- Bellator MMA will aggressively pursue UFC free agent Francis Ngannou.
- That’s according to Showtime Sports boss Stephen Espinoza, who said they can offer boxing, too.
- A match between Ngannou and Deontay Wilder could, consequently, be on the cards in the future.
Showtime Sports President Stephen Espinoza told Insider that “Bellator is absolutely interested” in bringing the heavy-hitting heavyweight into its roster.
Premium US network Showtime has a broad combat sports portfolio as it broadcasts young boxing talents via its ShoBox property, elite boxers through Showtime Championship Boxing, and airs Bellator’s MMA events.
Espinoza said his platform can offer Ngannou, 36, great flexibility as the fighter could sign a multi-fight, multi-year deal to compete in MMA matches, while also dipping in and out of boxing against Showtime’s heavyweights like popular prizefighter Deontay Wilder.
A Bellator source with knowledge of the situation but not authorized to speak publicly told Insider: “Any time there’s a free agent on the market, we’d be interested in pursuing their talents. Francis is no exception.”
Espinoza confirmed: “There will be a very aggressive pursuit of him.”
Ngannou is one of the most exciting fighters on the planet
Nicknamed “The Predator,” Ngannou left the UFC as the company’s champion with a formidable pro-MMA record of 17 wins —12 knockouts, four submissions, and one decision — against three losses.
Ngannou, according to the UFC Performance Institute, is the most powerful puncher in UFC history. UFC boss Dana White once remarked that Ngannou’s punch was like getting hit by a Ford Escort.
Speaking to Insider in 2019, Ngannou — who grew up in poverty in Batie — said his extraordinary knockout power is a result of child labor, working sand mines in Cameroon as early as 10 years old.
Though he began fighting in his late 20s, Ngannou spent the majority of his career in the UFC.
After back-to-back defeats to Stipe Miocic and Derrick Lewis in 2018, the hulking fighter entered the form of his life as he put together a six-fight winning run in which he slayed Cain Velasquez, Junior dos Santos, and Miocic in a rematch to earn the UFC heavyweight title.
He then beat Ciryl Gane by decision last year and hasn’t stepped foot in a cage since.
“We offered Ngannou a deal that would make him the highest-paid heavyweight of all time,” White told Insider and other reporters at the UFC Apex in Las Vegas earlier this month.
“He turned it down. We’re going to release him from his contract. He can go wherever he wants and do whatever he wants.”
Ngannou said he had issues with White for years
To MMA Fighting’s MMA Hour, Ngannou later said that issues with the UFC and White went back years.
Ngannou wanted the UFC to make various concessions in a new deal to include things like health insurance, the ability to wear his own sponsors in the Octagon, and options to seek out and secure boxing matches outside of the UFC.
The UFC wasn’t on board with this, he said, and so the two parties were at an impasse.
“To be completely honest, a lot of this is not about Ngannou or about a particular fight,” Espinoza told Insider. “It’s about the precedent and the message that is sent to everyone else in the UFC, and to future deals in the UFC.
He continued, “So, what Ngannou was trying to do was break the mold a little bit, and he certainly had leverage to at least have that conversation. But, ultimately, from my perspective, the UFC felt they had far more at stake. They have a particular business model. Ngannou was not a fan of that business model, and that I think was a step too far for the UFC.”
“They’ve got a business structure they’re not going to threaten for even something as attractive as an Ngannou,” Espinoza added.
Ngannou significantly improves whichever MMA promoter he joins
Insider’s source at Bellator told us: “I know Francis has been talking to Bellator, and to other places.”
One of those places could be the Professional Fighters League, a rising firm that awards its end-of-season champions with $1 million winner’s checks.
Ngannou himself said “PFL is an option,” when he appeared on The MMA Hour.
In various releases to reporters, PFL routinely describes itself as the No.2 promotion in ultimate fighting — behind only UFC.
This is a status Espinoza disputes.
“I don’t really see a comparison between the two organizations; Bellator and PFL,” the 53-year-old television executive said.
“When we look at the roster of talent, Bellator is much, much deeper both in terms of established talent and up-and-coming talent, and that’s not a sleight on the talent in PFL because there’s some very talented fighters there.”
He added, “But if we look overall at the talent in the organization, then anybody knowledgeable in MMA can see that Bellator has a stronger base with its top-10 fighters in the roster as a whole. PFL is a bit louder about their boasts, whereas Bellator goes about it quietly, and lets the talents of the fighters speak for themselves.”
Regardless of whether Ngannou joins Bellator and Showtime Boxing, or PFL and ESPN, he would instantly improve not only the roster but the visibility of the entire brand.
“Without question, whoever ends up with Ngannou is going to get a big boost,” Espinoza said. “Because of the interest in boxing, and he still has a lot of opportunities within MMA.”
