Francis Ngannou, a former Ultimate Fighting Championship heavyweight champion, has signed an unusual multi-fight contract with rival promotion company the Professional Fighters League, ending a high-profile free agency streak that highlighted the controversial topics of fighter compensation and athlete influence in the evolving world of mixed martial arts.
Ngannou and the PFL were due to announce on Tuesday that they had agreed to what they called a “strategic partnership”, a deal that gives Ngannou equity and leadership roles in the mixed martial arts company while he allowing to continue boxing fights outside. Ngannou intends to fight a mixed martial arts bout in the PFL in mid-2024, having competed in a boxing ring this year.
None of Ngannou’s fights have been fixed.
Terms of the deal, including finances and its duration, were not disclosed by Ngannou or the PFL. “Let’s just say my deal with PFL is more than anyone else,” Ngannou said.
As part of the deal, Ngannou will become chairman of PFL Africa, an expansion initiative aimed at producing events on the continent, and serve on the company’s advisory board to represent the interests of fighters.
“The last few months have been a very interesting time to understand and see the landscape, but I’m very excited about this deal with the PFL because they basically showed what I expected,” Ngannou said in an interview. “They didn’t just come in as a promotion looking for a fighter, but really came in as a partner who sees more value in you as a person..”
Ngannou will fight in the league’s fledgling Super Fight division, which was created to incentivize fighters to sign deals with more favorable terms than those typically available in the sport, including greater guarantees and deeper revenue cuts. pay-per-view television.
Jake Paul, the social media influencer turned boxer who signed a similar deal with the league in January, and Kayla Harrison, two-time PFL champion and Olympic judo gold medalist who is the league’s most popular fighter , are also signed to Super Fight Division.
Entering the PFL, Ngannou and Paul, two of the biggest critics of how the UFC pays its athletes, join one of its biggest competitors.
Ngannou, 36, from Cameroon who moved to the United States after starting his mixed martial arts career in France, entered the UFC in 2015 and became the heavyweight champion in 2021. But before the last fight of his UFC contract in January 2022, Ngannou said he was ready to leave the promotion company if they could not reach an agreement on a new contract.
Among his desired terms, he said, were a raise in salary and the ability to box. Ngannou had teased a crossover fight with World Boxing Council heavyweight champion Tyson Fury, but UFC contracted athletes must fight exclusively under the promotion.
Ngannou won his last UFC fight, defending his belt against Ciryl Gane, and the two sides continued to negotiate in hopes of agreeing on a new deal and a fight with Jon Jones, who had moved up to weight. heavy after a three-year layoff and is one of the greatest fighters in UFC history. But Ngannou and the UFC came to an impasse, and in January the company released Ngannou and stripped him of his title.
“We’re getting to this point, and I’ve told you before, if you don’t want to be here, you don’t have to be here,” UFC president Dana White told reporters in January. “I think Francis is in a position right now where he doesn’t want to take a lot of risk. 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 TO DO.
Recently valued at $12.1 billion and owned by media and entertainment agency Endeavour, the UFC is considered the strongest mixed martial arts promotion in the world with the most comprehensive roster of athletes. But some critics, including current and former fighters, have blamed the company for its salary and restrictive contracts.
Fighters earn less than 20% of total revenue, which includes pay-per-view sales and other sources of cash flow such as ticket sales and sponsorships. In the NFL, where athletes have unionized, for example, players receive about 50% of league revenue.
Athletes are unorganized in combat sports, including mixed martial arts and boxing. In 2014 and 2021, a group of fighters filed lawsuits against the UFC, accusing it of running an illegal monopoly. The litigation is ongoing.
The Professional Fighters League debuted in 2018, and while it doesn’t yet rival the UFC in stature, it has garnered a fan base thanks to its TV deal with ESPN and its season-like format, which is rare for combat sports.
Ngannou and the PFL began negotiating shortly after he became a free agent, said league chief executive Peter Murray. Ngannou said he had engaged in advanced discussions with only one other promotion, the Singapore-based ONE Championship, although Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship and Bellator MMA executives said they had exploratory conversations with Ngannou.
“They didn’t have much to offer other than a fighter and promotion contract, which I wasn’t interested in,” Ngannou said of ONE’s contract offer. “I was looking for value and impact and what I can bring to it and also attach to my legacy.”
He added: “I think there’s been a lot of media play, and a lot of people just know that this game wasn’t big enough for that kind of deal, so they just walked out.”
Popular fighters, such as Jones, Jorge Masvidal and Henry Cejudo, have threatened to retire to create leverage to earn bigger payouts. Conor McGregor, the sport’s biggest and highest-paid star, has spoken with White in media interviews about whether he should receive shares in the company.
“It’s not an athlete thing. Francis is an icon today in the sport, he’s the best in the world at what he does, but he’s in business with the PFL,” Murray said. “We are in business together.”
Murray said the PFL’s expansion into Africa is expected to begin in 2024, with hopes of organized events taking place in 2025. The process, which will be led in part by Ngannou, includes finding fighters on the continent and countries to host fights. Ngannou said he sees 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 PFL executives is to successfully build the league’s pay-per-view division and find opponents for Ngannou, Harrison and Paul who will be draws for fans – to watch and pay for.
Although the PFL is funded through its media rights deals, sponsorships, and ticket sales, pay-per-view purchases are one of the main financial drivers of mixed martial arts. Harrison headlined the PFL’s first and only pay-per-view event last November. By comparison, the UFC has held 13 pay-per-view bouts in 2022.
“The launch of pay-per-view combined with the launch of regional leagues – that’s what’s going to drive scale and that’s what the league is focused on,” Murray said.
The PFL had to reshuffle part of its 2023 season on Friday after a group of fighters were suspended by the Nevada State Athletic Commission. The league and commission have not officially released the reason, but the PFL said in a statement that it has a “zero tolerance policy regarding the use of banned substances”.
During his free agency, Ngannou became a polarizing figure among fans and fighters, who said he made a mistake in turning down offers from the UFC to stay. On Twitter, he posted a picture of himself sitting atop a Mercedes-Benz luxury sport utility vehicle, with a caption mocking their claims that he “groped the bag”. Now with the PFL, he said his decision was worth it.
“When people don’t understand you, what you do, obviously there’s a lot of criticism, but when you are confident and certain of what you are doing and where you are going and aware of success, you just have to be patient and welcome the moment when everyone sees it,” he said.