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Understanding Francis Ngannou’s departure from UFC

by Lesley Ngwa
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Ngannou last defended his UFC heavyweight title against Ciryl Gane last January 2022 but tore his knee ligaments which left his UFC future uncertain. It was expected that the Cameroon star would return to the octagon against undefeated superstar Jon Jones if he was able to agree a fresh deal with the promotion.

However a poster was leaked which matched up American Jones in a heavyweight title clash with previous contender Gane, sparking rumours that Ngannou had elected to depart and vacate his title. UFC kingpin Dana White has now confirmed the news at a press conference, where he suggested Ngannou was offered a new mega-money deal but turned it down.

UFC offered Ngannou around $8 million (4.8 B FCFA) to fight Jon Jones in what would have been the biggest bout of the 2023 calendar year.
Ngannou, 36, had been with the UFC since 2015. He has not fought since defeating Ciryl Gane via unanimous decision last January 2022 in UFC 270.

While it was well known that Ngannou and the UFC were having issues in contract negotiations, it remains a surprise that things fell apart.

Ngannou is one of MMA’s biggest names and has been an anchor of the heavyweight division.

“We offered a deal to Francis that would’ve made him the highest paid heavyweight in the history of the company, more than Brock Lesnar, more than everybody,” White said when giving an update on Ngannou’s UFC future. “And he turned the deal down. We’re going to release him from his contract, give up our right to match.

“He can go wherever he wants, do whatever he wants. I think Francis is at a place right now, where he doesn’t want to take a risk. He feels like he can fight lesser opponents and make more money. The guy weighs over 130kg, just had knee surgery, and hasn’t had a real training camp. I think that probably has a lot to do with it.
“He doesn’t know what’s going to happen with his knee, he’s not getting younger,” White said. “It’s not like this is something that has never happened before. There have been other guys that have come to us and said I don’t want to compete at this level anymore.”

Ngannou has been involved in a dispute with the UFC over his pay, which has seen him explore opportunities outside of the UFC before committing to a new deal. The heavyweight champion wants to fight in the boxing ring and requested a clause that he can be released on a temporary basis to pursue lucrative boxing opportunities on the side.

This included a fight with Tyson Fury which could now be back on the cards following his decision to turn his back on the UFC and take on other clashes.

Ngannou’s side of the story

Francis Ngannou is gone from the UFC, and he’s breaking his silence on what led to his departure. The former UFC heavyweight champion spoke to the MMA Hour saying factors beyond money led to his exit from the company.

“I felt like I was slapped in the face with money. Like, ‘Take the money and shut up.’ That didn’t work with me,” Ngannou said.

Ngannou added that he advocated for fighters to receive health insurance and the ability to have in-cage sponsorships during his negotiations.
“In that contract, I’m not free; I’m not an independent contractor. … I hand over all power to [UFC], and I’ve seen in the past how you hold that power over me. I don’t want that again,” Ngannou said.

It now means that the UFC heavyweight title is vacant and will be on the line when Jon Jones and Ciryl Gane step in the Octagon together in early March in what would be a spectacular fight without the added caveat of the heavyweight title being on the line.

We don’t know the exact reason, but an interview this time last year with MMA Hour has possibly provided us with the reasoning. Realistically, talks with the company were already under way 12 months ago about his contract being extended, so what Ngannou had to say around his future is pretty telling.

Ngannou claimed: “I just want to be free. We are supposedly independent contractors; independent contractors are technically a free person. That’s the reason why they need some adjustments [limiting contracts] in that contract, that’s what I’ve been fighting for.

“Yeah [it’s not just about the money], the terms of the contract, everything that they put into it, they hold you in like captivity, like you can’t do anything and you have no rights. The contract is one-sided, although you still don’t have anything; you don’t even have health insurance while you’re doing this, putting your body on the line to provide, to put on the show, risking everything. There’s a lot of things man, we have no insurance, no guarantee.”

His head coach at XTreme Couture, Erick Nicksick, had this to say about the situation.
“I’m an optimistic guy, I thought things would get done and get done the right way, but unfortunately they didn’t,” Nicksick told MMA Hour in a new interview. “I know Francis is going to be onto bigger and better things and I’m proud of him. I’m happy for him. He stood his ground. He knew what he wanted and he didn’t budge on what he wanted so kudos to him.”

Eric Nicksick says Francis Ngannou parting ways with the UFC wasn’t about the money.
White claimed UFC’s offer would have made “The Predator” the highest-paid heavyweight in UFC history.

“The money was there — that’s not what moves him,” Nicksick said. “It wasn’t the money that was moving him; it was other things, other terms, some sticking points that he couldn’t waver on. So kudos to him. This is what he wanted and that’s why I love the guy.”

“We met with Dana [White], and Hunter [Campbell], after [UFC 270] and had a great dinner,” said Nicksick. “Things were going in the right direction, I felt. Got in the car and Francis looks over at me and says, ‘If I sign this deal, without making any change, without doing all of the things I said I was gonna do, I’m a sellout. And I refuse to do that. I have a stance where I can make a difference.’’

“[Boxing] was definitely something that was a sticking point for him, that he wanted the opportunity to box,” Nicksick said. “I think the definition of ‘independent contractor’ and ‘employee’ was something he wasn’t comfortable with. He wanted the opportunity to … if someone came along, a higher bidder; he wanted to take that opportunity.”

