Close Reading: Is it really ‘all good’ with Dana White if heavyweight champ Francis Ngannou wants to leave the UFC?

UFC President Dana White donned his finest gray hoodie for a sitdown with his broadcast partners at ESPN this week, and wouldn’t you know it, one of the topics that came up was current UFC heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou, who is none too pleased with his contract as it winds down.

Can’t imagine why, right? Mere months after Big Fran took the title from Stipe Miocic, the UFC demanded he return to defend it in Houston, where the UFC had a lucrative site fee deal with an arena. When Ngannou had the audacity to suggest that he fight the following month instead, the company created a brand new interim belt, ran a promo package suggesting that it was because Ngannou had gone on vacation, then slapped the fresh belt on interim champ Ciryl Gane.

So that’s not exactly super respectful to the champ, who was already complaining that he wasn’t being paid like the baddest man on the planet. Now Ngannou and Gane are set to fight at UFC 270 next month, and it is sort of, kind of the last fight on Ngannou’s contract, depending on how it goes (more on that later). So what happens if the UFC can’t give him a deal he likes enough to sign? White had this to say to ESPN’s Brett Okamoto:

“These things happen. Sometimes you don’t always come to terms with people. When you’re a fighter, you have to be careful who represents you. I don’t think he’s had the best representation. Look, if you want to be with us, we’d love to have you. If you don’t want to be with us, no problem. It’s all good. I think his contract, and this is off the top of my head, if he wins he still has time with us after this fight. He’d probably have one more fight.”

Oh boy. There’s a lot there, even if it seems like White is trying very hard to play it cool. Is White just saying stuff? Is he revealing that he no longer even cares enough to make shit up? Best to take this one step at a time and break it all down piece by piece, and you know what that means…

It’s time for a motherfucking Close Reading.

“These things happen. Sometimes you don’t always come to terms with people.”

Yeah, fuck it, right? Here you’ve got an electrifying knockout artist as champ, someone with an incredible life story of struggle and perseverance against terrible odds and through unimaginable hardship, a fighter dripping with star quality and possessing almost godlike one-punch power. But hey, if he doesn’t like the deal that’s on the table what can the UFC possibly do? It’s whatever, bro.

“When you’re a fighter, you have to be careful who represents you. I don’t think he’s had the best representation.”

Lol ok. Now we’re having fun. Ngannou is represented by Creative Artist Agency (CAA), which happens to be the main rival and competitor to the athlete management side of Endeavor’s business. As in, the same Endeavor that owns the UFC. In other words, CAA has no incentive to play nice with the UFC and convince Ngannou to take a lowball deal. It doesn’t represent many other UFC fighters, so unlike the vast majority of MMA managers, it isn’t motivated by keeping the UFC happy at the expense of its own clients. This means that if CAA reps think Ngannou would be financially better off fighting out his contract and taking his services elsewhere – a boxing ring, for instance – they’ll say so. Bad representation, in White’s view.

“Look, if you want to be with us, we’d love to have you. If you don’t want to be with us, no problem. It’s all good.”

First of all, you gotta love the phrasing here, like he’s inviting Ngannou to join them for a picnic. They’d love to have him if he wants to come along, maybe bring some potato salad to share, but it not that’s fine too. Totally no pressure or anything. Quite a departure from how the UFC has looked at departing fighters – especially champions – in years past.

But is it possible this is not merely tactics on White’s part, but actually his true position?

The current UFC business model is built largely on rights fees and guaranteed contracted money from one source or another. The promotion rakes it in whether people watch these fights or not. Obviously, it’s better to sell a bunch of pay-per-views, but it’s no longer super necessary. That means no one fighter is essential. They are all replaceable and largely interchangeable. If Ngannou wants to walk, fine, the UFC will make what it can out of Gane. Even if he sells a couple hundred thousand fewer PPVs each time out, the contracted money from ESPN and other TV rights deals is still there.

There’s no competitor even close enough to the UFC right now that it has to be concerned about letting a big star fall into enemy hands. The only real threat to the business model would be allowing the fighter share of revenue to creep up over that 20 percent mark. If you let Ngannou hold you up for more money, maybe other champs get it in their heads to do the same. Safer to let one walk every now and then rather than cave to his contract demands and start an avalanche. Plus it shows other fighters who do not have Ngannou’s value on the open market that the UFC machine will gladly roll on with or without them.

So maybe White really does think “it’s all good.” The UFC doesn’t have to base its sales pitch on the biggest fights or the best fighters anymore. It is selling the brand, the consistent schedule, the absolute mountain of content. And the most important thing is that it is doing so cheaply by keeping the cost of talent low.

“I think his contract, and this is off the top of my head, if he wins he still has time with us after this fight. He’d probably have one more fight.”

Oh yeah, that’s just off the top of your head, huh? You’re not sure what the heavyweight champion’s contract says? Just ballparkin’ it? Cool, cool. Kind of feels like we’re trying to avoid the phrase “champion’s clause” here, but whatever.

As Bloody Elbow’s John Nash has reported, UFC contracts seem to have changed some time in the last few years to include an eventual end date, so that the so-called champion’s clause no longer extends them indefinitely as long as the champ keeps winning. The UFC will never admit it, but you’ve got to think the antitrust lawsuit had something to do with this. A contract that never ends maybe isn’t a great look in court. It’s good news for fighters who want to eventually finish their contracts without having to tank a fight to do it.

It’s still a curious bit of business to essentially admit that the champ could get right out on that open market if he loses next month, while if he wins he’d have to stick around for probably at least one more fight. Also kind of lol-worthy to act like you, the company president, aren’t even totally sure how it works.

Conclusion: White is definitely downplaying some stuff and kind of going out of his way not to say certain phrases or admit certain realities, but it also seems like this shrugging indifference is at least partially genuine? That’s a little bit insane, when you consider that we’re talking about the goddamn heavyweight champ, a guy with an inspiring rags-to-riches tale and a Mike Tyson-esque allure as a knockout artist. But it’s also a reflection of where the UFC finds itself headed into 2022.

The money is rolling in whether the fights sell big or don’t. The power of the brand, along with the guaranteed money coming in through rights deals, ensure a certain baseline profitability. And since the UFC keeps the vast majority of the money, that baseline is still very, very profitable. This allows White to genuinely not give a shit about keeping an exciting heavyweight champ. What a beautiful dream for a fight promoter. Maybe not so great for fans, though.

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