Inside the negotiations that brought the No. 1 heavyweight in the world, Francis Ngannou, to the PFL

An illustration from a book that PFL CEO Peter Murray gave to Francis Ngannou, showing Ngannou wanting to keep the deal quiet for months. Photo by: PFL

WHEN FRANCIS NGANNOU officially announced he'd signed with the PFL earlier this month, he promised the deal would allow the next chapter of his career to be "tremendous."

Under the terms of the agreement, Ngannou (17-3) is exclusive to PFL pay-per-view in MMA but is free to pursue an entirely separate contract in professional boxing. It also makes him an executive and equity owner of PFL Africa, a regional league the PFL intends to launch in 2025, and reserves him a spot on the PFL's Global Advisory Board, which includes former three-time UFC champion Randy Couture.

On ESPN's "DC & RC" podcast, former two-weight UFC champion Daniel Cormier said Ngannou's unique contract sets "a new standard for what is out there in the free agent market." UFC middleweight champion Israel Adesanya called the news "a big ripple in the game" that could promote change within MMA contracts throughout the industry.

The story around Ngannou's free agency had been simmering beneath the surface of mixed martial arts since January 2022, when he defended the UFC's heavyweight championship against Ciryl Gane in the final fight of his contract. It is exceptionally rare for UFC champions to fight out their contracts, as the UFC aggressively re-signs titleholders and holds various extension and matching rights in its contracts.

Ngannou's situation, however, was unique. His desire to box, which UFC contracts do not allow, was a major factor in his decision-making. Ngannou also turned down multiple extension offers from the UFC in recent years, which allowed him to be in a position to fight out of his deal in the first place. He refused to budge on certain demands the UFC wouldn't consider, as they fell well outside its standard contract language.

Looking back, the split between Ngannou and the UFC was probably inevitable. And following that split, the UFC was always going to be fine. It quickly moved on with a new heavyweight title fight in March.

The million-dollar question was, What would that split look like for Ngannou? As it turns out, the answer is pretty darn good. Although the exact figures were not made public, Ngannou's deal with the PFL is a multimillion-dollar contract with added flexibility and long-term incentives. There's a reason names like Cormier and Adesanya found it game-changing.

"Did I change the industry with this contract?" Ngannou told ESPN. "I cannot speak for the entire industry. All I can say is that I didn't change my way of seeing things. I've been seeing things the same way since this all started. We will see if this changes anything in the industry as a whole."

Here's how Ngannou, once the apple of the UFC's eye, found a new home with the PFL.

ON JAN. 14, UFC president Dana White announced the company was officially moving on from its heavyweight champion, Ngannou. The company stripped him of the belt and booked a vacant title fight between Jon Jones and Gane for March. During the announcement, White jokingly said Chief Business Officer Hunter Campbell must have taken Ngannou to "350 dinners" in an effort to close a new deal.

The last of those dinners occurred in mid-December, at an off-Strip tapas restaurant in Las Vegas.

At that time, Ngannou was still eyeing a potential title fight against Jones. Jones was ready to return from a three-year layoff, and Ngannou vs. Jones would have been the obvious superfight to make. Ngannou just needed a new deal to make it happen. Throughout 2022, he and the UFC had failed to come to terms. So, by the time of that dinner in December, both sides felt the clock was ticking.

Ngannou, who represented himself during the process, says the conversation that night was amicable but frustrating. According to him, it was the same conversation they'd had all year. When the UFC laid out its latest offer, Ngannou says he felt a sense of déjà vu. The time had come for them to either make a deal or not, and Ngannou believed they were running in circles.

After the dinner concluded, Ngannou drove straight home and booked a flight to Africa.

"I found a flight to Cameroon that would leave the next day," Ngannou said. "I asked myself, 'Why am I here, missing Christmas with my family, for something that's not going to happen?'"

Shortly after the new year, Ngannou received a call from UFC matchmaker Mick Maynard, who wanted to arrange one final phone call with Campbell -- to ensure nothing more could be done. Ngannou agreed to the call and spoke once more to Campbell, to the same effect.

"It was basically, 'This is the deal. Take it or leave it.'" Ngannou said. "And I told them, 'Well, I don't know what to say anymore.'

"After that call, I knew it was over. Not that I would be fighting or at war with the promotion going forward, but they were going to do what they wanted and they would show me no mercy in what they said."

Going into the negotiations with the UFC, Ngannou said he asked the promotion for all fighters to get in-cage sponsorships and health insurance. He also wanted an athlete advocate positioned to assist fighters.

"I asked for a lot of things, which doesn't mean I was expecting all those things," Ngannou said in January. "But I was expecting one or two out of those things."

