Sports

MMA confidential: UFC fighters ready to make the leap into boxing

Francis Ngannou uncorked a short left hook that collided with Tyson Fury‘s jaw. The impact of the blow sent Fury to the mat — and might have changed the trajectory of the combat sports economy for the foreseeable future.

Ngannou lost the boxing match to Fury last October by decision, but he did drop him in the third round and overall, boxed well against the world’s best heavyweight. Ngannou, who departed the UFC as its heavyweight champion in early 2023, was making his professional boxing debut in that bout and many thought he should have won on the cards.

The trend of MMA fighters chasing big money in boxing, spurred at first by Floyd Mayweather vs. Conor McGregor in 2017 and given a real direction by Jake Paul‘s clever matchmaking, seemed to be winding down… until Ngannou nearly knocked off Fury.

Now, the MMA-to-boxing transition has new life, with one manager telling ESPN that one of his current UFC clients is looking to fight out his contract with an eye toward the boxing ring and another representative prognosticating that McGregor could be next to make the jump (again). Those in the industry, though, are split on whether or not there are legitimate, consistent opportunities to succeed for MMA fighters in boxing or if it’s just a pot of fool’s gold.

“Francis doing that kept the door open longer, and the longer the door is open, the more opportunities that might come, the more chances for something to happen,” a prominent MMA manager told ESPN under the condition of anonymity. “I think it is something that is frequently talked about in gyms and locker rooms, that guys in MMA can compete in boxing more easily than the flip side.”

Ngannou will compete in his second pro boxing match on Friday against Anthony Joshua, a former unified heavyweight champion with a huge fan following, in Saudi Arabia. With it will come another giant payday, somewhere in the eight figures — the kind of money that even the biggest UFC stars (not named McGregor) are often unable to earn.

In most cases, top main event boxers get the lion’s share of revenue from events, whereas the UFC itself takes somewhere in the range of 80% of revenue, according to documents from the ongoing antitrust case against the promotion. The UFC even took a cut of the money made from Mayweather vs. McGregor, because McGregor was under contract with the organization and the UFC essentially acted as his promoter.

“We have fighters on our roster that want to box, that are actually choosing to not re-sign with the UFC — not take double the amount of money — because they want to see if there’s an option to box,” one manager with several top fighters in the UFC said.

One former UFC champion said the reason this is happening is “all money,” because in boxing “if you sell 50,000 pay-per-views, 100,000 pay-per-views, you still make a boatload of money because you’re making money off the very first buy.” In other words, if the UFC is cut out as the middleman, there are more funds out there for fighters, even if the event does not sell well compared to UFC cards.

“It’s going to keep happening,” the former champ said. “If you thought it was the end, I think we’re just at the beginning. I think more guys with name recognition, when they’re done with the UFC, will go down this path to see.”

MMA fighters are keeping a close eye on the boxing world and what Ngannou is doing in it, people in the industry said. But those in the know are also sending out a word of caution, that the grass is not always greener on the other side. “Name recognition” is a key phrase.

“I think that UFC compensation is, for most fighters, the highest level of compensation they’ll receive anywhere else,” the prominent manager said. “I think the UFC compensation has been trending in the right direction.”

McGregor and Ngannou have been the only two UFC fighters to fight in boxing outside the organization while still in their primes. Others like Mike Perry have carved out a lucrative niche in Bare Knuckle FC. But some of the other athletes, like former UFC headliners Nate Diaz, Anderson Silva, Tyron Woodley, Anthony Pettis and Jose Aldo, have stepped into the boxing ring at the tail end of their fighting careers. Jorge Masvidal told ESPN last week that he also plans on competing in boxing next, after retiring from the UFC last year.

“Aside from Francis and Conor, I don’t think anyone has really done it that meaningfully,” said another manager who has represented multiple UFC champions.

Ngannou might have been the only MMA fighter to truly give a high-level, prime boxer a real run. But earning millions of dollars has meaning, as well. Several of the fighters who have crossed over into boxing have made more money in those fights than they did in any UFC fight, including Diaz.

One major coach noted that training in boxing is also less strenuous on the body — there’s no wrestling or grappling to contend with — and in most cases doesn’t have as steep of a weight cut compared to MMA.

“I think it has staying power because of the monetary value that these guys are getting,” a major MMA coach said. “And I think that people should take notice in the fact of, why are guys having a prolonged career in MMA and then can immediately go over to boxing and make just as much or possibly more in that field? But they also endure less injuries, not cut as much weight and are able to have a quick turnaround in boxing. Aldo fought [in boxing] and said, ‘I could fight next week.'”

In that same breath, the coach said going over to boxing would not work for everyone. MMA fighters who are not big names won’t suddenly become top-drawing stars and make millions just because they’re putting on bigger gloves and wearing shoes. There is also a weight-class element to it. Ngannou had readymade, popular opposition that would be intriguing for him to face. An MMA fighter coming to boxing would still need a big-name dance partner.

“If there isn’t that like clear plan of, ‘I can actually get this fight,’ what are you gonna do?” the manager of former champs said. “Burn your way to the end of a contract? And then it’s like, ‘OK, now I’m a free agent and I can go box the No. 16 guy in the WBC that no one knows about and make the same I was making in MMA?'”

The prominent manager said the “sweet spot” right now is somewhere in the range of 190 pounds, because a popular MMA fighter might be able to get a fight with someone like Paul, KSI or Tommy Fury. That manager said it’s possible Conor McGregor, who has two fights left with the UFC, could fall into that category. McGregor recently teased a boxing match with Manny Pacquiao.

“He’s gonna be the next one,” the prominent manager said of McGregor. “And that’s why you ask, ‘Is this gonna dry up?’ No, because he’ll fight Canelo [Alvarez], he’ll fight Jake Paul. Something is coming with him that will reopen this.”

Just last week, UFC bantamweight champion Sean O’Malley and Ryan Garcia got into a back-and-forth on social media about wanting to fight each other in boxing. Partly thanks to Ngannou, there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight to the MMA-fighter-crossing-over-into-boxing fad. Even if it does not make sense for everyone who fights in the Octagon.

“Boxing is not this garden of roses that people think it is,” a longtime MMA manager said. “It’s not. If you look at the way boxing works, most of the fighters make a lot less than MMA.”

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