Francis Ngannou, a former Ultimate Fighting Championship heavyweight champion, has signed an unusual multi-fight contract with a rival promotion company, the Professional Fighters League, ending a highly publicized free-choice period that drew attention to controversial themes such as pay of fighters and the influence of athletes in the evolving world of mixed martial arts.
Ngannou and the PFL were expected to announce on Tuesday that they had agreed to what they called a “strategic partnership,” a deal that gives Ngannou equality and leadership roles in the mixed martial arts business while also allowing him to pursue boxing outside of boxing. . Ngannou plans to fight a mixed martial arts bout in the PFL in mid-2024, having competed in a boxing ring sometime this year.
None of Ngannou’s fights have been set.
The terms of the deal, including finances and duration, were not disclosed by Ngannou or the PFL.
As part of the agreement, Ngannou will become chairman of PFL Africa, an expansion initiative to produce events across the continent, and will serve on the company’s advisory board to represent the interests of hunters.
“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 essentially showed what I expected,” Ngannou said in an interview. “They didn’t just show up as a promotion looking for a fighter, but really showed up as a partner who sees more value in you as a person.”
Ngannou will fight in the league’s nascent Super Fight division, which was created to attract fighters to strike deals with more favorable terms than those commonly available in the sport, including bigger guarantees and bigger pay-per-view cuts. income.
Jake Paul, the social media influencer turned boxer who signed a similar deal with the league in January, and Kayla Harrison, a two-time PFL champion and Olympic gold medalist in judo who is the league’s most popular fighter, are also signed to the Super Battle Division.
By joining the PFL, Ngannou and Paul, two of the biggest critics of how the UFC pays its athletes, join one of its biggest competitors.
Born in Cameroon, Ngannou, 36, 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 final fight on his UFC contract in January 2022, Ngannou said he was willing to leave the promotion company if they could not agree on a new contract.
Among his desired terms, he said, was a salary increase and the opportunity to box. Ngannou had teased a crossover fight with World Boxing Council heavyweight champion Tyson Fury, but athletes under contract with the UFC must fight exclusively within the promotion.
Ngannou won his last UFC fight and successfully defended his title against Ciryl Gane, and the two sides continued to negotiate in hopes of agreeing a new deal and a fight with Jon Jones, who had been laid off for three years. moved up to heavyweight 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 this before, if you don’t want to be here, you don’t have to be here,” Dana White, the UFC 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’ll let him do that.
Recently valued at $12.1 billion and owned by the media and entertainment agency Endeavor, the UFC is considered the world’s most powerful mixed martial arts promotion with the largest number of athletes. But some critics, including current and former combatants, have hounded the company for its wages and restrictive contracts.
Fighters earn less than 20 percent of total revenue, which includes pay-per-view sales and other sources of cash flow such as ticket sales and sponsorships. For example, in the NFL, where athletes are unionized, players receive about 50 percent of league revenue.
Athletes are not united in martial arts, including mixed martial arts and boxing. In 2014 and 2021, a group of fighters filed lawsuits against the UFC, accused of having an illegal monopoly. The lawsuit continues.
The Professional Fighters League made its debut in 2018, and while it hasn’t yet rivaled the UFC in status, it has garnered a fan base through its television deal with ESPN and its seasonal format, which is unusual for combat sports.
Ngannou and the PFL began negotiating shortly after he became a free agent, said Peter Murray, the league’s chief executive. Ngannou said he was in advanced talks with only one other promotion, Singapore-based ONE Championship, though executives from Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship and Bellator MMA said they had exploratory talks with Ngannou.
“They didn’t have much more to offer than a fighter and promotion contract, something 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 was a lot of media play, and a lot of people just know that this game wasn’t big enough for this kind of deal, so they just got out.”
Popular fighters, such as Jones, Jorge Masvidal and Henry Cejudo, have threatened to retire to create leverage for earning bigger payouts. Conor McGregor, the sport’s biggest and highest paid star, barbed wire with White in it media interviews about whether he should get shares in the company.
“This is not a deal for athletes. Francis is an icon in the sport today, he’s the best in the world at what he does, but he’s doing business with the PFL,” Murray said. “We do business together.”
Murray said the PFL’s expansion into Africa is scheduled to begin in 2024, with the hope of events taking place in 2025. The process, which will be led in part by Ngannou, will involve scouring the continent for fighters and for countries to host battles. 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 in mixed martial arts again.
The challenge for Murray and PFL executives now is to successfully build the league’s pay-per-view division and find opponents for Ngannou, Harrison and Paul who will draw fans – to watch and to play for. to pay.
While the PFL is funded through its media rights, sponsorship and ticket sales deals, pay-per-view purchases are one of the biggest financial drivers in mixed martial arts. Harrison headlined the PFL’s first and only pay-per-view event last November. In comparison, the UFC hosted 13 pay-per-view fights in 2022.
“Launching pay-per-view in tandem with launching regional leagues — that’s what will drive scaling and that’s what the league is focusing on,” Murray said.
The PFL had to reschedule parts of the 2023 season on Friday after a group of fighters was suspended by the Nevada State Athletic Commission. The league and commission did not officially disclose the reason, but the PFL said in a statement that it had a “zero-tolerance policy regarding the use of banned substances”.
While off duty, Ngannou became a polarizing figure among fans and fighters, who said he made a mistake by turning down the UFC’s offer to stay. On Twitter, he posted a picture of himself sitting atop a luxury Mercedes-Benz sports car, with a caption mocking their claims that he had “fumbled the bag”. Now with the PFL, he said his decision was worth it.
“If people don’t understand you, what you do, there is of course a lot of criticism, but if you’re confident and confident in what you’re doing and where you’re going and aware of what you’ve accomplished, you just have to be patient and be happy with the time everyone sees,” he said.