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Roundtable: Was Francis Ngannou’s free agency gambit a success? Plus predicting his first PFL opponent

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Francis Ngannou is no longer an MMA free agent.

More than five months after departing the UFC as its heavyweight champion, Ngannou has inked a landmark “strategic partnership” deal with PFL — one that may prove to be among the most unique and groundbreaking deals in the sport’s history.

On the heels of the news, MMA Fighting’s Shaun Al-Shatti, Steven Marrocco, and Damon Martin sit back down at the roundtable to analyze all angles of Ngannou’s big move.

Was Francis Ngannou’s free agency gambit a success?

Marrocco: I would caution that we don’t know all the terms of Ngannou’s new deal. We know the broad strokes, and by that alone, it appears an unqualified win in the short term for Team Ngannou. He’s going to get at least two big paydays, a seat at the table for fighters, and the chance to put PFL stakes down in his homeland of Africa. That’s pretty significant for a guy who, at the start of the last decade, was living in a parking garage in Paris.

Ngannou’s story is nothing if not epic, and his unprecedented move away from the UFC at the apex of his octagon career was another example of his uniqueness among MMA fighters. Here is a man who took a stand against the biggest promotion in the business, taking a massive risk with his career, and came out on the other side with a contract over which most MMA heavyweights would drool. In fact, you can just about hear the salivation in the air with Ngannou dangling a $2 million purse in front of his next PFL opponents. If the winner of that sweepstakes is the winner of the 2023 heavyweight tournament, that turns a $1 million payday into $3 million, more money than any of the current roster has even sniffed. As long as the PFL can deliver on its promise, it’s a pretty powerful tractor beam for contractees and free agents: Make a ton of money and beat the baddest guy on the planet.

And that’s where reality potentially intervenes. Ngannou is only a success as long as people are paying for his services, and if the promotion goes under because he bankrupts it, that’s not a success for him, for the PFL, or for the industry. Ngannou’s deal may be unique in its scope, but at the end of the day, it’s a huge line item taken on by a promotion that’s thus far struggled mightily to attract market share among MMA fans. Quite obviously, PFL is trying to buy credibility by purchasing the most sought after free agent in the marketplace, just as many promotions not named UFC have done. History shows us that one or even a half-dozen known MMA commodities does not make a business juggernaut, but maybe Ngannou is different. We’re about to find out.

After almost two decades (!) of watching the business machinations of the UFC and its competitors, I can safely say that this whole gambit boils down to two very simple things: Francis winning — and winning big — and the PFL staying in business. Given all the ups and downs in this crazy business, that’s a huge, huge mountain to climb, and against a competitor with a 20-year head start. Fingers crossed that Ngannou and the folks behind the Smart Cage can make it happen, because the industry would be all the better for it.

Al-Shatti: Has this free agency saga been a success? Tentatively, yes.

The boxing component of Ngannou’s journey was always going to be an important half of this equation — certainly the more lucrative half — and that element remains up in the air. Tuesday’s barrage of news was illuminating in many ways, much of them positive, but lost in those festivities was also how difficult it’s seemingly been for Ngannou to draw interest from the big fish of boxing’s heavyweight waters. If the former UFC champ comes away from this story with a nice crossover payday or two and his pugilistic itch scratched, his decision to gamble on himself will have been an unequivocal success. If not, much of the revisionism that has reared its head so frequently in 2023 may return in full force.

But for now, that half of the conversation remains a hypothetical. And the half was do know about? It’s hard to describe Ngannou’s PFL deal as anything but an unmitigated win.

The word “historic” is oft-abused, but in this case it applies — Ngannou’s unprecedented, multi-pronged parternship with one of sport’s top organizations is unlike any MMA has seen at its highest levels. “The Predator” may have been accused of fumbling the bag, but in the end, he got everything he wanted — an equity stake in the company, a myriad of concessions that will ostensibly help him and his fellow fighters, and even a chance to grow the sport in his native homeland of Africa. The man who became a butt of the joke in the MMA discourse was actually out here negotiating $2 million minimum purses for his opposition and more mainstream opportunities for his countrymen. That’s a major coup.

I’ve been around long enough to watch plenty of terrible ideas fail in MMA and even more good ideas fail even harder, so it’s fair to be skeptical. There’s certainly a world in which 2025 rolls around and PFL Africa is still a pipe dream, the business is failing, and all the lavish promises we heard on Tuesday end up being little more than flimsy window-dressing.

But just the same, there’s a feasible timeline in which we hit 2025 on the calendar, the Baddest Man on the Planet has more money than he knows what to do with, PFL is entrenched as the inarguable No. 2 promotion in MMA, and this week is remembered as a landmark moment that forever changed what was possible for fighters in free agency.

Plus, if nothing else, at least PFL gets to take on a new meaning: The Pay Francis League.

Martin: For Francis, this is absolutely a massive success.

For context, we have to remember that Ngannou’s grievances and demands with the UFC went far beyond money, so this new contract with the PFL isn’t truly about his own monetary gain. Is he likely getting paid the same amount as the GDP in his home nation of Cameroon? Probably so, but it’s been well documented that the UFC was backing up the Brink’s truck to pay him for a new contract.

