It's hard to imagine how the relationship between the UFC and heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou has gone south so quickly. Ngannou should be a dream champion for the promotion, a power-punching force of nature worthy of the label "baddest man on the planet." It doesn't get much easier to promote than a heavyweight champion who has finished all 16 of his career wins and has eight UFC wins finished in less than two minutes.
Instead, the celebration of Ngannou's March 2021 title victory over Stipe Miocic had barely ended when issues began between the promotion and Ngannou's camp. Issues that linger even as Ngannou prepares to defend his title against interim champion Ciryl Gane in the main event of Saturday's UFC 270.
That Gane even holds the interim belt was one of the first shots of poison injected into the business relationship between Ngannou and the UFC.
The UFC had pushed for Ngannou to make the first defense of his title in June, three months after his crushing knockout of Miocic. The turnaround was too quick for the new champion, who felt he both needed more time to prepare for a title defense and deserved a moment to bask in the glory of his victory. The next offer was a fight with Derrick Lewis at UFC 265 on Aug. 7. The Ngannou camp said they countered with an offer to fight in September due to scheduling issues, but the UFC instead booked Gane to fight for the interim title against Lewis at the event.
Ngannou complained on Twitter that he'd not fought for an interim title despite waiting more than a year for Miocic to recover from an eye injury to fight Daniel Cormier in their trilogy fight. Things spiraled further when UFC president Dana White and Ngannou's manager engaged in a heated war of words.
Gane went on to easily defeat Lewis, setting up Saturday's unification bout, a fight with added heat as Ngannou and Gane are former teammates.
Still, much of the build to this fight has revolved around Ngannou's status with the company. As far as Ngannou is concerned, he's fighting out his UFC contract against Gane, even though UFC contracts include provisions that allow the promotion to extend the contract of active champions or fighters who are offered, but turn down, fights over set periods of time.
The champion's clause and automatic extension simply don't work for Ngannou, he told ESPN, and a new deal will need to be reached with the UFC should he score a victory at UFC 270.
"No, I will not fight for $500,000, $600,000 anymore," Ngannou said. "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]."
That Ngannou is represented by CAA, a direct competitor with UFC parent company Endeavor in many areas of entertainment, adds an odd wrinkle to the old story of an athlete in a complex, bitter contractual battle.
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White has repeatedly taken shots at Ngannou's management. When the issues over the Gane vs. Lewis interim title fight began, White said, "His management is incompetent and hopefully Francis starts taking a look at new people to help his career."
He has since doubled down on those words while appearing on "The Fight with Teddy Atlas."
"I think Francis has been misguided by some people who aren't very bright," White said. "That doesn't help either when you've got some people behind you who have no f---ing clue what they're talking about. It doesn't help your situation."
The final complication in Ngannou's desire for a new deal with the UFC comes from Ngannou's stance that any new contract must allow him the possibility of also pursuing his interests in the boxing ring. Ngannou has repeatedly floated the idea of boxing top heavyweights such as Deontay Wilder and Tyson Fury, with the latter even engaging in some Twitter negotiations, as unlikely as it may be for a fight between the two to ever materialize.
The idea of Ngannou boxing while under an active UFC contract is almost certainly another "no go" for White and the UFC, who only have caved on such a desire when it was for the massive boxing event between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and former two-division UFC champion Conor McGregor.
Win or lose at UFC 270, it feels likely the event is the last time Ngannou sets foot in the Octagon for the foreseeable future. With a loss, Ngannou's contract is officially up and the idea of the two sides quickly coming to terms seems increasingly unlikely. With a win, the UFC's long-controversial champion's clause kicks in and Ngannou has flatly said he will not fight under those terms while the UFC isn't likely to budge on what they believe to be a valid contract.
What the future holds for the baddest man on the planet is uncertain as fight night approaches. But how the situation plays out may set the tone for the future of contractual interactions between the sport's biggest stars and the sport's biggest promotion.