For much of 2021, Israel Adesanya, Francis Ngannou and Kamaru Usman were a united front of African-born UFC champions. Their success promised to bring the octagon to their native country for the first time in history.
Cut to 2023, and none of the three fighters hold a UFC title, though in Ngannou’s situation, he never lost the belt. The now-former heavyweight champion fought for a better contract for he and his UFC colleagues before parting ways with the promotion, and Adesanya, speaking backstage at UFC 284, expressed his support for his countryman.
“Francis made the right call,” Adesanya said at RAC Arena in Perth, Australia. “He’s the one that kicked in the door. We’ve all been behind him, we’ve been saying this for how long, if you guys go back on the tapes.
“I’ve been saying the same thing. I’m not gonna harp on about it, but he’s right, it’s little things — he’s asking for things that should be mandatory. He wasn’t asking for, you know, crazy, ridiculous diva-ish demands. There’s something as little as for the guys fighting on the opening [bout], having the fourth or third corner man being paid for and the hotel is being paid for. That sets them up nicely, and they don’t have to fork it out of their 10 and 10, to pay for their fourth or third corner. Little things like that.”
Among other things, Ngannou asked the UFC to allow fighters to solicit outside sponsors, provide health insurance and welcome a fighter advocate to negotiations. The 36-year-old champ said he didn’t expect to receive all of his wishes. But as it turned out, everything but the raise he was offered was a non-starter in negotiations. So instead of re-signing, he walked away into free agency.
Adesanya, who lost the belt this past November in a meeting with two-time kickboxing foe Alex Pereira, has called for better pay for UFC newcomers. He also called Ngannou’s pay for a UFC 270 title defense “atrocious.”
“He’s not being a diva,” Adesanya said of Ngannou. “He’s asking for reasonable demands, and I felt like he should have got them. But again, yeah, what [UFC President Dana White] said, ‘That’s not how we do business,’ but the way we do business has to change, and it will change. He’s just the guy to kick in the door, and you never know what the future holds. Maybe he comes back or something.”
White didn’t seem as optimistic about Ngannou’s future, claiming the heavyweight champion wanted to fight inferior competition outside the UFC rather than the world’s best fighters in the octagon. Ngannou dismissed that idea and said his future would be determined by the promotion that could give him a contract he felt respected his contributions.
“I think he’ll come back [to the UFC], Adesanya offered. “He’s the greatest heavyweight we’ve ever had. Not not even just like in the UFC, but in history. He left on his own terms with the belt, never lost it. ... So I feel he’s gonna do what he has to do in boxing or wherever else. But it’s a great hit to the company. I know he’ll be back, though. He’ll be back.”
Asked whether a UFC trip to Africa would be incomplete without Ngannou, Adesanya confidently said the heavyweight representative of the “Three Kings” will be back.