The problem with the court of public opinion is that it's often fueled by emotions and not necessarily the facts. Which is to say, many MMA fans might owe former UFC heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou an apology.
Ngannou (17-3), who vacated his title to officially part ways with the promotion in January after negotiations for his return to the Octagon fell apart disastrously, announced his next move on Tuesday by signing a multi-year deal with PFL in their upcoming PPV super fight division. The language of the deal also allows for Ngannou, who turns 37 in September, the freedom to pursue big-money fights in boxing, which was prohibited under his previous UFC contract. He will also become a part of PFL's Global Advisory Board to represent fighters and the equity owner and chairman for the upcoming PFL Africa.
If you've followed closely the journey of Ngannou's adult life, which saw him leave his native Cameroon at age 26 to pursue his professional boxing dreams in France (which included a prison sentence in Spain for illegal entry and homelessness in Paris), Tuesday's news was just another remarkable development in a largely remarkable life.
Placing virtue and freedom above the sole pursuit of money after feeling disrespected and lied about for years by the promotion, most notably UFC president Dana White, wasn't enough for Ngannou to avoid constant vitriol from fans online or even his ex-UFC compatriots who spoke publicly, as new narratives were quickly created.
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Ngannou is greedy (even though he walked away from a record $8 million offer as part of a multi-bout UFC agreement to fight Jon Jones).
Ngannou is selfish (even though much of his demands, which UFC failed to even entertain or counter, centered upon his want for improved fighter treatment and representation).
Ngannou is stupid and missed his window (even though his free-agency period was just four months in total).
And, finally, Ngannou is scared to fight Jones (even though Jones sat out for three years and waited until immediately after Ngannou's exit to sign an amended deal and return).
The fact that Jones finally returned in March to capture the vacant heavyweight title against Cyril Gane, whom Ngannou heroically outlasted in January 2022 to fulfill his UFC deal, helped White immediately turn the page. Not only did White proclaim Ngannou would never fight in the Octagon again, he conveniently praised Jones as a conquering hero (and MMA G.O.A.T.) even though the two had previously been at odds over White's refusal to pay Jones to move up in weight.
So how horrible of a person is Ngannou that White would routinely make statements about him to the media that were demonstrably not true? And why would rival promoters make seemingly disingenuous updates about their own failed negotiations with Ngannou after it appeared PFL was the front runner?
The answer is probably the same reason why UFC Hall of Famer and broadcaster Daniel Cormier criticized Ngannou in recent weeks, suggesting he should just "bite the bullet" and make a UFC return: Ngannou is a disrupter, but not in the ways UFC brass or fans are used to.
Whether you find Ngannou's actions to be commendable or misguided, it's hard not to respect it.
He's the rare fighter willing to use his platform and risk leverage to create a better tomorrow for MMA athletes. And in an era where fighter pay is a constant topic, Ngannou's hopes of improving everything from health insurance to the removal of Draconian contracts is nothing short of a major threat to the way major promoters like UFC typically operate.
The fact that UFC made several changes to all future contracts immediately after Ngannou's five-year "sunset clause" expired, which included adding more restrictions and forcing fighters to sign a waiver preventing future class-action lawsuits, is a tell-tale sign to the danger that Ngannou, as MMA's default Robin Hood, brings to UFC's business structure.
From a landmark ESPN output deal signed in 2018 to a status change in 2021 as a publicly traded company under parent Endeavor, the dichotomy of how corporate UFC has become while still treating its athletes in such an outdated manner is hard to ignore. So has the recent trend of watered down matchmaking as a likely way to keep down costs just as Endeavor continues to take on debt after its nearly $10 billion acquisition of WWE.
Fires like the one created publicly by Ngannou are typically snuffed out with money, which UFC tried by offering him a record deal to fight Jones. But Ngannou's issues with UFC brass was never fully about the money and more about respect (or the lack thereof for years), which made him dangerous to deal with when it became clear his personal values would trump anything else.
MMA fans can be upset at Ngannou all they want for preventing them from such a historic matchup as the fight against Jones, which could've been promoted as a meeting between the most dangerous heavyweight and greatest overall fighter in the sport's history. But there's so much more to the story of how things actually played out than the crass and often flip-flopping White would let any of them believe.
This is the same promoter who has spent most of 2023 abusing UFC social channels by promoting his fledgling Slap Fight league, where defense is illegal and head trauma is almost guaranteed. He's also the same man who refused to put the title around Ngannou's waist (and no-showed the post-fight press conference) after Ngannou defied doctors' orders to fight Gane on one leg while nursing a torn ACL and MCL.
If Ngannou had only cared about himself, he would've already fought Jones for career-changing money. But, instead, he did it his way, knowing that even if the PFL deal or any future boxing offers never came, that he would be content knowing he walked away on his own terms for the right reasons, with his chin held high and no regrets.
Instead, because of Tuesday's news, Ngannou gets to have his cake and eat it, too. All this, after a free-agency period that reportedly saw Ngannou go to bat for his future opponents by trying to negotiate a minimum purse for each so that his signing wouldn't tilt the financial scales unnecessarily in his favor at the expense of everyone else.
That's a man with integrity.