Francis Ngannou made out nicely in PFL deal, but time will tell if it's a game-changer
Francis Ngannou's new contract was a great day for MMA fighters if the only lens it's seen through are the total dollars which will wind up in Ngannou's bank account.
Ngannou made a financial windfall Tuesday when he announced the signing of a promotional agreement with the Professional Fighters League that he said will pay him more than the UFC's best offer. Ngannou was the UFC's heavyweight champion, but the UFC waived its right to match a deal in January, cutting ties with him.
The UFC offered Ngannou $8 million to fight Jon Jones, plus pay-per-view points that would have likely brought his total take to roughly $10 million. One of the key problems from Ngannou's side is what he would have made in the UFC deal had he lost to Jones.
Ngannou said Tuesday in announcing his deal he's going to make more than the UFC would have paid him, so let's say it's $10 million a fight. So for his next three MMA bouts, under those terms he'll bank $30 million and — this is significant from his standpoint — the PFL will permit him to box. His trainer and close friend, Eric Nicksick, told Yahoo Sports that Ngannou's surgically repaired knee is still balky, and he'll do his boxing match first before fighting in the PFL because boxing puts less wear and tear on it.
Ngannou has his eyes set on facing one of WBC champion Tyson Fury, former WBC champion Deontay Wilder or former unified champion Anthony Joshua in what would likely be his only boxing match. He'd be a massive underdog in any of those bouts, and likely would be knocked out. But he'd add another couple of million to his bankroll.
He won't make his PFL debut until mid-2024, when he'll be 37 years old. The PFL doesn't have anyone on its roster who will make a good PPV dance partner for Ngannou. Ante Delija, who is from former PRIDE and UFC fighter Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic's camp, won the 2022 PFL season title at heavyweight. Ngannou hasn't been a big seller in his UFC fights against far-better known opposition and with the undisputed best promoter in combat sports, the UFC, promoting it. Say what you will about the UFC and its controversial president, Dana White, no one who is being honest could dispute that the UFC promotes pay-per-view shows better than anyone.
The PFL 10 season championship basically tanked on PPV and, according to multiple sources, did less than 50,000 sales.
So let's say when Ngannou is ready to fight in the PFL by mid-summer 2024, he'll have to compete with UFC PPV shows going on while he's facing a relatively unknown opponent. The PFL would have to sign someone with name value and skill to fight him so it wouldn't take a total bath. He's supposedly going to get 50% of all PPV points, as is influencer Jake Paul who signed with PFL in January. Having Ngannou and Paul on the same card would give the PFL its best chance at success, but with both fighters getting 50% from the PPV, the PFL can't do that.
Sources said Bellator paid one-time MMA superstar Fedor Emelianenko over $1 million to face Ryan Bader at Bellator 290 in Inglewood, California, on Feb. 4, in a show that aired on CBS. California State Athletic Commission records show that Emelianenko made $100,000, but it's often more than is on the pay sheet. Bader said publicly he made far more than the $150,000 he was listed as making on the CSAC sheet.
Bellator 290's live gate of $790,144, according to the commission, did not cover the cost of Emelianenko's reputed $1 million plus salary. The attendance in the Forum that night was 16,459, but the tickets sold were just 6,048.
So even with one of the biggest names in MMA history headlining, the show was not a hit and, of course, lost money. Bellator has been up for sale and one prominent MMA figure not involved in promoting told Yahoo Sports that "everyone in MMA is trying to get out of the Bellator business, including Bellator."
That may be a stretch, but not by much. And the PFL is much the same. It has been trying to raise capital, seeking as much as $300 million from a group in Qatar.
But PFL hasn't been successful at the gate, its PPV flopped and it has overpaid in the free market to acquire mid-level fighters who don't impact its bottom line.
The news of Ngannou's signing would be huge for all MMA fighters if it signified that PFL is financially viable for the long term. It needs to be solvent and able to regularly attract a large share of the world's best fighters in order to have depth on its cards and viable opponents for its biggest stars.
If the PFL is solvent and competes head-to-head with the UFC for the best fighters and, most importantly, the biggest stars and potential stars, Tuesday's news changes the outlook for all MMA fighters, and not just Ngannou.
At this point, though, it's not that. And neither is Bellator or ONE Championship. They all have good fighters — I love Bellator's Vadim Nemkov as a fighter and believe he could make noise in the UFC — but they critically lack depth and have to significantly overpay for the few big names they do get.
Nicksick said part of Ngannou's interest in the deal with the PFL was its willingness to let him start the PFL Africa initiative. The PFL will allow Ngannou to try to develop talent from African nations and hopefully sign those fighters to its roster.
"Francis is very passionate about that part of the deal," Nicksick said.
It's a noble gesture, no doubt, on Ngannou's part. But in starting PFL Africa, he'll have to compete with the UFC, which plans to build a performance institute on the continent with the same goal of developing elite talent from the region and bringing it to the UFC.
The deal is good for Ngannou, no question, and any time a fighter who risks his/her life anytime they step into the ring gets a big score, it's terrific.
But it's not going to change the game substantially unless the PFL, or one of the other competitors, shows it can be financially solvent and attract elite fighters.
That and only that will determine if this is a red-letter day in MMA history for its hard-working fighters or if it's just a reason to celebrate at the Ngannou household.