While a deal didn’t get reached, Nicksick said Ngannou had spent the recent time back at XTreme Couture training for a mixed martial arts (MMA) fight.

“When he got back in the gym and he was full healthy with the knee and he started working, he said to me, ‘I love the fact that I can kick, I can wrestle, I can put a full MMA skill set together because I like that. This is what I miss the most about MMA.’” he said. “But now if he wants to go into boxing he’s going to focus on that one skillset. I think whoever comes to the table with the most amount of money, through whatever that he feels is right for him, if it’s MMA or boxing he’s gonna be ready for it.”

Francis Ngannou likely had a myriad of reasons behind his decision to exit the UFC and test free agency but being scared of tough competition wasn’t among them.

While UFC president Dana White didn’t go as far as using a word like afraid when addressing Ngannou, he did state that in his opinion the defending heavyweight champion was “in a place right now where he doesn’t want to take a lot of risk” while adding that he was in a “good position where he could fight lesser opponents and make more money.”

Considering Ngannou already holds wins over three of the top five heavyweights in the UFC rankings, it seems dubious at best that he would suddenly try to avoid top competition.

“Did you see what he did to Alistair Overeem? I don’t think he’s scared of anyone. He beat Stipe [Miocic] handily. Come on, man. I don’t think anybody’s buying into that for Francis.”

As far as the impact of Ngannou actually leaving the UFC, welterweight Matt Brown argues that it’s probably the biggest loss the promotion has ever suffered.

Ngannou was not only the reigning and defending UFC heavyweight champion but he’s still in the prime of his career, which means he’s got a lot of time left to make a huge impact wherever he fights next.

Did Ngannou make a mistake?

Richard Schaefer doesn’t agree with Francis Ngannou’s decision to part ways with the UFC.
“I think he’s a terrific athlete and I think he has some big fights ahead of him and I personally think, just my feeling, that he made a mistake not working out his deal with UFC,” Schaefer told Ariel Helwani on The MMA Hour. “But it’s his decision. That’s what he is doing and the world goes on, and UFC goes on. There’s going to be other big fights and there are other heavyweights lined up to fight the winner of this fight, to fight Jon after he beats Ciryl. So we’ll move on and keep doing the best fighting the best, the best which are available.”

I think he’s a terrific athlete, I think he’s very charismatic as well, I’m a fan of his, so I wish him all the best. I just hope he’s not going to go into boxing, but that he’s going to find whatever big fights he’s looking for…

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 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.”

“I think it’s just a power play, and maybe a leverage thing. 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. 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 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 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.”

Francis Ngannou, and the ever-growing list of UFC fighters Dana White claims ‘don’t want to fight’

With Dana White once again using his tired old claim that a top level UFC fighter somehow is scared or “doesn’t want to fight,” it’s worth pointing out just how absurd and repetitive his playbook is whenever someone tries to negotiate. Below is a list of fighters White has tried to vilify by claiming they were either afraid to take a fight or didn’t want to fight.

2023 – Francis Ngannou

Francis Ngannou fought out his UFC deal in January 2022. He won that fight, beating Ciryl Gane through five rounds and retaining his UFC heavyweight title. Ngannou, who extended his UFC winning streak to six with the decision victory, took the fight against his doctor’s advice.
Despite fighting on a bad leg and beating UFC heavyweights such as Stipe Miocic, Cain Velasquez, Alistair Overeem, Curtis Blaydes, Junior dos Santos and Jairzinho Rozenstruik, UFC president Dana White is trying to portray Ngannou as a scared man.

White’s remarks came on the same day the UFC president announced the promotion and Ngannou were parting ways after a failed contract negotiation, but that doesn’t make his words any less silly.

2021 – Jon Jones

While White accused Ngannou of not wanting to fight guys of Jon Jones’ caliber in 2023, that narrative started out on the complete opposite. White previously insisted in 2021, that it’s actually Jones that was afraid to take on Ngannou.

The difference? It was Jones who was in the middle of contract negotiations at that time. White repeated that claim in May 2021, accusing Jones of not wanting to fight at heavyweight.
2020 – Jon Jones and Jorge Masvidal
In 2020, Jon Jones and Jorge Masvidal publicly spoke up about their unhappiness with the UFC pay structure. However, instead of addressing compensation, White told the media the two fighters, who he said were independent contractors, didn’t want to fight.

2020 – Dustin Poirier

In September 2020, Dustin Poirier and Tony Ferguson tried to set up a bout between them. One of the sticking points of that potential fight was Poirier wanted a raise. The UFC boss shut down that talk by using his go-to trope.

2020 – Conor McGregor

In 2020, Conor McGregor revealed that one of his fake retirement announcements was a negotiation tactic due to issues he had with UFC executives that “wanted to show power and stomp all over me.”

2014 – Jon Jones

In 2014, Jon Jones was in his first stint as UFC light heavyweight champion. He had defended that crown seven times as of his April decision win over Glover Teixeira. The UFC wanted Jones to rematch Alexander Gustafsson after that victory. Jones had defeated the Swede in September 2013. Instead, the defending champ preferred to face Daniel Cormier.
With that disagreement brewing, White claimed Jones didn’t want to fight.

While the UFC has been typically known to have highly restrictive contracts for title holders, Francis Ngannou became the first in this era to walk away as the champion.

After not being happy with the UFC’s offers, the popular knockout artist will now test the open market with multiple lucrative opportunities likely available to him.

(Excerpts courtesy of the MMA Hour)

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