Former UFC heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou signs with PFL

The 36-year-old ex-UFC heavyweight champion will fight exclusively for the Professional Fighters League in new deal.

Francis Ngannou
Francis Ngannou will also serve as chairman and equity owner in PFL Africa [File: Gregory Payan/AP Photo]

Former UFC star Francis Ngannou has signed a deal with the Professional Fighters League (PFL) to continue his reign as one of the top heavyweights in mixed martial arts (MMA).

The 36-year-old was still UFC heavyweight champion when contract talks with the leading promotion collapsed once the Cameroonian fighter said his demands for health insurance and personal sponsorships were rejected. UFC President Dana White stripped Ngannou of the belt in January.

The terms of Ngannou’s deal with the PFL were not announced but a statement on Tuesday said he will fight exclusively in the franchise’s pay-per-view super fight division. He is expected to make his debut in mid-2024.

Ngannou (17-3) will also serve in a leadership role on the PFL global advisory board, as well as chairman and equity owner in PFL Africa.

“I believe in the PFL’s ‘fighter first’ culture and global vision including developing the sport in Africa,” Ngannou said in the statement.

“With that, I am also proud to announce that I will serve as Chairman of PFL Africa which will be the leading MMA organisation on the continent providing great African fighters the opportunity to compete on a global platform,” added Ngannou, the first African-born UFC heavyweight champion.

PFL CEO Peter Murray said talks with Ngannou began when “he was no longer encumbered” and the fighter was expected to play a pivotal role in the company’s planned global expansion.

Ngannou also wants to box and the PFL will not stand in his way, Murray told The Associated Press news agency.

“We’re supportive of Francis taking on boxing,” he said.

Francis Ngannou
Ngannou is the first African-born UFC champion [File: Greg Baker/AFP]

It has been a long journey for the soft-spoken Ngannou who started working in a sand quarry at the age of 12, and then, in his mid-20s, embarked on a long and life-threatening journey from Cameroon to France – a trip he once described as “hell”.

Ngannou crossed the Sahara Desert and spent a year in Morocco before entering Spain through the Mediterranean Sea. Upon reaching Spain, he was detained for entering irregularly and spent two months in custody before regaining his freedom and finally making it to France.

In Paris, he was homeless until he found a fitness centre to sleep and start training. In 2013, he made his professional debut and two years later he was signed by the UFC.

‘Perfectly timed’

While the PFL has a unique MMA competition format that includes a regular season, a postseason and a championship event, Ngannou will only fight in a planned PPV division that includes other stars such as Kayla Harrison and Jake Paul.

“This is a new model and it’s a transformational deal,” Murray said. “This is not just an athlete signing. This is a strategic partnership. Francis has all the capabilities not only as an elite MMA fighter but as a businessperson and we’re excited to be in business with him.”

Ngannou had dropped a teaser video on social media that he planned to make a big announcement on May 16. On Monday, he posted a picture of himself with the caption, “Looking at the bright future on the horizon.”

Ngannou rebounded from consecutive losses in the UFC to win six straight bouts that included a championship fight against Stipe Miocic and one successful title defence.

He has not fought since he defeated Ciryl Gane by unanimous decision at UFC 270 in January 2022.

His relationship with UFC frayed to the point that White pledged that Ngannou would “never be in the UFC again”.

“I never say never, but I’ll give you a never on that one. We tried,” White said.

Ngannou negotiated with ONE Championship but those talks flamed out shortly before the Singapore-based league made its United States debut last week in Denver.

PFL has made a splash by signing outside stars before, with fighters such as Paul and Olympic gold medal boxer Claressa Shields. The PFL also last week signed French fighter and former kickboxing world champion Cedric Doumbe.

But none of the signings packed a punch quite like Ngannou.

“This is the No. 1 signing that this company in MMA has ever made,” Murray said. “It’s perfectly timed. We’re now focused on our next phase of growth and launching our pay-per-view business and expanding internationally with regional leagues.”

Murray said details on Paul’s PFL debut would be announced after he fights Nate Diaz in August and that Harrison will indeed fight in 2023.

“I can assure you that fighters who want to get out of their contracts are looking to the PFL as a major global stage with the very best talent in the world,” Murray said.

Source: AP