What Ngannou wanted beyond money were concessions that the UFC wasn’t willing to give and the PFL was more than happy to hand over. He got his next opponent a guaranteed $2 million payday. He’s getting equity in the company. He’s got a role on the board of directors. He’s earning more profits on whatever pay-per-view sales he generates.

Oh, and Ngannou also has complete freedom to pursue fights in boxing and the PFL won’t have any hand in the cookie jar. So if he secures a showdown with Tyson Fury worth $20 or $30 million guaranteed, the PFL won’t take a piece of that pie just for the sake of allowing him the chance to try his hand at boxing.

That’s exactly the kind of leverage Ngannou wanted. No other fighter competing in MMA — not even Conor McGregor — has that kind of power. There’s no other way to categorize this but a monumental achievement in contract negotiations for Ngannou.

Perhaps the bigger and more complex question will be how much will this pay off or potentially backfire on the PFL. That’s an answer we may not get for a couple more years.

UFC 270: Ngannou v Gane Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images

Who will be Francis Ngannou’s first PFL opponent?

Al-Shatti: Therein lies one of the most intriguing aspects of the PFL deal and the ways in which Ngannou wanted it structured — and it all boils down to the ex-champ’s timeline.

If Ngannou was targeting a promotional debut sometime in 2023? That’d be a different story; let’s be honest, there’s not much out there right now for “The Predator.” With all due respect to PFL 2022 champ Ante Delija, how many MMA fans are going to sprint to their wallets to fork up $50 to watch him fight anyone, even if it’s the Baddest Man on the Planet? Not many. But by pushing that targeted date out to mid-2024 and offering a minimum $2 million purse for whichever heavyweight wins the sweepstakes, Ngannou and the PFL have effectively birthed one of 2023’s most creative and tantalizing subplots.

There’s a lot of time between now and 2024. If you’re a top UFC heavyweight (or light heavyweight) outside of the immediate Jones/Miocic title orbit who’s even coming close to approaching the end of your deal, why wouldn’t you give a long, hard stare at the door Ngannou has opened here? Most decent big boys in MMA earn anywhere from the high five-figures to low six-figures per fight. Now you can go over to PFL and fight the No. 1 guy in the world for 20 times that amount without even having to negotiate? This kind of golden ticket frankly doesn’t come around anymore in MMA. Is Tai Tuivasa or Serghei Spivac really going to find a better opportunity for a life-changing payday than what Ngannou is offering?

If I’m above 200 pounds with a decent name, and there’s even the slightest chance I can join that conversation, I’m sitting down with my team tonight and plotting out a course.

Martin: Somebody not on the current PFL roster.

No offense whatsoever to Ante Delija, Danilo Marquez, Denis Goltsov, or Jordan Heiderman but none of them are really going to serve as a quality “B” side to face off with Ngannou, at least not at the prices that the PFL is paying him. Instead, the PFL will likely have to go headhunting for a name to help build them build a quality pay-per-view people are actually going to buy.

Throwing a random heavyweight in there to get wiped out in 18 seconds by Ngannou isn’t going to give the promotion the return on investment needed to justify what he’s getting paid. Plus, Ngannou secured his next opponent a whopping $2 million payday — there’s just no way the PFL hands out that kind of money to just anybody.

Realistically, every heavyweight not named Jon Jones, Stipe Miocic, Sergei Pavlovich, Tom Aspinall, or Jailton Almeida should probably consider pursuing free agency with the chance to land that fight with Ngannou. With his debut not happening until mid-2024, that gives those fighters and the PFL plenty of time to sign a suitable and hopefully worthy opponent, but it seems highly unlikely anybody currently signed there will get the chance.

Marrocco: I think it would be a smart thing for the PFL to try and sign another big free agent, perhaps one whose UFC contract is up (and whose value hasn’t been throttled on the way out). One possibility: It could bring Fabricio Werdum back in the fold (surely the former UFC and Strikeforce champ would love a crack at submitting another MMA boogeyman after Fedor Emelianenko).

But something tells me it’s just as likely that PFL executives will try to prove a point by giving Ngannou the winner of their 2023 heavyweight tournament. After all, could there be a better way to prove the promotion is a real player in the MMA space than by watching Ngannou felled by homegrown talent?

To be sure, Option B is a terrible choice for the business. Regardless of who wins this year, none of the fighters are proven draws for anyone but the most hardcore fan base, and Ngannou would be doing the heavy lifting. From a branding perspective, however, it would look really good if a PFL fighter took out the baddest man on the planet.

Sometimes, with its flurry of attention-grabbing plays like Claressa Shields and Jake Paul and whatnot, it seems like the PFL is more concerned with the perception they create in the MMA marketplace than the dollars-and-cents reality. What I see from the PFL is a company that desperately wants to convince the world it’s a billion-dollar live sports property. And what that makes me think is that it eventually wants to cash out to the next group of investors who want to take on a vanity project in owning a piece of MMA.

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