As a sporting event, the idea of Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Conor McGregor fighting each other was a bad one. McGregor, who in 2017 had never boxed before, had little chance against a one-time Olympic bronze medalist who had gone 49-for-49 as a pro boxer. As a business idea, though, it was a genius move.
With Mayweather and McGregor both as A sides hawking the pay-per-view, it was a slam dunk that it would do massive business. And it did: On Aug. 26. 2017, at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, it sold 4.3 million pay-per-views, the second-best of all time, and generated in excess of $600 million in total revenue.
In his five fights prior to fighting McGregor, Mayweather sold (in inverse order) 400,000 versus Andre Berto; a record 4.6 million against Manny Pacquiao, 925,000 for the rematch with Marcos Maidana; 900,000 for the first fight with Maidana and 2.2 million for his bout with Canelo Alvarez. In his five fights before facing McGregor, Mayweather averaged 1.81 million sales per fight.
McGregor had emerged as the UFC’s biggest draw and had the numbers to back it up. Prior to Mayweather, he sold 1.3 million for a bout against Eddie Alvarez; 1.65 million for his rematch with Nate Diaz; 1.32 million for his first bout with Diaz; 1.2 million for a bout against Jose Aldo; and 825,000 for a fight with Chad Mendes. McGregor averaged 1.26 million in those five fights.
Social media was flooded with posts about a potential Mayweather-McGregor fight and UFC president Dana White was asked about its potential at nearly every public appearance he made.
That leads us to the talk — primarily from former UFC heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou himself — about the viability of a pay-per-view bout between WBC boxing heavyweight champion Tyson Fury and Ngannou. Ngannou fought out his contract, couldn’t come to terms with the UFC on a new deal and the sides parted ways on Jan. 14, leaving Ngannou free to sign wherever he chooses.
He entered the ring on April 23 in London after Fury stopped Dillian Whyte in a title bout. He was clearly trying to drum up interest in a fight with Fury and Fury, who is nobody’s fool, happily obliged. He sees the opportunity for easy money and isn’t going to walk away from it easily.
From a sporting standpoint, a Fury-Ngannou bout makes as little sense as a Mayweather-McGregor bout did. MMA and boxing are different sports. Fury is one of the best heavyweights in boxing history and would handle Ngannou relatively easily. Scoff, if you will, at that depiction of the 6-foot-9, 270-pound Fury, but how many fighters from years gone past who are considered great, like the 5-foot-10, 190-pound Rocky Marciano, would have been able to defeat Fury?
Online sports books who have a line on Fury-Ngannou have Fury as a 6-1 favorite, or better.
That, though, is no surprise. Anyone who has watched these boxer versus MMA fighter matches over the last five years knows how it’s going to go. And, of course, if McGregor had fought Mayweather in MMA instead of in boxing, Mayweather would have been lucky to come out of the fight without a dent in the side of his head after getting stopped quickly.
But unlike Mayweather-McGregor, there is little business sense to Fury-Ngannou. I would love to be wrong, but there is no one who will pay Ngannou $30 million or more to box Fury with so many uncertainties. Ngannou has headlined three UFC pay-per-views cards. The UFC doesn’t release its PPV numbers, but none are believed to have done more than 400,000.
Because of his association with alleged Irish mob leader Daniel Kinahan, Fury is unable to enter the U.S., so a theoretical Fury-Ngannou bout would either have to be held in London or in the Middle East. They would sell a lot of tickets in London, and a group in the Middle East may put up a big guarantee.
It would be middle of the afternoon in the U.S. if it were in London and in the morning if it were held in, say, Saudi Arabia. That would destroy the hopes for a massive pay-per-view sale in the U.S., from where the bulk of the fight’s PPV revenues will emanate. History tells us that.
Fury is currently negotiating to fight a legacy-building bout against unified champion Oleksandr Usyk, so a potential Ngannou bout would have to come after that. Ngannou hasn’t fought since UFC 270 on Jan. 22, 2022, and that would push a Fury fight back to late this year. That would mean Ngannou would be nearly two years between fights.
For a lot of reasons, that doesn’t make sense. His best option would clearly be to stay in MMA. Dave Feldman, the president of the Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship, loves to get cheap heat by insisting he’ll talk to every big-name MMA free agent, but there is zero chance of Ngannou doing that and even less chance of Feldman being able to meet his asking price. And if by some shocker he did, he has zero fighters who make sense as a potential Ngannou opponent.
The PFL and Bellator make the most sense, with ONE and Rizin also in the mix. The problem for Ngannou is there are no compelling opponents for him to fight in any of those organizations. The UFC’s heavyweight division is at an all-time high in terms of talent now, with guys like Jon Jones, Ciryl Gane, Sergei Pavlovich, Tom Aspinall, Curtis Blaydes and many others, in the hunt.
The PFL makes a lot of sense for Ngannou since it’s on ESPN and he’d get a good push for a fight in the PFL. The PFL is likely to offer him a big deal, but can it make a profit on an Ngannou PPV against Ante Delija, who won its 2022 heavyweight tournament? Delija is a solid fighter, but he’s virtually unknown outside of the hardest of the hard-core fans of the sport. Big pay-per-view numbers aren’t achieved by selling to the hard-core fans but by to the casual fans who are given a reason to tune in.
The same is true with Bellator. Its champion is Ryan Bader, who Friday on CBS defends his belt against Fedor Emelianenko in what is billed as Emelianenko’s final fight. If that’s true, Bellator’s top four heavyweights other than Emelianenko at this point are Bader, Valentin Moldavsky, Linton Vassell and Cheick Kongo. How many PPVs would any of them sell against Ngannou?
The risk that Bellator or PFL would face in signing Ngannou is that they’d stand to lose a huge amount of money because they don’t have anyone to put him against that would generate the business to make it make sense.
That’s why Ngannou has made an effort to float a Fury fight.
Ngannou is a great fighter, but he’s 36 and coming off a very serious knee injury. He’s still not ready to fight yet.
He’s free, but his options aren’t great. There are risks associated with every path he may choose.
All of this would change in the unlikely event he lands a haymaker and stops Fury. But what is the likelihood of someone with no pro boxing experience knocking out one of the greatest heavyweights while said heavyweight is still in his prime?
Francis Ngannou has the freedom now to do as he chooses. The options, though, may not be what he once envisioned.