou says that was the warning he received two years ago when deep in contract negotiations with the UFC on a new contract as he contemplating leaving the promotion to test free agency.
Couture famously fought the UFC on several past occasions where his contract was concerned including a court battle that played out between 2007 and 2008 as he attempted to leave the promotion to set up a showdown with fellow heavyweight legend Fedor Emelianenko. In the end, Couture settled with the UFC — after reportedly spending $500,000 in legal fees — before inking a new multi-fight deal to return to the organization. Since his retirement he’s taken to the front lines to speak out against restrictive contracts while also seeking more financial transparency to understand what promotions are making versus what the athletes are being paid.
According to Couture, he never actually spoke to Ngannou directly about his own ordeal with the UFC but it doesn’t take much research to find the very public battle he fought with his former employers.
“The history is there,” Couture told MMA Fighting. “When [Zuffa] bought the company, I took them to task over their ancillary rights and the crappy contract they were trying to force me to sign as their heavyweight champion. We asked and put some more clauses in there. The upside to that is I got a much better deal moving forward. The downside is they closed a bunch of the loopholes in those crappy contracts and made it more difficult for other fighters moving forward.
“I never spoke to Francis directly myself but obviously Eric [Nicksick] is our head coach and our gym manager [at Xtreme Couture] and he was directly responsible for helping Francis shore up his wrestling and training for those fights against Stipe [Miocic] and the other fights he had in the UFC. I talked to Eric a lot about my position and where I stood. I was the only guy chirping back in ’06, ’07. Trying to get a better deal in  when they bought the company. Fighting for my ancillary rights in all that stuff, the video games and all the other stuff that’s tied up in all of that.”
Just recently, Ngannou essentially cut all ties with the UFC after he was unable to come to terms with the organization on a new deal while still serving as the heavyweight champion. UFC President Dana White claims the promotion offered him a deal that would have made Ngannou the highest paid heavyweight in the history of the sport but it wasn’t all about the money to the 36-year-old fighter from Cameroon.
Ngannou has spoken often about seeking more freedom in his future contracts and said that at certain points during negotiations it felt like the UFC was telling him to “take the money and shut up” but he refused to bow to those demands. During those same contract talks, Ngannou says he also introduced the possibility of health insurance for fighters as well as asking for an advocate that would sit in future contract negotiations that would represent the fighters versus the promotion.
Based on his own experiences, Couture knew that there were certain concessions the UFC would never make but Ngannou stuck to his guns and didn’t give into the pressure to just sign a new deal with the same terms as his previous contract.
“The money they threw at Francis was pretty significant and probably as much as anybody’s gotten paid in our sport but it was the other things — health insurance, a fighter’s representative, some of those things that he asked for that were outside of that, that caused them to drop him,” Couture said. “They don’t want to give up that power.
“They don’t want to give up those things. They want to be able to control the fighters the way they want to control them. They don’t like that transparency. They keep those numbers pretty close to their vest so they don’t have to negotiate with fighters who know what their value is in the market place, that’s how that shakes out.”
Couture, who is currently preparing for the upcoming PFL season as well as the PFL Challengers Series as part of the company’s broadcast team, believes Ngannou took a huge step towards making serious changes in the sport when he chose to leave the UFC while still reigning as heavyweight champion.
Of course, the now 59-year-old UFC Hall of Famer concedes it will likely take more than one person to make a real difference but then again that’s how baseball underwent a seismic shift in the 1970s after Curt Flood sued for free agency after he was dealt to another team in a trade.
“Somebody’s got to be the Curt Flood of MMA and that’s exactly what Curt Flood did for Major League Baseball,” Couture said. “Francis is probably the closest to a top tier, marquee fighter that was literally holding the belt in the heavyweight division and put that on the line to make a statement. I’m proud of him for what he’s done. Hopefully, more fighters step up.”
In 1970, Flood filed a lawsuit against Major League Baseball for a reserve clause that effectively tied players to one team for life. The case actually made it all the way to the Supreme Court and although Flood lost, enough players had rallied to the cause that Major League Baseball eventually had to concede to changes and the reserve clause was struck down in 1975.
Couture knows from personal experience that nothing in MMA is going to change overnight but Ngannou deserves praise for sticking to his beliefs and then backing it up when it came time to negotiate a new deal with the UFC or opt out to test free agency.
“I think what Francis is doing is natural, it’s indigenous to the issues in the sport as we suffer through these growing pains as becoming the fastest growing global sport in our society right now,” Couture said.
“Hopefully, we get to the bottom of that, we get some transparency, we get the Ali Act amended and all the promoters have to abide by those Federal laws and create that transparency and remove the restrictive contracts.”