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If you’ve followed public negotiations for major bouts over any real period of time, you’ve learned by now not to take too seriously what Ultimate Fighting Championship and its competitors say about the prospects for any given future encounter. The promotion and the athletes are engaged in a perpetual game of chicken in which the promotion pretends it doesn’t care all that much about putting together clearly marketable fights and the athletes pretend they’re perfectly happy to walk away from their next fight if they don’t get the right financial offer. Neither side has much incentive to indicate the deal is going to get done until it is signed and delivered.
The situation involving Henry Cejudo is a prime example. Cejudo announced his retirement following his most recent victory over Dominick Cruz. Most viewed this as a negotiating tactic. Cejudo talked about making more money in the post-fight press conference, and his manager suggested on Twitter he’s likely to fight again. The psychology is clear: Fans don’t want to see one of the best fighters in the sport walk away in the middle of his prime, and the suggestion that he might is designed to build demand for his return. That added demand ideally will lead to enhanced pay.
The UFC responded by calling Cejudo’s bluff. The organization removed him from its rankings, stripped him of his bantamweight title and moved on. The subtext is obvious: If you say you don’t want to fight, we’re not going to beg to you to do so. The UFC of course would like to see Cejudo return, as he has built more cache than just about any fighter in his division. The company is pretending not to care and moving on so quickly in order to send a message that it’s not willing to ante up in a big way to bring him back. Cejudo’s response, not getting angry but instead thanking UFC President Dana White with the hashtag #retiredontop, is likely a part of the same game. Both parties are content for the time being to pretend they’re happy to move on. Now we’ll see who comes back to the table first.
A similar game is also being played right now with Jon Jones. He posted via Twitter on Thursday that he was in negotiations with the UFC over his next fight and then promptly registered his disgust with the money that was being offered—or not offered—for a bout with Francis Ngannou. Much like Cejudo, Jones responded by threatening to walk away from the sport, at least for a year or two. It’s the same game: The UFC downplaying its willingness to pay to make a fight and fighters downplaying interest in fighting if the terms aren’t right.
In Jones’ case, it’s not hard to figure out where he’s coming from. He’s willing to move up in weight class to take on a dangerous knockout artist, but he wants to get paid more to do so. That’s understandable, as he would be accepting a risky fight that would also bring in greater revenue. What’s harder to surmise is how the UFC feels about the matchup. Sometimes the UFC bluffs and acts less interested in a fight than it is in actuality. Other times, the UFC simply doesn’t like a given fight or fighter as much as the athletes think it should. The UFC often acts rashly with fighters in order to create uncertainty and to make fighters hesitant to drive a hard bargain.
So that prompts the question: How invested is the UFC exactly in the idea of Jones vs. Ngannou? Perhaps the unwillingness to provide greater guarantees is a signal that the UFC just doesn’t care that much if the fight gets made. If that’s the case, the UFC is making a serious mistake. Jones-Ngannou is one of the most intriguing fights the promotion can make, a fight that will mean big money in the short term and likely bolster the marketability of both men in the long run. In short, this isn’t a fight with which the UFC should mess around. This is one fight for which it is well worth opening up the checkbook, and it should take place this year.
Jones has been one of the sport’s biggest stars over the course of his career, but it hasn’t led to as many box office bonanzas as one might expect given his stature. The central problem has been that Jones’ greatness has overwhelmed his opponents. Fans just don’t expect that he’ll lose, and it’s harder to sell pay-per-views without that doubt. Jones is similar to Roy Jones Jr., who dominated his division so thoroughly that his boxing pay-per-views didn’t sell commensurate with his star power.
Jones has been a favorite for 20 consecutive fights, most of the time heavily so. The last time he was an underdog was 11 days after the conclusion of the George W. Bush presidency. That would not be the case against Ngannou, as oddsmakers have listed the Frenchman as the favorite in the proposed matchup. There would be great curiosity about how Jones would adjust to moving up in weight class against such an athletic, powerful heavyweight. That would translate to lots of pay-per-view orders.
The highest grossing event of Roy Jones’ career was not against hall of famers like Felix Trinidad, Bernard Hopkins or Joe Calzaghe. Rather, it came against the much-less-distinguished John Ruiz, because he was moving up to fight for the heavyweight title. That challenge was the hook just like it would be for “Bones,” and Ngannou is a more compelling opponent by orders of magnitude than Ruiz.
The question of how Jones would perform while moving up to heavyweight is perfectly suited for the ESPN talk shows that are populated by personalities who don’t know the sport well. Ngannou is easy to explain as an opponent. You never know for sure how a fight will click until it comes, but Jones-Ngannou feels like a genuine A-list fight—the sort that drives interest in the sport. Jones and Ngannou would be markedly bigger matched together than either would be on their own, against perhaps Jan Blachowicz and Stipe Miocic.
If Jones beats Ngannou, it would be a big fight for his legacy and one that would make him even bigger for future fights. It would also set up another big fight for the heavyweight title. If Ngannou won, it would catapult him to a different level of fame and prominence. He would be the man who finally ended Jones’ great run. Both would become better known in the build.
Perhaps the UFC is simply bluffing and recognizes the potential magnitude of the fight. If so, it shouldn’t play around too much and let it slip through its fingertips. If, on the other hand, the company doesn’t recognize the value in this one, it needs to snap out of that haze and see this fight for what it is in reality. Jones-Ngannou is a big deal, and not getting it made would be folly.
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