Ufc
Photo Credit: Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC

New FSM Feature: The UFC Loses Its Champion

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The new year is already bringing excitement and drama to the UFC as heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou departs in a contract dispute with Dana White. What went wrong and were does the UFC go from here?

 

UFC
Photo Credit: Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC

A new year brings excitement, high energy, the prospect of possibilities, and more. But with all the good that comes with a fresh start is also the downside and spill-out of unresolved issues.

Long has the UFC had its run-ins with its fighters wanting better pay. The Ultimate Fighting Championship was created in 1993 as a way to determine which style of fighting would suit best in a real fight. As the sport grew in popularity, the early years saw much red tape and resistance to accept this new sport.

In enters Dana White, a former boxing promoter who saw the company that was up for sale as a chance to build something special and make it into the vision he saw from boxing. Teaming up with childhood friends Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, the purchase of the UFC was made in 2001 for $2 million. Dana would serve as company president to this day.

White would turn the sport around using some of the knowledge he learned from boxing, implementing weight classes, timed rounds, gloves (4oz), etc. From a sport that some dubbed “human cockfighting,” it was now being seen as the fastest-rising sport in the world year by year. The UFC would venture into arenas all across the globe, spawn several TV shows (The Ultimate Fighter being its longest-running show), find highlights of their fights being shown on ESPN, and have some of their stars cross over into Hollywood for tv and movie appearances.

 

With new growth and popularity, the UFC kept breaking new ground and setting gate records with attendance everywhere they went.

 

UFC
Photo Credit: Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

As the company grew and expanded, fighters who are the backbone of the sport started to question why their take-home pay wasn’t a reflection of the new fame and wealth.

In the world of boxing, which acts as a solo sport where each fighter has their own promoter, they can set the guidelines on what their take-home is and what they get a cut of from the event; ticket sales, PPV buys, concession sales, merchandise, etc.

In comparison, the UFC is its own promotion that takes home the majority of everything and then divides the wages amongst its fighters.

High-profile run-ins with champions like Frank Shamrock, Tito Ortiz, Randy Couture, and Pat Miletich saw Dana White in as many battles over fighter pay as the fighters got into the octagon. While White has always claimed the company takes care of their fighters, many feel they don’t receive their true worth considering all the promotion brings in.

In 2016, the UFC sold for $4 billion to WME/IMG (Endeavor). They were going from what was considered backyard brawls to an international empire. The three letters most associated with Mixed Martial Arts (UFC) were on the level of the NFL, NBA, and MLB, where White always envisioned it being.

But the issue of fighters not feeling like their piece of the pie was as equal continued to grow.

An example of comparing high profile Boxing pay to MMA pay, in 2022, Canelo Álvarez took on Gennadiy Golovkin for their third bout. Canelo took home a reported $42 million, while GGG netted $20 million. UFC 280 was one of the year’s biggest cards for the promotion featuring former champion Charles Oliveira taking on Islam Makhachev for the lightweight title. Oliveira took home $1.29 million, and Makhachev took home $1.03 million.

PPV buys are iffy for both sports as numbers can be hard to determine, but Canelo vs GGG was estimated to have around 1.02 million PPV global, with about 500k of those buys in the United States. UFC 280 floated around maybe 1.06-1.08 million buys with 800k buys in the US. For PPV numbers to be that close, yet the purses to be a galaxy away, fighters in the UFC have been getting increasingly fed up with what they feel is a situation in which they’re being taken advantage of.

 

This brings us to the current issue regarding former UFC heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou and his departure from the UFC.

 

UFC
Photo Credit: Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images

The CameroonFrench fighter last stepped foot in the octagon at UFC 270 back in January of last year, defending his title against Cyril Gane. Afterward, Ngannou made it clear he needed time away for knee surgery and to renegotiate his contract with the promotion before he returned. With his devastating power (12 knockouts in 17 fights), humbled personality, and massive frame, Francis quickly became one of the fan favorites in the promotion.

With such an amazing story of immigrating from Cameroon to France, to being homeless, to finding his way to a gym where he trained. In two years’ time, he made his UFC debut, and just six years later, he was wearing UFC gold. His fame grew and grew with every fight. Ngannou had a cameo in the movie Fast 9 and was being named as a potential opponent for heavyweight boxing champion Tyson Fury in a crossover match between the two baddest men on the planet, similar to Floyd Mayweather vs Conor McGregor.

But the UFC had other plans. On January 14th, 2023, Dana White announced a fight between Cyril Gane and former light heavyweight champion Jon Jones for the vacant heavyweight title. The title was stripped from Francis after both parties couldn’t come to a contract agreement. White claims the UFC offered a deal that would’ve paid Francis more than any previous heavyweight fighter. Claiming Francis wanted to be paid big bucks but not face tough top-tier competition, the promotion withdrew their offer.

 

This is not sitting right with fans as it did not sound like the champion we all have seen rise.

 

UFC
Photo Credit: Getty Images

Francis was interviewed on the Ariel Helwani show, saying it wasn’t just about money. He also wanted sponsorships worn by fighters on their shorts, health insurance, and a fighter advocate representative for all fighters on the UFC roster.

As the UFC continued to grow, they switched from fighters being able to wear their own shorts with their own sponsorship on them to, at first, having an exclusive deal with Reebok and now Venom. Some fighters made just as much, if not more, money from their sponsorship pay than their fight purse. With the clothing deal, that all went away. With no fighters union, the fighters had no say in the deal, which has always left a bad taste in their mouth.

Wanting to change that, Francis looked to use his platform and status with the company to try and get the ball rolling in that direction.

While unsuccessful, Francis showed why the fighters need to stand up together in looking for a better slice of the pie they have earned through blood, sweat, and tears over the years. Of course, many aren’t in a position like Ngannou to have their contract taken away from the UFC. But if they realize how valuable their true worth is to the promotion, we may see these changes happen in the near future.

As for Ngannou, he vs Jones would’ve been one of the biggest fights in the promotion’s history, and both fighters wanted to be paid accordingly and treated fairly. Ngannou will look for other avenues now, as he is the most wanted free agent on the market. A boxing match with Fury seems imminent now as the two can negotiate freely. Ngannou, who first started his combat sports career training in boxing, said he would not feel complete if he didn’t give boxing a chance. With his stats and resume from MMA, he has several options in the ring to battle with, including Deontay Wilder and Anthony Joshua. But first, The Gypsy King will welcome the former MMA champion to the sweet science of boxing at some point in 2023.

 

The octagon and ring will see plenty of fireworks in 2023, with must-see matchups and clashes among the champions we’ve been waiting for. Get your popcorn ready.

 

Check out franchisesportsmedia.com for all your latest in MMA, Las Vegas sports news, events, previews, recaps, and FSM weekly combat sports show, The Main Event with Kalani Lua and Griffin Kemp.

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-Kalani Lua – Franchise Sports Media

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