The PFL has made it a mission to persuade the MMA public that it is the No. 2 fight promotion in the sport, behind only the mighty UFC. That effort has received pushback, though, from fans and media who see more high-level champions competing in MMA’s perennial second fiddle, Bellator.
But now the ambitious PFL can make a claim that is difficult to dispute: With the signing of former UFC champion Francis Ngannou, the PFL now boasts arguably the best heavyweight in MMA.
The game-changing arrival of Ngannou, who vacated his UFC title and left the company in January, is by far the biggest acquisition by the PFL in its five-year existence. But as much of a pickup as it is for the PFL, Ngannou’s signing raises questions about his boxing ambitions as well as what’s in store for him inside the PFL cage.
ESPN’s Brett Okamoto and Jeff Wagenheim outline what this deal means for Ngannou and the combat sports industry.
Does this end Ngannou’s pursuit of big boxing matches?
Okamoto: Not in the least. This deal wouldn’t exist if the PFL wanted to stand in the way of Ngannou’s interest in boxing. Ngannou wants to box, and is free to do so — under any terms he wishes. The PFL is not involved in his boxing career at all, which means Ngannou is contractually available to any promoter he chooses.
He has expressed interest in matches against Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder, but neither of those elite heavyweights is likely available in 2023. Ngannou wants to grace the boxing ring at some point this year, but what that will look like — if it does happen — remains to be seen.
Will Ngannou be part of the next heavyweight season?
Okamoto: No. Ngannou joins the PFL’s “PPV Super Fight Division,” a category of contracts that also includes professional boxer/social media influencer Jake Paul. Two-time PFL champion Kayla Harrison is also essentially on this type of PFL contract, as she is not included in the 2023 season. The PFL has promoted only one PPV event, which took place last year, but has strong ambitions for growth in that area moving forward. At this point, it is unlikely that the PFL will promote a PPV event in 2023, but it has expressed interest in holding two PPVs per year. The promotion announced earlier this year that under PPV Super Fight Division contracts, revenue from events is equally split between athlete and promoter.
What are the financial implications of the move — for the PFL and Ngannou?
Okamoto: For Ngannou, it would seem remarkable. Exact terms haven’t been disclosed; however, PFL co-founder Donn Davis told ESPN the deal matches what the UFC offered Ngannou earlier this year, which the UFC stated would have made him the highest-paid heavyweight in UFC history. He also has been given equity in the PFL Africa brand.
For the PFL, it’s less clear. This company has no established track record for promoting — and profiting from — PPV events. There is also no obvious opponent for Ngannou to face who would build a mega event. The good news for the PFL, and why it was willing to do this deal, is that adding a name like Ngannou boosts the overall PFL brand, and as far as his actual PPV, the company has about a year or so to figure out the top opponent.
If Ngannou is the best heavyweight in the world, why is he not in the ESPN rankings?
Wagenheim: Ngannou has not fought since January 2022, and to be eligible for the ESPN rankings, a fighter must have competed within the past year or have an upcoming fight scheduled. Before being deemed ineligible, however, Ngannou was No. 1 in our heavyweight rankings and in the top five of the pound-for-pound rankings.
Would Ngannou be ranked ahead of UFC champ Jon Jones if he were eligible? Who would win if they fought?
Wagenheim: Ngannou is the baddest man on the planet. Eligible for our rankings or not, he’s still No. 1 in my eyes. Jones has had just one fight at heavyweight, but he was impressive in that fight, submitting Ciryl Gane in barely two minutes to win the vacant UFC title. Gane was also Ngannou’s final opponent in the Octagon, and the fight went the full five rounds, with Ngannou winning a unanimous decision. But to compare Jones and Ngannou solely on that one common opponent would be shaky MMA math. Ngannou has had 17 fights at heavyweight, scoring knockouts in 12. So his heavyweight résumé is way heftier than Jones’.
Who’d win if Ngannou and Jones fought? We might never find out, unless the UFC and the PFL work out a deal to make that fight. That is highly unlikely, though, as the UFC has been opposed to co-promoting. The UFC did have a hand in Conor McGregor’s 2017 boxing match with Floyd Mayweather, and way back in 2003, Chuck Liddell went to Japan to represent the UFC in the Pride Middleweight Grand Prix. But that’s just two instances in 20 years, so it’s unlikely the UFC would go for Jones vs. Ngannou — except maybe in its video game.
Who might Ngannou fight first in the PFL?
Okamoto: The obvious answer would be the winner of this 2023 season, which includes potential names like Ante Delija and Denis Goltsov. They are not the most attractive household names. However, there will likely be added interest in the heavyweight tournament the rest of this year now that the winner is a possible opponent for Ngannou.
Could other heavyweights follow Ngannou to the PFL?
Okamoto: Of course it’s possible. Now that Ngannou has revealed the PFL agreed that anyone who fights him is guaranteed a baseline $2 million purse (a detail Davis confirmed to ESPN), any heavyweight who reaches free agency will immediately look to the PFL. Now, one would imagine the UFC is very aware of the PFL’s signing of Ngannou and likely won’t be in the business of cutting or releasing any big-name heavyweight to go fight him — not that the company wouldn’t try to keep all of its heavyweight talent anyway, but especially if it means not aiding a competitor. This adds another layer to an ongoing point of interest in the sport: the PFL’s role in MMA free agency.