White's announcement came four days later. He said the UFC had offered Ngannou a contract that would have made him the "highest-paid heavyweight in the history of the company," but Ngannou turned it down. The UFC was terminating all talks of an extension and would waive all of its matching rights to any incoming offers Ngannou might have. He was officially -- and publicly -- an unrestricted free agent.

In general, the MMA industry interpreted the move as a risk for Ngannou. Even those who expressed admiration or gratitude for Ngannou's willingness to enter free agency acknowledged there was no guarantee it would work in his favor.

Ngannou wanted the freedom to box, and a potential matchup against Tyson Fury or Deontay Wilder would be lucrative, for sure. But only if it happened. And in terms of MMA, the biggest contracts have historically been tied to PPV revenue, a model that barely exists outside the UFC. The impact that might have on how promotions perceived Ngannou's value was anyone's guess.

Nevertheless, Ngannou said he was extremely content as he walked away from what the UFC called a historic financial offer.

"In order to know what you walked away from, you have to know how much it is -- and nothing is guaranteed in those contracts," Ngannou said. "It's really hard for me to say I lost money that I never had. The only thing the UFC contract guaranteed was Jon Jones, which was a fight I wanted for so long and nobody cared. It was only when I was about to get free of my contract [that] they said, 'Here's the Jon Jones fight.'

"What protections did I have after that fight? People forget that you can sign a $100 million contract and they can give you $10 million and never follow up. There are a lot of things in that contract they control."

Ngannou was still in Cameroon with his family when White made the announcement. His phone immediately came to life with messages and calls from every corner of the MMA world.

One of the text messages was from PFL CEO Peter Murray, who suggested it might be "a good time to catch up."

THE INITIAL INTRODUCTION between Ngannou and Murray occurred in 2021 at a PFL event in Hollywood, Florida. Ngannou was in attendance with his agent at the time, Marquel Martin (Martin remains with him in an advisory role). Martin also represented former UFC title challenger Rory MacDonald, who fought in the PFL in 2021 and 2022.

Legally, Murray was unable to make Ngannou an offer while he was under UFC contract. Behind the scenes, however, he and his business partner, PFL co-founder Donn Davis, discussed Ngannou as a free agent target throughout 2022.

"This was our Joe Namath moment," Davis told ESPN, referring to the battle between the AFL and NFL to sign Namath, a star college quarterback for the Alabama Crimson Tide, in 1964. "The best fighter in the world, who happens to be a global, dynamic leader, is available? This never happens. It was so rare, it had to be our moment."

Two weeks after Ngannou's free agent status went public, the two sides arranged a video call. The PFL was actually the second promotion Ngannou spoke to. One day before his call with the PFL, he spoke to Asia-based promotion One Championship's Chatri Sityodtong. The calls were similar in that they were surface level and exploratory, but the PFL's led to an in-person meeting in Las Vegas the following month.

On Feb. 8, shortly after Ngannou flew back to Las Vegas from Cameroon, he and Murray met at Ngannou's favorite restaurant, Barry's Downtown Prime on Fremont Street. Murray had been crafting his pitch to Ngannou for the better part of a year as the industry waited to see if he'd re-sign with the UFC. When they sat down at Barry's, Murray spoke first.

"I told him, 'Here is our vision at PFL,'" Murray said. "Then I asked him to tell me his vision. Where was he in life, as an elite fighter and as a businessman.

"The No. 1 goal he had as an athlete was to box. Anyone who knows Francis' story knows that he's always dreamed and talked about the sport of boxing. Having the ability to do that is something that ticked his box -- and when he said he wanted to continue to compete at the highest level of MMA, that ticked our box. And once we'd both gone through it, our goals and visions just aligned."

By the time the two shook hands at night's end, the partnership might as well have been done. There was much to iron out regarding the language of the contract, but there were no significant hurdles standing in the way of a deal. The PFL understood Ngannou wouldn't fight in MMA again until 2024, as he sought to box in 2023. The PFL was actually completely fine with that timeline, as it provided a year for it to build up an ideal scenario for his debut. Ngannou and his team remained in contact with other promotions -- including One Championship and Bellator MMA -- but never progressed to a formal offer with anyone else. He knew where he was headed.

"I started to feel bad even talking to anybody else," Ngannou said. "It was basically, 'You want this? Let's do it. You want this? Done.' It was one of the easiest contracts ever."

