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If the steady stream of headlines surrounding heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou's impending free agency is any indication, the topic of fighter pay in the UFC doesn't appear to be going away anytime soon.  

Ngannou (17-3), who is expected to need knee surgery following his gritty win over interim champion Ciryl Gane, proclaimed he is willing to allow his current contract to expire in December after announcing he would never again fight for $600,000 -- the purse he received at UFC 270 in January.  

Regardless of how the 35-year-old champion's future plays out in the short term, Ngannou's story has the potential to be a historic turning point in the larger fight UFC athletes have undertaken in recent years for better treatment as independent contractors. Ngannou has centered his battle upon the idea that fighters should either be paid commensurate to their worth or given the freedom contractually to moonlight in other lanes, including professional boxing.  

Before Ngannou, it was former light heavyweight champion Jon Jones in 2020 who publicly contested his treatment by UFC brass during a period when court documents and reports unearthed proof that the promotion, currently in the midst of consecutive record-breaking years financially, pays out just 15% of total revenue to its fighters.  

Compared to the nearly 50% of revenue shared with athletes in major team sports -- and the fact that boxer Gary Russell Jr. made more headlining a Showtime card on the same night as UFC 270 than the entire 22 fighters on the MMA card combined -- it's not difficult for fans and media alike to sympathize with Ngannou and his fellow championship-level UFC fighters.  

Yet, for as much as MMA media has done to present the facts in as virtuous a manner as possible without unnecessarily taking sides, the job of creating change is ultimately in the hands of the fighters themselves -- provided they believe the fight to get there is worth the risk.  

This Saturday, the Octagon returns to Houston for UFC 271 and the promotion's first pay-per-view event since the fallout of Ngannou's win. Former middleweight champion Robert Whittaker will headline the event in a rematch against current titleholder Israel Adesanya while fan-friendly heavyweight Derrick Lewis returns to his home city in the co-main event against Tai Tuivasa.

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Both Whittaker (23-5) and Lewis (26-8, 1 NC) appeared as guests on "Morning Kombat" over the past week to preview UFC 271 and their collective response regarding the potential impact of Ngannou's public battle with UFC brass was telling.  

"Mate … that is a tricky question. That is a tricky question because … yeah. What do I even say?" Whittaker said. "It's such a … that's a loaded question. Honestly, I don't have too much information on the whole matter at all. I have just been focusing on myself and focusing on the training, focusing on getting ready for the fight.  

"I don't really keep myself up to date with the news, anyway. I kind of just keep myself hunkered down in the fort and go on my way." 

Asked further whether he's happy with his current compensation, Whittaker struggled to properly voice the uncertainty that was evident upon his demeanor by painfully uttering, "Oh, mate …" Whittaker, a 31-year-old native of New Zealand who fights out of Australia, finally did respond when asked whether he feels like now is a fertile time for historic change.  

"If you're asking whether I would like more money, hell yeah! That's a silly question," Whittaker said. "But as for how this is all going to play out, I don't know. I don't know what's happening. I don't have enough information. I can't speak on it right now." 

Lewis, 37, who enters having won five of his last six fights, was much more direct about his thoughts on the matter.  

"I don't care," Lewis said. "I don't know what [Ngannou's] contract situation is and I don't know what's going on behind closed doors and everything with his camp. I really don't know." 

The exchange with both fighters spurred debate as to what role Ngannou's fellow UFC star fighters should have in potentially aiding a cause that so directly affects them. And while it wouldn't necessarily be prudent for Whittaker or Lewis to shift the focus away from their upcoming fights by creating the distraction of bad-mouthing their employers publicly, there seems to be a much more diplomatic way to field the inevitable questions than outright punting so blatantly.  

Until UFC fighters can create the kind of voice and leverage they are currently lacking by joining together to create a union or fighter's association -- in ways that the aborted launch of the Mixed Martial Arts Athletes Association failed to do in 2016 -- it's hard to imagine much of anything changing, regardless of whether Ngannou ever steps foot in the Octagon again.  

