Francis Ngannou walking away from UFC, Jon Jones fight is both a commendable and frightening risk | Opinion

The rarest of situations came to pass on Saturday when UFC president Dana White announced that Francis Ngannou, the promotion’s reigning heavyweight champion, had parted ways with the company, unlikely to ever return.

The development cleared the path for White to book a vacant title bout between Jon Jones and Ciryl Gane as the main event for UFC 285, which takes place March 4 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.

As the UFC celebrates the 30th anniversary of its existence in 2023, we can only point to one previous instance where this has happened: B.J. Penn left the organization as welterweight champion in 2004 because of a contract dispute, but he eventually found his way back and spent another decade-plus fighting in the octagon.

Others have tried to escape from the firm grip of the world’s top MMA promotion over the years. Randy Couture is the most prominent of those figures and even went to court in hopes of voiding his contract, but it never happened. Whether a mutual resolution is reached or the athlete simply couldn’t afford to hold out any longer, the UFC has a history of getting its way in these situations.

Not this time, though.

For anyone who has been paying attention for the past 18 months, the news of Ngannou’s departure should not come as a complete surprise. In fact, it seems to be exactly what Ngannou wanted. He’s felt misused, mistreated and inadequately paid by the UFC for some time, and expressed that opinion over and over.

Ngannou wanted his respect. Whether that meant in dollars and cents alone or in the grander scheme, only he truly knows.

The 36-year-old certainly isn’t the only UFC champ who has felt that way, but he’s one of the few who was willing to be so vocal about it and bet on himself to get his freedom. And that is a very critical detail in all this.

Ngannou went into his UFC 270 fight with Ciryl Gane in January 2022 with a busted knee and on the final fight of his contract, knowing that if he could achieve a win, he would have options and leverage heading into negotiations that few others have enjoyed.

Whether those options prove to be better ones remains to be seen. PFL, Bellator and BKFC are already showing interest in his services. A boxing match with Tyson Fury is also high on Ngannou’s bucket list. There are things he can do and perhaps for more financial gain.

The choice to determine his own path going forward is ultimately what Ngannou wanted out of this. He has yet to speak on this chapter in the story, but when he does, we’ll have a firmer idea about his decision process.

But right now, all we have is White’s statements from Saturday’s UFC Fight Night 217 post-fight press conference. And if you believe them at face value, it’s a tad puzzling Ngannou would walk away from his belt, a record-setting contract offer and a generationally significant showdown with Jones. But those are the key words: If you believe.

It shouldn’t have to be pointed out that White doesn’t exactly have a track record of providing a complete narrative in these situations, nor should we expect him to. He has a history of willingly trashing fighters who don’t toe the company line, but in this instance, he was actually quite level-headed.

It’s also White’s job to paint himself and the UFC in the best light possible and try to minimize exterior damage for his company in an unideal moment like this one. However, that doesn’t mean we need to accept his words as gospel.

So in light of that, let’s analyze some of White’s key quotes from Saturday’s press conference.

'Highest paid heavyweight'

Brock Lesnar

“We offered Francis a deal that would’ve made him the highest paid heavyweight in the history of the company – more than (Brock) Lesnar, more than anybody. And he turned the deal down.”

It feels like a bold declaration, but the vagueness of this comment is probably what White precisely was going for. If he’s referring to the one-off payday Lesnar received for his UFC 200 return in July 2016, which was reportedly in the range of $8 million, then that’s one thing. It would be a ballsy and, quite frankly, shocking move for Ngannou to turn down that type of guaranteed money.

However, if it’s closer to the $2-3 million per fight Lesnar was reportedly paid during his initial UFC stint from 2008-2011, then that’s different.

Either figure would be above-average by UFC standards, especially in comparison to the $600,000 flat purse Ngannou received to fight Gane in his most recent bout. There’s a sizable discrepancy between the Lesnar payouts above, though, and White also confirmed that Ngannou’s hopes of contract flexibility to participate in boxing was a non-starter during talks, which raises questions about the overall wiggle room available in negotiations.

'Fight lesser opponents and make more money'

Francis Ngannou

“We get to this point where, I’ve told you guys this before, if you don’t want to be here, you don’t have to be here. I think Francis is in a place right now where he doesn’t want to take a lot of risk. He feels he’s in a good position where he could fight lesser opponents and make more money. So we’re going to let him do that. We’re going to release him from his contract. We’re going to give up our right to match, and he can sign wherever he wants and do whatever he wants.”

