Ngannou vs Gane: Bigger Than the UFC Heavyweight Title?

When it comes to combat sports, titles don’t come much bigger than that of World’s Heavyweight Champion. The super-sized men of prizefighting compete for big gold belts, the unofficial moniker of ‘Baddest Man on the Planet’ and some of the fattest purses in the game. Except that isn’t always the case. This weekend Francis Ngannou defends his heavyweight championship, but what he stands to gain – and lose – is so much more than a few pounds of gold.

For those born in Batié, Camaroon prospects are few, even for those who can afford access to basic, regular education. For Francis Ngannou, the product of a broken home and a ramshackle foster care system, even this was often a luxury too far. It was a different kind of poverty, one that most of us could seldom imagine, let alone survive. Aged just eleven years old, the time when a child’s most pressing concern should be how many Pokemon cards they’ve collected, Francis Ngannou was toiling in a sand quarry and still not earning enough for his family to make ends meet.

What he did have, was a dream.

Ngannou dreamed big, and although his ambitions to make it as a prizefighter were shot down and written off as madness by his peers, he refused to let them go. And so, he navigated the ever-present alure of easy money from street gangs and the shadow of his violent father’s reputation to make it from Africa to Europe. After a spell in jail thanks to an illegal border crossing and a period of homelessness and destitution in the Paris suburbs, Ngannou found a home with coach and influential French MMA figurehead Fernand Lopez, who convinced him to take up MMA and eventually guided his charge to the UFC.

The rest, as they say, is history.

History can be complicated though and for ‘The Predator’, the complications seem to keep adding up. What should be the biggest night of his fighting career feels like something much more complex, with shadows other than that of interim champion Cyril Gane looming large.

The battlelines being drawn ahead of this weekend’s unification bout aren’t just down the centre of the Octagon. The champ is the latest in a long line of fighters to find themselves at loggerheads with the UFC over the thorny issue of compensation. It’s a story we’ve grown increasingly familiar with over the years and the usual beats are already being played out in the court of public opinion. Ngannou wants more money and the option to box, the UFC’s Dana White has traded barbs with his advisors and around and around we go.

As we’ve seen with everyone from Tito Ortiz to Randy Couture and Jon Jones, usually these public tete-a-tetes unfold until both sides privately meet in the middle and a deal is done, but there’s a little more at play here.

For starters, Ngannou is represented by Creative Artists Agency (CAA), a sports and talent agency and business rival of UFC parent company WME/Endeavour. His agent Marquel Martin (a former UFC employee) personally lashed out at White last August, when the promotion took the unprecedented step of minting an interim title mere months after Ngannou dethroned Stipe Miocic.
If the move felt especially out of leftfield given that (according to Martin) the champion was ready to defend in September, that’s because times are changing. The nature of the UFC’s current broadcast deal with ESPN, the dawn of the ‘Content Era’ if you will, means that even champions like Ngannou no longer hold the cards they used to. Shotgun-booking the Gane/Lewis fight wasn’t just a wargame with a rival talent agency, but a direct message to all champions that if the UFC has a date to fill and you don’t want to defend your belt, they’ll simply make a new one.

To complicate matters further, Ngannou is in the contractually perilous position of not having renegotiated before the final fight on his deal. While this will likely make him a free agent should he lose on Saturday night, a win would activate the infamous ‘Champion’s Clause’, tying him to the UFC for another 12 months or three fights. Both options come with their own pros and cons.
A win puts ‘The Predator’ in the strongest bargaining position, but if the UFC are unwilling to pay the rumoured seven-figure purse demands for a Jon Jones fight or allow him an ‘out’ to box as they did with Conor McGregor, Ngannou must face the fact that at 35 years of age and having competed only twice in the past two years, he’ll have to spend an additional 12 months on the side lines if he’s genuine about wanting to test free agency.

If that’s the advice he’s been given in a sport that’s all about striking when the iron is hot, maybe White has a point?

