Francis Ngannou almost stuck with the UFC, even after all the recent drama.
Last week, Ngannou announced that he officially signed with the PFL on a deal that not only allows him to compete in MMA while pursuing boxing opportunities, but also made him a minority equity owner, a member of the PFL advisory board, and the chairman of PFL Africa. Ngannou’s contract with the league is unlike any previously seen in MMA history.
The deal was announced four months after Ngannou officially became an unrestricted free agent and 16 months after he fought what would turn out to be his final fight for the UFC, a successful defense of the heavyweight title against Ciryl Gane. That title was later vacated and won by Jon Jones, who defeated Gane for it at UFC 285.
Martin explained that Ngannou actually could have been a free agent much sooner had the UFC supplied him with a steady supply of matchups, and that they grew impatient pursuing a matchup with Jones after Ngannou’s win over Jairzinho Rozenstruik in May 2020.
“It was beyond frustrating,” Martin said on The MMA Hour.
“Francis, we were trying to get so many fights, people have no idea. He should have been done with his contract two years ago, easily. And we could have re-signed, we could have done whatever. It was always, ‘Hey, this is happening and this is happening.’ One could say he was just getting stalled out, right? After the Rozenstruik fight, we were waiting around forever and we didn’t want to wait on Stipe [Miocic]. I think something was going on with [Daniel Cormier] and Stipe, we didn’t want to wait, we were like, ‘We’ll take another fight. No problem. We’ll take another fight.’
“So when people say Francis didn’t want to fight or blah, blah, blah, it’s just not true. So I stopped arguing with the Twitter trolls and stuff. It’s just, I’ve got so many damn receipts I’m not even going to share them. And UFC knows that. They know that we were actively trying to fight all the time. All the time.”
Ngannou and Jones continue to lobby shots at each other over social media even with Ngannou no longer on the UFC roster. It seemed as if the two would match up years ago, but the bout failed to materialize for a variety of reasons, including Jones wanting more money to fight Ngannou according to UFC president Dana White, and Jones saying he needed time to properly transition physically from light heavyweight to heavyweight.
Though Ngannou and White are involved in their own ongoing public dispute regarding Ngannou’s departure from the UFC, Martin says that Ngannou actually strongly considered re-signing with the promotion.
“I though it got very close,” Martin said. “I wasn’t a part of the conversations in the fourth quarter, if you will, and you can probably guess why, but in my conversations post those dinners, there was a real chance that he was going to sign. But it had to be under the right terms. People are saying, ‘It’s all about money.’ Chill. To keep it 100, as they say, this dude got offered the biggest contract outside of Conor [McGregor] before the interim fight with Ciryl and that, and he said no because it wasn’t about just money.
“Obviously, money plays a factor, but it was other things that were important to Francis, and who am I to tell this dude no? Who am I to say, ‘Nah, do this deal.’ That’s not the kind of person I am, that’s not the kind of manager I want to be, that’s not the kind of business I want to do, and Francis at the end of the day makes up his own mind. But I would say that he was very close. I would say that I wish things were different. I think there was a lot of miscommunication in the back and forth in getting all these people involved. At the end of the day, I still think everyone won.”
Martin insists that the UFC was always in play, even as the negotiations seeped into the public eye and Martin himself became involved in a brief tiff with White. In June 2021, Martin fired back at the UFC president after White appeared to criticize him in an Instagram comment. Martin said he realized later the comment wasn’t directed specifically at him, but he doesn’t regret responding.
In fact, Martin maintains a high level of respect for White and company, though that doesn’t mean he and his team were going to bend over backwards to get Ngannou back inside the octagon.
“Overcoming that was a huge win for all of us,” Martin said of Ngannou winning the last fight of his UFC contract. “I honestly thought it was just a position of strength, not only from a negotiation standpoint but who Francis is and what he’s able to accomplish. The goal was ‘Hey, free agent? Cool. Let’s re-sign.’ But he had to fulfill his contract. It was always about fulfilling his contract. That’s what you do. And over the course of us going through the contract, reading it, going back and forth, getting CAA’s lawyers, outside lawyers’ opinions, this is what the contract is, this is what the contract states, obviously we work for the client.
“I know how big the UFC is and how great they are. They’re amazing. If you don’t give respect to [UFC Chief Business Officer] Hunter [Campbell] and Dana, you’re crazy. I have tremendous respect, Francis has tremendous respect. But at the end of the day, you have to make smart business decisions to put your client in a position to succeed.”
Martin is grateful that Ngannou’s free agency is resolved and they were able to work out their historic deal with the PFL. Now, he’s optimistic that Ngannou taking the initiative and properly gauging his worth sets an example that other combat sports athletes will follow.
“I’m just here, thankful to God, because it was a lot,” Martin said. “People were assuming this and assuming that. Francis, I’ve got to give all the credit to Francis. He was able to withstand all the tide and all the pressure, all the media hate, all the naysayers, and come out with arguably the best deal that we’ve ever seen in MMA. Period. Including Conor, from a structural standpoint, Conor, I don’t know—I would say outside of Conor.
“He’s the highest-paid heavyweight ever. With the PFL deal, the way that it’s unstructured, it’s unprecedented. This is a game changer. That’s why I’m kind of shocked. I thought everyone would celebrate this. Even fighters, even managers. I have no hate towards anyone. This is better for the sport. The first thing that I saw at CAA when I worked there, because it’s literally the best of the best in the world, the UFC side is top level, but the other side is like the wild, wild west. Like, the managing a fighter, that side.
“That side needs to catch up with the UFC in my opinion, and the only way to do that is to have a person or someone like a Francis that’s willing to say, ‘I’ll be first.’ This changes everything. Fighters are going to get paid more from the UFC. They’re going to have more opportunities. When you see Dana say, ‘Tyson, come on, let’s put on this fight.’ This helps everyone. People, I know behind the scenes, fighters will reach out to Francis and that’s beautiful, but I wish there was a lot more appreciation for a person like Francis and maybe it will happen later on, like years to come, but this dude is a game changer.”