But there is one thing about this largely uncertain situation you can guarantee: Should UFC fighters continue to follow the model of fear-based ignorance shown by Whittaker and Lewis this past week and fail to at least publicly support the risk being taken by Ngannou for himself and fate of all UFC fighters to come, everything accomplished by the defending heavyweight champion will have been done in vain. 

And that's exactly what UFC president Dana White, who was conveniently absent in presenting the title to Ngannou inside the cage at UFC 270, as well as at the post-fight press conference, is hoping to see.  

Nunes admits injuries fueled upset loss 

That feeling MMA fans and pundits alike had that something just didn't seem right with former women's bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes in her shocking upset loss to Julianna Pena in December appears validated following the Brazilian star's recent comments.  

Nunes (21-5), who is scheduled to coach the upcoming season of "The Ultimate Fighter" reality series opposite Pena (11-4) to hype a rematch between them later this year, told ESPN on Monday that she dealt with a pair of knee injuries throughout a disastrous training camp and should've pulled out of the fight.  

The reason why Nunes, 33, ultimately didn't was because a battle with COVID-19 forced her to postpone her originally scheduled Aug. 7 defense against Pena. Even though Nunes still holds the UFC's featherweight title, her G.O.A.T. aura was significantly chipped away at by watching her gas out and implode so improbably against the heavy underdog Pena before quickly tapping out to a choke in Round 2 that was anything but tight.  

Nunes revealed her knees were so bad during training camp that she couldn't walk at times and her cardio suffered because of it. And although Nunes has no one to blame but herself for going forward with the fight anyway -- one month before Ngannou did the same thing against Gane in a gutsy victory despite a torn MCL -- this is a dangerous trend top fighters should avoid altogether moving forward, even if the decision is often a financial one in the end.

Below the Radar 

It won't get the same love and attention this weekend at UFC 271 as the middleweight title rematch in the main event, but Saturday's fight between Jared Cannonier and Derek Brunson could very well produce the next 185-pound title challenger.  

This is a top-five matchup pairing the 38-year-old Cannonier (14-5), who has won four of his last five, against the red-hot Brunson (23-7), who has turned his career around at age 37 with a five-fight win streak. Both fighters are a testament to perseverance and reinvention as the fight offers a striking style contrast between the wrestler Brunson and the calculated power boxing of Cannonier.  

Cannonier, who previously fought as high as heavyweight inside the Octagon, enters as a slight betting favorite following a decision win last August against Kelvin Gastelum that showcased just how much a competitive loss to Whittaker the previous year pushed him to raise his game. Brunson, meanwhile, is fresh off an eye-opening submission of Darren Till in September.  

Fantasy Matchmaking 

A steady stream of workout videos from the various social media channels of former two-division champion Conor McGregor means one thing -- a PPV return for the biggest draw in MMA history is coming. Many have speculated that the 33-year-old McGregor (22-6), who is fresh off surgery to repair a broken tibia suffered in his trilogy loss to Dustin Poirier last summer, could return at International Fight Week in Las Vegas this July.  

With the unending tease and rumors of Poirier returning against former McGregor foe Nate Diaz, the door for debate has been opened as to who would make the perfect comeback opponent for "The Notorious," now that it's apparent UFC isn't willing to fast track him back into an undeserved lightweight title shot.  

How about this for a suggestion? Regardless of whether former 155-pound champion Rafael dos Anjos (30-13) is victorious in his Feb. 19 return against Rafael Fiziev, the future Hall of Famer from Brazil just might be the perfect test to find out exactly what McGregor has left.  

Not only is RDA a well-rounded threat who is equally capable on his feet or on the ground, the fight would mark the consummation of their aborted lightweight title bout originally scheduled for UFC 196 in 2016. Dos Anjos pulled out with a knee injury that opened the door for Diaz to face McGregor as a last-minute foe, four months before RDA was stopped by Eddie Alvarez to relinquish his title.

Quote of the Week 

Rising women's flyweight prospect Casey O'Neill (8-0) returns at UFC 271 this weekend against pioneer Roxanne Modafferri. The 24-year-old from Scotland shared an interesting story during Monday's appearance on "The MMA Hour" in which she told Ariel Helwani she is undergoing a "sober 2022" because of a recent drunken night in Mexico that saw her awaken to more questions than answers.