With Francis Ngannou’s explosive knockout of Stipe Miocic one week ago, the MMA world was immediately abuzz about the impending possibility of the biggest fight not involving Conor McGregor in a great many years: Ngannou vs. Jon Jones for the UFC heavyweight title. Ngannou vs. Jones would pit arguably the scariest knockout striker in the history of the sport against arguably the greatest fighter in the history of the sport. There hasn’t been a UFC fight since then but already UFC has responded to all the excitement and intrigue by moving forward with…Ngannou vs. Derrick Lewis.
UFC is of course going to play negotiation games with its fighters. That is to be expected in any sport. The company didn’t get as valuable as it is by immediately giving into pay demands from fighters. There’s nothing wrong with the UFC driving a hard bargain with Jon Jones, just like there’s nothing wrong with Jones fighting for the biggest paycheck he can get. Tens of millions of dollars are at stake and a deal struck too fast is often a sign of an imbalance in negotiating power. With that said, make no mistake: Ngannou vs. Jones is a fight UFC has to put together.
One of the hallmarks of the UFC’s success in the last 15 years has been its ability to get the biggest fights made. This is not boxing where promoters dither year after year when it comes to matching up the top stars. MMA fans expect to see the money fights. Ngannou vs. Jones would likely do in the range of triple the business of Ngannou vs. Lewis and with that much money to be distributed to the various parties, there are no excuses not to get it done.
It would be one thing if there were genuine doubts about Jones’ willingness to take the fight. However, that is clearly not the case. Jones would not have vacated the light heavyweight championship and repeatedly talked up the prospective Ngannou bout were he disinterested in the fight. Rather, Jones simply wants to be compensated fairly. That’s perfectly understandable. The fight would do incredible business and Jones would be taking an audacious risk moving up in weight class to take on such a devastating opponent. He should not be expected to do so for cheap.
What makes the fight even harder to justify not making is the UFC’s pay structure. This is not a sport built on massive guaranteed contracts, where the promoter risks losing money on the deal if pay-per-view returns do not come in as expected. Rather, UFC has been built on deals where fighters get a cut of the returns. The more money the bout makes, the more money the fighter makes, with the promoter never at risk of going in the red. Jones doesn’t have to prove anything in advance; he can profit handsomely when the fight proves to be as big as expected. The two sides will haggle over the particulars but the basic structure for a deal isn’t some sort of enigma. A huge live gate will help make it easier to come to a deal.
The one monkey wrench in making the fight is the structure of the ESPN-UFC pay-per-view deal, where ESPN guarantees UFC a certain amount for its pay-per-views regardless of how well they sell. However, ESPN made that deal with the expectation that UFC would in good faith continue to get the biggest fights done. ESPN is way too powerful and important a partner for UFC to make a habit of pretending that superfights can’t get made and that they’ll just throw ESPN cheaper alternatives instead. Jones-Ngannou is the sort of fight that needs to get made for the benefit of all parties involved and for the long term strength of the partnership.
Fights like Ngannou-Jones are elusive. It’s rare for superstars as big as Conor McGregor, Ronda Rousey and Brock Lesnar to break through, but it is in some ways even rarer for a particular fight to click in just the right way like Rashad Evans vs. Quinton Jackson or Anderson Silva vs. Chael Sonnen. The magic of a particular matchup doesn’t always stick around like the lingering star power of a superstar fighter on the decline. The sport’s history is full of potential fights that seemed big at one point but didn’t get made because of intervening results.
Now is the time for Ngannou-Jones. There is no guarantee it will have the same appeal in a year if the two men are sent in different directions to fight other, less expensive opponents. So Dana White can play hardball now by making it appear he’s content to walk away from the matchup, but when the games are done and the parties have gone to battle at the negotiating table, Ngannou-Jones is a fight that absolutely needs to get done.
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