A loss (especially a spectacular or comprehensive one) may leave him a free man, but it will come at a heavy cost. Will Bellator or the PFL be able to match his current UFC purses? Will they want to? Interacting with Tyson Fury on social media is one thing, but the Ngannou camp is surely aware that any remote possibility of their man boxing him, Wilder or another top heavyweight hinges on him being the UFC champion.

All of which is to say that Francis Ngannou has a lot riding on Saturday’s fight: His title, his contract and his future. At the end of the day, that’s all business. Unfortunately for Ngannou, this fight also carries some deeply personal connotations.

There are two sides to every story and the truth, or as close as we’re likely to get to it, is likely somewhere in the middle. Such is the case with the acrimonious split between Ngannou and Fernand Lopez.

The fighter paints a picture of a coach jealous of his place twenty feet from stardom, as it were; the backing singer to his fighter’s lead vocalist. For Lopez, the issue was one of arrogance; a successful fighter no longer willing to listen to any harsh truths from the man that brought him to the dance.
It should come as little surprise then that their relationship crumbled off a back of ‘The Predator’s consecutive losses to Stipe Miocic and Derreck Lewis, the latter of which was generally regarded as one of the worst UFC fights of 2018.

Then there was the root of all evil: Money. A common occurrence in combat sports and MMA in particular, fighter and coach had always worked on a handshake deal, since the days when Ngannou quite literally had no means with which to pay for his training and board. It’s a gamble coaches often take, with the understanding that should a fighter make it big they will do the right thing.

Just as common, when the time came for the pair to have that conversation the parties didn’t see eye to eye. Lopez alleged that his former pupil was reluctant to hand over a fairly standard 10% slice amongst other sundries and even declined to pay his annual €600 gym membership. Ngannou shot back that it was simply bitterness on the part of his mentor and that his contributions in attracting global attention to the Parisian gym were worth far in excess of €600.

It was a sad end to one of the sport’s most endearing success stories in recent times. The final twist in the tale is that the man who once stood 20 feet behind Francis will stand in the opposite corner on Saturday night, being as he is the coach of Cyril Gane.

No matter the truth of the breakdown in his relationship with Lopez or exactly how close Ngannou was to Gane as a friend or training partner, the UFC have of course latched onto this narrative to sell Saturday’s fight and it will no doubt come up frequently during the week’s media duties. And while the business of fighting is the only thing that truly matters when the cage door closes, to assume that the bout won’t be just a little bit personal for all involved would be a giant leap of faith.
The first Pay-Per-View of the year features a tailor-made champion, an undefeated, interim-title holding challenger and a built-in back story that intrinsically links their careers; this fight should be as easy to sell as a life-raft to a drowning man. Yet it all feels somehow more dialled-down than an attraction of its calibre should be.

It’s understandable that a dissatisfied and potentially distracted Ngannou might not want to go out of his way to make money for the promoter he feels is undervaluing him as an asset. Similarly, it might behove the UFC to dim Ngannou’s spotlight lest he decimate Gane and walk away. Regardless of your opinion on how much of the promotional load should shouldered by the fighter and the promoter respectively, the fact of the matter is that this is a symbiotic relationship; one that works best when both sides are pulling in the same direction.

Conventional wisdom says he should be going all out to position himself as one of the UFC’s most bankable stars, but Ngannou is no stranger to taking risks and backing himself. He risked his life to become a fighter, his liberty to travel to France and his career leaving Lopez when the results stopped coming in. He’s even taking half of Saturday’s $600,000 purse in BitCoin; if that’s not a gamble, I don’t know what is.

Francis Ngannou is used to gambling and so far at least, he’s used to winning big. He’ll be hoping his luck is in on Saturday night because for Ngannou as an individual and perhaps for the UFC’s championship cohort as a whole, this is much bigger than the heavyweight title.

Written by Brad Wharton

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