Francis Ngannou Signs Unprecedented Deal With Professional Fighters League

Francis Ngannou Signs Unprecedented Deal With Professional Fighters League

17 May 2023 | COMBAT SPORTS, SPORT | 0 comments

The unusual mixed martial arts deal allows Ngannou, a former heavyweight titleholder for the Ultimate Fighting Championship, to compete in a boxing matchup this year. By NYT.

Francis Ngannou, a former Ultimate Fighting Championship heavyweight champion, has signed an unusual multi-fight contract with a rival promotional company, the Professional Fighters League, ending a highly publicized free-agency period that highlighted contentious themes of fighter pay and athlete influence in the evolving world of mixed martial arts.

Francis Ngannou, sitting with his arms crossed and looking directly into the camera, poses for a photo at the entrance to a mixed martial arts cage.
Francis Ngannou’s agreement with the Professional Fighters League provides him with equity in the company and offers him a role in expanding the league’s events in Africa.Credit…Joe Buglewicz for The New York Times

Ngannou and the P.F.L. announced Tuesday that they had agreed to what they labeled a “strategic partnership,” a deal that gives Ngannou equity and leadership roles in the mixed martial arts company while also letting him pursue outside boxing fights. Ngannou intends to fight a mixed martial arts bout in the P.F.L. in mid-2024, after competing in a boxing ring sometime this year.

None of Ngannou’s fights have been set.

The terms of the deal, including finances and its duration, were not disclosed by Ngannou or the P.F.L. “Let’s just say, all-in my deal with P.F.L. is more than anyone else offered,” Ngannou said.

As part of the agreement, Ngannou will become chairman of P.F.L. Africa, an expansion initiative to produce events on the continent, and will serve on the company’s advisory board to represent fighter interests.

“The past few months have been a very interesting time to understand and see the landscape but I’m very excited about this deal with the P.F.L. because they basically showed what I was expecting,” Ngannou said in an interview. “They didn’t just show up as a promotion that was looking for a fighter, but really came as a partner that sees more value in you as a person.”

Ngannou waves to a crowd while wearing a heavyweight title belt with the letters “UFC” for Ultimate Fighting Championship.
Ngannou after his last U.F.C. match, in January 2022. He defeated Ciryl Gane in their heavyweight title fight. Credit…Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images

Ngannou will fight in the league’s nascent Super Fight division, which was created to attract fighters to sign deals with more favorable terms than are generally available in the sport, including bigger guarantees and bigger cuts of pay-per-view revenue.

Jake Paul, the social media influencer turned boxer who signed a similar deal with the league in January, and Kayla Harrison, a two-time P.F.L. champion and Olympic gold medalist in judo who is the league’s most popular fighter, are also signed to the Super Fight division.

By entering the P.F.L., Ngannou and Paul, two of the biggest critics of how the U.F.C. pays its athletes, are joining one of its biggest competitors.

Ngannou, 36, a native of Cameroon who moved to the United States after beginning his mixed martial arts career in France, entered the U.F.C. in 2015 and became the heavyweight champion in 2021. But before the last fight on his U.F.C. contract in January 2022, Ngannou said he was prepared to leave the promotional company if they could not reach an agreement on a new contract.

Among his desired terms, he said, was an increase in salary and the ability to box. Ngannou had teased a crossover bout with Tyson Fury, the World Boxing Council heavyweight champion, but athletes under contract with the U.F.C. must fight exclusively within the promotion.

Ngannou won his final U.F.C. fight, successfully defending his belt against Ciryl Gane, and the two sides continued negotiating with hopes of agreeing to a new deal and a bout with Jon Jones, who had moved up to heavyweight after a three-year layoff and who is one of the greatest fighters in U.F.C. history. But Ngannou and the U.F.C. reached an impasse, and in January, the company released Ngannou and stripped him of his title.

Francis Ngannou Signs Unprecedented Deal With Professional Fighters League

“We get to this point, and I’ve told you guys this before, if you don’t want to be here, you don’t have to be here,” Dana White, the U.F.C. president, told reporters in January. “I think Francis is in a place right now where he doesn’t want to take a lot of risks. He feels he’s in a good position where he can fight lesser opponents and make more money, so we’re going to let him do that.”

Recently valued at $12.1 billion and owned by the media and entertainment agency Endeavor, the U.F.C. is considered the world’s most powerful mixed martial arts promotion with the deepest roster of athletes. But some critics, including current and former fighters, have dogged the company for its pay and restrictive contracts.