“… You’re going to fight arguably the greatest fighter of all time, you’d be the highest paid heavyweight ever in UFC history, or you think there’s more money out there to fight somebody who isn’t the greatest of all time, somebody who is a lesser opponent. You’ll have to ask Francis that question, but in my opinion that’s what it is. Which isn’t the first time that’s happened here. It’s not like this is something that’s never happened before. There’s been other guys who have come to us and said, ‘I don’t want to compete at this level anymore.'”

The “if you don’t want to be here, you don’t have to be here” line conveniently leaves out that Ngannou had to fight tooth-and-nail to get to the end of his UFC contract, and his own decisions are largely what has got us to this place. Dozens of UFC fighters have requested their releases over the years, but the huge difference is that Ngannou was not held captive by his contractual agreement in a way many others have been, as he claims to have fulfilled the terms.

Aside from that, the quotes above are a classic play out of White’s playbook as a promoter. Look at this tweet as proof of how many times he’s trotted this out over the years in relation to top stars who haven’t cowered to the UFC’s demands or gone along with its pay structure.

Done reading that? Good. Then now we don’t need to give this quote much more credence. Ngannou has fought killer after killer during his UFC run. He’s endured unimaginable experiences outside the cage during his life, and the idea he suddenly couldn’t muster the courage to fight Jones or any top-ranked opponent is lunacy and a narrative that will be accepted by all too many MMA fans when they pair it with White’s comments about the lucrative contract Ngannou turned down.

'He's not getting any younger'

Francis Ngannou

“Even now the guy was just weighing over 300 pounds, just had knee surgery, hasn’t had a real training camp. I think that has a lot to do with it as far as Francis is concerned, too. He doesn’t know what’s going to happen with his knee. He’s not getting younger. So, I don’t even think he would’ve been ready for March. We can’t continue to hold up the division and not come to an agreement with this guy. We did everything we could to try to make this fight happen and try to give him this fight, but he’s got it in his head that there’s bigger opportunities outside the UFC with lesser opponents.”

This is one quote from White where it’s hard to deny the slivers of truth. Although Ngannou appears to be slowly making his way back to fighting shape from the looks of videos he’s posted kicking and grappling in recent weeks, what is the actual state of that knee?

Even if White is speaking in facts and Ngannou’s knee remains a concern, then should anyone blame him for making a business decision for himself? If Ngannou can box Fury or get big money from another promotion where the risk of re-injuring the knee is smaller, it might be wise to do that.

This is not the same as avoiding a fight with Jones.

'Don't have any regrets'

Francis Ngannou and Dana White

“He’s the second guy that we couldn’t come to a deal with. Now it’s him and Fedor (Emelianenko). We did everything we could to get him to take the deal. I think Hunter (Campbell) went to 350 dinners with him. We did what we could do, and it didn’t work out.”

“… I didn’t think this is how it would end. I thought we would eventually come to a deal with him. I don’t have any regrets. Hunter might, but I don’t.”

This was a moment of genuine honesty from White. First in that he admits he had minimal involvement in contract negotiations with Ngannou, which were led by chief business officer Hunter Campbell. But secondly, despite his contributions to the souring of the relationship with Ngannou, he doesn’t regret how it all unfolded.

Final thoughts

Francis Ngannou vs. Jon Jones

No matter how you want to slice this, it doesn’t seem any group outside the fans who wanted to see Ngannou vs. Jones is crestfallen by where things stand.

Ngannou is free and clear of the UFC to explore any opportunity he wants. He can seek out the respect he feels he should command. Hopefully that fulfills him, and the grass turns out to be greener on the other side.

For the UFC, it’s obviously a huge loss, but one it will recover from in short order. For better or worse, the UFC brand is bigger than any one fighter. And if you don’t believe that to be truer than ever, the company is racking in record profits in a world where its biggest stars like Jones and Conor McGregor have been absent from competition for lengthy periods. Ngannou himself has only fought once in the past 21 months.

If the UFC did manage to book Ngannou vs. Jones, does anyone believe the promotion’s rooting interest wouldn’t be behind Jones to win, anyway? That remains possible with the matchup against Gane, and Jones’ long-term future appears to be buttoned up after signing a new eight-fight UFC contract. He’s the guy UFC probably feels has the most upside as champ, despite his checkered past.

It’s a weird sort of win-win, at least for now. In the long run, Ngannou’s side will determine the final equation, because while the UFC machine will keep on ticking and will fill the titleholder gap he left behind in less than two months, there are no absolutes about Ngannou’s future, which makes his risk both commendable and frightening.

For more on the card, visit MMA Junkie’s event hub for UFC 285.

[listicle id=2609792]

Story originally appeared on MMA Junkie