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Ex-UFC heavyweight champ Francis Ngannou signs with PFL in deal that allows him to box

Cameroonian mixed martial artist Francis Ngannou speaks during a panel at the Bitcoin Conference, Thursday, April 7, 2022, in Miami Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
Francis Ngannou signed a deal with the Professional Fighters League that gives him equity in the company and also allows him to box. (Rebecca Blackwell/Associated Press)

To almost no one's surprise, former UFC heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou agreed to a promotional deal Tuesday with the Professional Fighter's League and will first fight for the organization in 2024. A key piece of the deal is that it will allow Ngannou to box, which was a point of contention in talks with the UFC.

The New York Times, which first reported the deal, reported that Ngannou will have equity in the PFL and will become chairman of PFL Africa. Ngannou, who was born in Cameroon, was one of three UFC champions who were born in Africa, along with middleweight champion Israel Adesanya and former welterweight champion Kamaru Usman.

The PFL has a league format that is broadcast on ESPN and ends with championship fights in December in which the winners earn a $1 million prize. Ngannou, though, is not expected to compete in the league format. Instead, he'll be in the Super Fight division, which was announced in January when social media star Jake Paul signed with the promotion.

“The past few months have been a very interesting time to understand and see the landscape but I’m very excited about this deal with the PFL because they basically showed what I was expecting,” Ngannou told The Times. “They didn’t just show up as a promotion that was looking for a fighter, but really came as a partner that sees more value in you as a person.”

Ngannou said he plans to box this year. None of the five major heavyweights — WBC champion Tyson Fury, WBA-WBO-IBF champion Oleksandr Usyk, former WBC champion Deontay Wilder, former unified champion Anthony Joshua and former unified champion Andy Ruiz — have fights scheduled. However, all have been talking about fighting each other and Wilder and Joshua appear close to agreeing to terms for a bout at the end of the year.

Though talks have fallen apart, it is expected representatives for Fury and Usyk will reopen talks with the goal of making a fight for the undisputed championship.

None of the other opponents in boxing would be particularly lucrative for a fight with Ngannou, who has zero professional boxing experience. Conor McGregor was a much bigger star in 2017 when he boxed the legendary multi-division champion Floyd Mayweather, who ended a two-year retirement to fight him. McGregor had no boxing experience and was dominated and finally stopped by Mayweather.

Ngannou entered the ring at Wembley Stadium in London on Dec. 3 after Fury's last fight, a stoppage of Derek Chisora. That generated buzz but there were no substantive talks held toward making that bout.

Ngannou told The Times he had significant discussions with ONE Championship and get-to-know-you talks with Bellator and Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship. PFL CEO Peter Murray hailed Ngannou as an iconic fighter and the best in the division. He described the deal to The Times as essentially a partnership.

“This is not an athlete deal," Murray said. "Francis is an icon today in the sport, he is the best in the world at what he does, but he’s in business with the PFL. We’re in business together.”

Ngannou hasn't fought since he won a five-round decision over Ciryl Gane at UFC 270 on Jan. 22, 2022, in Anaheim, California. He had knee surgery shortly after that bout.