Less than one month after Ngannou and Murray's dinner -- about two weeks, Ngannou says -- the deal was done. Alongside Martin and attorney Andrew Cutrow, Ngannou worked with the PFL on a contract both sides were happy with. Ngannou didn't sign right away, and he asked the PFL not to announce it until he had more conversations with potential partners in boxing. Ultimately, the deal wouldn't get announced until May, but it was agreed to in March.

On May 2, Ngannou and Murray reconvened for the first time since that Feb. 8 dinner -- just the two of them, right back at Barry's. The dinner's purpose was to celebrate but also to provide a chance for both sides to bring up any last-minute ideas.

Throughout the negotiation, some of Ngannou's priorities included wanting to face legitimate, high-level opposition in the PFL and fighter rights in general. During that final dinner, Murray decided to accommodate those values in the most direct way he could. He proposed the PFL would guarantee a baseline salary for Ngannou's opponents, and an eventual figure of $2 million was agreed upon.

"Pete brought it up," Ngannou said. "He said, 'We can even guarantee you the minimum salary of your opponents.'"

Murray took a red-eye out of Las Vegas that night and arrived at John F. Kennedy International Airport the following morning. He dropped his bags at his Manhattan residence and was taking a walk in Greenwich Village when he got a FaceTime from Ngannou.

"All he said was, 'Let's go,' and signed the document later that morning."

WITHIN FIVE MONTHS, Ngannou's negotiations went from a concrete roadblock with the UFC to an open Autobahn highway with the PFL, which isn't surprising. The business practices, bargaining positions and focus areas of the UFC and the PFL are night and day. The UFC is the clear industry leader, which the PFL acknowledges. The two companies' strategies are different, and their need for someone like Ngannou is different, especially concerning his desire to box.

The UFC doesn't allow its athletes -- particularly, an active champion -- to box because it disrupts its primary business. The only real exception to this was a 2017 fight between Conor McGregor and Floyd Mayweather, one of the richest fights in boxing history. And even in that instance, White initially wasn't on board. Since that boxing match, McGregor is 1-3 and his career has been derailed by injuries and legal issues.

"Francis thinks he's in a position where he's got some Conor McGregor, Mayweather fight on his hands, which he does not," White said this month. "That was a once-in-a-lifetime deal that I wasn't interested in, but at the end of the day, it became so big with the right guys at the right place at the right time ... MMA guys versus boxers doesn't make any sense to me."

For Ngannou, the PFL was far more compatible with him than the UFC. That much is obvious. What is less obvious right now is how well this will work for the PFL.

The PFL just made a major financial commitment to a 36-year-old heavyweight who hasn't fought in more than 12 months, is coming off major knee surgery in 2022 and doesn't intend to make his promotional debut for it until 2024. The PFL plans to put Ngannou on PPV but currently doesn't have an obvious opponent for him -- in terms of heavyweight rank or box office draw.

If you're trying to put this deal into a mathematical formula that spits out a PFL profit on Ngannou's PPV appearances, stop. The PFL will tell you that's not what this deal is about.

"We don't measure this on how many PPVs we will sell, and this formula equals this outcome," Davis said. "That's not the transactional business we're in today. Look, we've gone from zero employees and zero viewers to where we are today, signing the likes of Francis Ngannou. What are we setting up for the next five years? Creative investments and thinking differently is what's required to become the co-leader in MMA. And we believe we're on a path to that."

The PFL is looking for three things out of this deal, primarily.

The first is for Ngannou to bring awareness to its budding PPV model, which is in its infancy. To date, the PFL has promoted exactly one event on PPV. It plans on promoting more, behind the recent signings of Ngannou and professional boxer and influencer Jake Paul. Secondly, it expects Ngannou to bring a network of investors, sponsors and athletes to its PFL Africa brand, whose launch it moved up from 2027 to 2025.

"Our global vision is to have six leagues set up in the next two years," Murray said. "Francis brings tremendous value there in establishing that new business."

And the third value Murray and Davis are betting on is articulated by fighters like Cormier and Adesanya. That's the idea that Ngannou's deal is the first of many.

Ngannou is the first UFC champion in nearly 20 years to be stripped of a championship because he opted to sign with a different promotion. The financial value of that, if there is one, cannot be determined right away. The PFL is banking on that "ripple" Adesanya spoke of -- the conversations that are taking place now that weren't several months ago.

"What does this deal say to the fighter and manager community of this sport?" Murray said. "Fighters have options. The PFL is a global leader where fighters have an opportunity to compete against top competition and get paid."

Will this deal prove to be a good one for the PFL? Will it open a "tremendous" chapter of Ngannou's career, which could set a new standard for what fighters look for in future contracts? Is it bigger than just Francis Ngannou?

As Ngannou said, we will see.