Fighters earn less than 20 percent of total revenue, which includes pay-per-view sales and other sources of cash flow like ticket sales and sponsorships. In the N.F.L., where athletes have unionized, for example, players receive roughly 50 percent of league revenue.

Athletes are not unionized in combat sports, including mixed martial arts and boxing. In 2014 and 2021, a group of fighters filed lawsuits against the U.F.C., accusing it of running an illegal monopoly. The litigation is continuing.

The Professional Fighters League made its debut in 2018, and though it does not yet rival the U.F.C. in stature, it has garnered a fan base through its television deal with ESPN and its season-like format, which is uncommon for combat sports.

Ngannou and the P.F.L. started negotiating soon after he became a free agent, said Peter Murray, the league’s chief executive. Ngannou said he engaged in advanced talks with only one other promotion, the Singapore-based ONE Championship, though executives for Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship and Bellator MMA said they had exploratory conversations with Ngannou.

“They didn’t have much to offer more than a fighter and promotion contract, which was something that I wasn’t interested in,” Ngannou said of ONE’s contract offer. “I was looking into value and an impact and what I can bring it and attach also to my legacy.”

He added: “I think there was a lot of media play, and a lot of people just know that this game wasn’t big enough for this type of a deal, so they just stepped out.”

Ngannou kicks Ciryl Gane with his left leg while Gane attempts to block it with his arms and hands.
Ngannou, right, battling Gane during their heavyweight title bout.Credit…Frederic J. Brown/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Popular fighters, such as Jones, Jorge Masvidal and Henry Cejudo, have threatened to retire to create leverage for earning larger payouts. Conor McGregor, the sport’s biggest and highest-paid star, barbed with White in media interviews over whether he should be given equity shares in the company.

“This is not an athlete deal. Francis is an icon today in the sport, he is the best in the world at what he does, but he’s in business with the P.F.L.,” Murray said. “We’re in business together.”

Murray said the P.F.L.’s expansion to Africa is slated to start in 2024, with the hope of staged events taking place in 2025. The process, to be led in part by Ngannou, includes scouring the continent for fighters and for countries to host fights. Ngannou said he saw Cameroon, Nigeria, Senegal and South Africa as early targets. In the meantime, he said he would like to have a boxing match this year before fighting again in mixed martial arts.

The challenge now for Murray and P.F.L. executives is to successfully build the league’s pay-per-view division and find opponents for Ngannou, Harrison and Paul that will be draws for fans — to watch and to pay for.

Though the P.F.L. is funded by its media rights deals, sponsorships and ticket sales, pay-per-view buys are one of the biggest financial drivers in mixed martial arts. Harrison headlined the P.F.L.’s first and only pay-per-view event last November. By comparison, the U.F.C. staged 13 pay-per-view fights in 2022.

“Launching pay-per-view combined with launching regional leagues — that is what will drive scale and that’s what the league is focused on,” Murray said.

The P.F.L. had to reshuffle parts of its 2023 season on Friday after a group of fighters were suspended by the Nevada State Athletic Commission. The league and the commission did not officially disclose the reason, but the P.F.L. said in a statement it had a “zero-tolerance policy related to the usage of banned substances.’‘

During his free agency, Ngannou became a polarizing figure among fans and fighters, who said he had made a mistake by declining the U.F.C.’s offers to stay. On Twitter, he posted an image of himself sitting atop a luxury Mercedes-Benz sport utility vehicle, with a caption mocking their claims that he “fumbled the bag.” Now with the P.F.L., he said his decision was worth it.

“When people don’t understand you, what you’re doing, obviously there’s a lot of criticismbut when you’re confident and certain of what you’re doing and where you’re going and aware of achievement, you just have to be patient and welcome the time everybody sees it,” he said.

Emmanuel Morgan covers sports, primarily the N.F.L. He previously reported for the Los Angeles Times, where he covered both local N.F.L. franchises, writing features on players, personnel and on-field trends. @_EmmanuelMorgan

A version of this article appears in New York Times print on May 17, 2023, Section B, Page 9 of the New York edition with the headline: In Potential Shake-Up, Ex-U.F.C. Champion Joins a Rival Company. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper |

Emmanuel Morgan

By Emmanuel Morgan, New York Times

May 16, 2023

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