Monday, May 23, 2022

UFC 270 fighter pay draws criticism as Francis Ngannou prepares to sit out: ‘I don’t feel like a free man’

As fewer and fewer states have made fighter pay publicly available, the subject of fight purses has remained a hot topic in the combat sports world. UFC 270 was different, however, with the event taking place in California, which still releases official purse figures. And, as the UFC — and company president Dana White — have touted record-breaking profits, many fans were shocked at what was perceived as low payouts to the fighters in disclosed purses.

Standing out to many were two major numbers. First, that half of the 22 fighters on the card had a base pay of $20,000 or less. Second, that heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou and challenger Ciryl Gane made $600,000 and $500,000, respectively.

Ngannou’s relationship with the UFC has deteriorated significantly since he won the championship by crushing Stipe Miocic in March 2021. Ngannou made it clear before the event that he was fighting out the last bout on his contract against Gane, regardless of the fact that UFC contracts include a “champion’s clause” that allows the promotion to automatically extend a champion’s contract after a victory.

“No, I will not fight for $500,000, $600,000 anymore,” Ngannou told ESPN ahead of the fight. “I mean, it’s over. It’s over. I just did this. I took this fight for a personal reason, and I want to make sure that regardless, even if it’s unfair, I have been wrongly treated, I can make my case to say I have completed the eight fights [on the existing contract].”

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Part of Ngannou’s focus has been on securing the ability to participate in boxing, where the top fighters make far more than even the absolute elite of the UFC. Ngannou has pushed the idea of trying to secure (admittedly unlikely) fights against WBC heavyweight champion Tyson Fury and former titleholder Deontay Wilder, but the UFC is unlikely to allow a fighter under a UFC contract to get in a boxing ring barring the possibility of a mega-fight on the level of Conor McGregor vs. Floyd Mayweather.

Still, the comparison to those boxers was quickly made on social media as the UFC 270 fight purses were released.

Jon Jones, who is the most appealing possible challenger for the heavyweight title, has had his own bouts of trouble with the UFC over pay, including stating that he wanted to be paid “Deontay Wilder money” when he began an initial holdout in 2020. That level of money is roughly 10 times what the UFC paid for their entire card on a major pay-per-view headlined by two highly-anticipated championship bouts.

The pay discussion even drew out Fury to tweet, “Congratulations [Francis Ngannou] but if you want to make some real money come see the [Gypsy King].”

YouTuber-turned-boxer-turned-Dana White antagonist Jake Paul also got in on the act.

While Fury and Paul are mostly piling on — though Paul has become one of the loudest voices in the fight to increase UFC fighter pay — Ngannou is taking the situation very seriously.

“It’s not simply money,” Ngannou said at the UFC 270 post-fight press conference. “Obviously, money is a part of it, but it’s also the terms of the contract that I don’t agree with. I don’t feel like it’s fair. I don’t feel like I’m a free man. I don’t feel like I’ve been treated good. It’s unfortunate that I have to be in this position, that I have to say that. I feel like everyone should have the right to claim for what’s best for them. At the end of the day, we put a lot of work for this job and we take a lot on our body to make it happen, so we can have a fair and square deal.”

More troubling for the UFC than simply Ngannou wanting a new contract is that he and his team believe the champion’s clause extends his contract three fights or one year. And Ngannou says he’s ready to simply sit on the sidelines for that year before moving on to more appealing opportunities.

“In the past three years I have fought three times, so what does that mean? Once a year,” Ngannou said. “It wouldn’t be something strange. I’m not frustrated about anything, I’m at peace with my decision.”

It’s possible Ngannou and the UFC come to terms on a new deal that works in the best interest of everyone. It feels equally possible the two sides end up in a legal battle as the UFC tries to enforce the existing terms of the contract and insist that the contract continues to extend if a fighter refuses to accept reasonable fights.

Either way, the spotlight is one again on the UFC’s pay scale and it’s not providing a flattering look at the biggest promotion in the sport.

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