He continued, “If he wants to go into a big heavyweight match-up right away, if he wants to do a long-term build, or bounce back and forth — the world is his oyster. There isn’t an organization that wouldn’t want to call him up and try to do business with him.”
Francis Ngannou vs. Deontay Wilder would be a big boxing event
One of the things Showtime Boxing can offer should Ngannou sign terms with Bellator MMA, is access to its relationship with boxing manager Al Haymon and Premier Boxing Champions (PBC).
PBC has a number of big-name heavyweights on its roster including Frank Sanchez, Andy Ruiz Jr., and, of course, Deontay Wilder.
A match between Ngannou and Wilder would bring together the most powerful strikers in MMA and in boxing.
It is a fight both athletes have talked about before. Ngannou told Insider about his desire to fight boxing’s top-tier heavyweights like Wilder and Tyson Fury in 2019, while still under contract with UFC.
Just last year, Wilder told us he’d welcome a boxing rules challenge from Ngannou. “I think that would be an intriguing fight, and it would be a fight that would bring a lot of interest.”
He added: “It was mentioned to me before, and Al [Haymon] agreed. There’s the old saying, ‘If it makes dollars, it makes sense.’ And he agreed as well.”
Speaking to Insider this week, Espinoza said: “The appeal of heavyweights is that they’re the comic-book heroes of [combat sports]. So this is a Superman vs. Batman match-up.”
He added, “It may or may not follow a lot of logic, but it certainly has emotional appeal because they’re two big guys — two tremendous athletes who both have a rare amount of power in their own sport. Who is not interested in that?”
“In terms of raw power, we know anything can happen in that ring, and I can’t think of a more exciting match-up,” he continued.
“You can put all three of Wilder, Anthony Joshua, and Ngannou together, and any two of them would produce exciting fights that, I think, boxing fans would love.”
Showtime would prefer a prospective bout to have boxing rules
Before Ngannou can even get his hands on an elite boxer, he’d first have to get his hands on a license to compete in that sport from the state athletic commission in which he’ll compete.
Espinoza told Insider that he’d expect an inquiry from the commission, however, there have been instances “where sparring footage has been requested” for “these types of events,” and a license has been procured off of that.
He said: “Knowing Ngannou’s enthusiasm for the sport, and his skillset, I’ve little doubt that he would get the approval of most of the commissions.
“I don’t think that he would find it difficult to find a commission, or have to go searching for one of the states that are less involved in the sport to get a license.”
Once Ngannou’s licensed to compete in, say, New York or Nevada, two states where Wilder, for example, has had some of his most memorable fights, a combat rule set would need to be agreed upon.
For Espinoza, boxing rules in a boxing ring is the “cleaner and easier” option rather than deviations from that to permit boxing rules but with 4-oz MMA gloves in a 750-foot Octagon.
“I think it adds an element that’s too much, for me,” said Espinoza, who helped mastermind the landmark bout between Showtime stalwart Floyd Mayweather, and former two-weight UFC champion Conor McGregor, in 2017.
“It’s fun to talk about, sure. What would happen if you alternated rounds — the things that were talked about prior to Mayweather vs. McGregor?” he said. “For the first three rounds you could have had boxing rules, and if Conor survived that, then you go three rounds of MMA.”
He continued, “These are fun discussions to have but I think there are a lot of practical problems” in doing that.
What is fair, Espinoza added, “is for Ngannou to ask some athletes to come into his sport” rather than enter boxing and devise deviations from that sport for standalone matches against someone like Wilder.
Espinoza confident Showtime and Bellator give Ngannou ‘bang for his buck’
It is unclear where Ngannou will go, or for how long he will commit to a deal when there are so many suitors for his signature.
But Espinoza is confident that Bellator and Showtime are in an advantageous position to snap him up.
“We have the ability to be cohesive and collaborative with the boxing and MMA opportunities,” he told us.
PFL, Top Rank, and ESPN could offer a similar hybrid solution in which Ngannou competes in MMA matches in PFL’s season, and fights Top Rank’s boxing heavyweights like Tyson Fury and Jared Anderson, in events aired on the Walt Disney Company-owned network.
Regardless, Espinoza said: “There is no one else in the world who can give him the opportunities in both boxing and MMA at the level Bellator and Showtime Boxing can do.”
He added, “Showtime and Bellator can give him the best flexibility and bang for his buck, the biggest most lucrative financial opportunity, all while really allowing him to develop all elements of his career simultaneously.”
Insider’s source at Bellator said: “Francis would be a fantastic addition to our roster.”
The source continued, “Ryan Bader is a champion, our heavyweight division is flush with a lot of talent, but there’s nothing like having the UFC champion join your ranks.
“I know the PFL is spending a lot, as witnessed by their deal with Jake Paul,” Insider’s source at Bellator said. “But [signing Ngannou] would be a huge win.”