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Good For the Fighter, Bad For the Fan
The Empty, Hollow Joy of Victory For Francis Ngannou
Francis Ngannou beat the UFC.
That’s something worth repeating, because over the course of Dana White’s decades long reign of terror, it’s a claim few can make with a straight face.
Francis Ngannou beat the UFC.
It was supposed to be impossible. Or so we’d heard from a motley cast of former stars, all eager to tell the big man he was making an even bigger mistake. Others, over the years, had tried. Jens Pulver, Tito Ortiz, BJ Penn, Randy Couture—each had risked all only to return hat in hand, back into line for scraps with the rest of them.
Even the great Conor McGregor, an anthropomorphic pot of box office gold at the end of the fistic rainbow, couldn’t maintain momentum without the three letters looming over him: UFC.
But Francis Ngannou put his dukes up, risked return fire, wandered into the Lion’s Den and returned with the biggest pelt any MMA fighter has ever captured. The former heavyweight champion will approach eight figures per fight for the fledgling PFL promotion. He’ll also have a seat at the table and an opportunity to help promote the sport in Africa.
Best of all, from his perspective? The freedom to compete in one of those farcical boxing matches with an honest-to-God pugilist, the kind of bout that has come into fashion as sort of an MMA 401-K, a retirement plan for the fellas who never made enough money to think about saving for the future.
Francis Ngannou won. So did fighter pay advocates. We’ve been waiting for this moment for years, hoping someone would take the lead on securing generational wealth for the fighters who have certainly earned it.
So why does it all feel so empty?
There’s a dirty secret about the UFC’s hard-hearted, tight-walleted, iron-fisted approach to its fighters—it’s been wonderful for building the sport. Sure, there are legitimate critiques to be made of the promotion’s match-making. But, for the most part, the best fight the best and each main card is packed with relevant contenders taking on other top competitors in their respective weight classes.
And the fighters who break through to earn the audience’s attention? They are matched hard and matched against other stars. The cards, even the ones we complain endlessly about online, are solid and fun, especially when compared to the dross all-too-often offered up by boxing promotions, served cold to an ever-shrinking audience.
A brief look at boxing’s welterweight class is instructive as to how the game works outside the UFC. The top two fighters, Errol Spence and Terence Crawford have never met in the ring. By the time they do, both will have already seen their best days.
Not only have the two men never exchanged punches, they exist almost entirely in different universes. In a combined 67 professional fights, they’ve only shared two opponents, both the dried, withered remains of aged stars. Which fighter is better? There’s no common ground with which to compare them, let alone attempt to rank them among the greats of the past.
Worse, while they’ve been studiously avoiding each other, it’s not as if they’ve been running roughshod over the rest of the division. Spence has fought a single opponent ranked in the top 10 by either the IBF, WBC, WBA or WBO. Crawford has bragging rights here—he’s fought two. Neither has stepped into the ring with Keith Thurman, generally considered the other top dog in the division, or with Manny Pacquiao, the faded legend who still packs a bite-sized wallop. They’re both, likewise, staying far away from rising star Jaron Ennis.
It’s a division that’s been in a holding pattern for years—and the two may continue circling each other until both are officially gray beards, a poor man’s MayPac played out on a much smaller stage.
But both are very rich. Which, per the UFC’s most persistent critics, is all we’re supposed to really care about.
Ngannou signing with PFL is great for him and his family. For all his claims that the deal was not about the money, everyone knows that’s never true, especially when a man insists that it is. He’s going to swimming in lucre, up to his ears in it—and he’s an exceedingly tall man.
Whether it’s good for PFL remains an open question. There’s no path to profitability for them here, not in any traditional sense. Instead, it’s a loss leader, an expensive announcement to other fighters in the game that they are open for business and serious about making a go of it. In the worst case scenario, it’s a marketing play, a fighter signing that serves as an opportunity to push the brand out into the wider world. They were able to place the announcement in The New York Times, a sign that the deal may result in plenty of enormously valuable earned media.
For the fans though? This deal is a loser, abysmal bullshit that takes one of the world’s top fighters out of the mix for years, if not permanently. He is, after all, an old 36, an aged fighter coming off a very serious knee injury in a young man’s game. He may, frankly, not have many fights left in him. Seeing them squandered against construction workers and the misfits and leftovers who couldn’t even manage to find work in the wide open UFC heavyweight division is genuinely depressing.
Online you can see cheerleaders celebrating Ngannou “securing the bag.” And I’m legitimately happy for him. Better him than Ari Emanuel or Dana White, that’s for certain. But I’m a fight fan, not a fan of watching millionaire strangers count their money. Watching Ngannou make $8 million instead of $5 million is way less interesting to me than watching him bludgeon a top contender, sending heads flying and bodies flopping like few others ever have.
A bout with Jon Jones, the current UFC kingpin and the best light heavyweight to ever do it, would have been scintillating television. Watching him beat up whoever PFL manages to scrounge together? Much less so.
Bruno Cappelozza? Denis Goltsov?
Could you pick them or any other PFL heavyweight out of a lineup? Even if they acquire Bellator and see if the big man can withstand the takedown attempts of failed UFC contender Ryan Bader, it’s merely a shadow of what might have been between Francis and Jon.
Perhaps it’s best to look at Ngannou’s signing as the first baby steps into a bold new world. In 20 years, maybe we’ll look back at this as the moment it all changed, when fighters took the reigns of the sport from the UFC’s greedy brass and charted their own course.
Much more likely, however, is the PFL losing a boatload of money for two listless Ngannou fights against never-weres, bouts the media will try and fail to get anyone excited about, followed by an embarrassing loss against a professional boxer. Perhaps he’ll even return to UFC a spent force, putting over the next big thing while White sits cageside gloating?
Whatever happens, Ngannou has won the battle. He’s taken on the machine and come out the other side to tell the tale. But PFL? I fear they’ve just opened the gates to a Trojan horse, a big heavyweight with a shovel who will continue to dig a money pit so vast that not even the dumbest, most aggressive venture capitalists can fill it. The UFC will win the war. It always does. The system, after all, wasn’t built to fail.