UFC vet and BKFC heavyweight Ben Rothwell would like a seat at the table if fighters ever organize. But he believes the best person to lead any sort of collective bargaining effort is clear: Francis Ngannou.
“Francis, he was up there against the giant … and he stood looking right in their face and I was like, ‘No, I’m not your prisoner,’ and he risked,” Rothwell, who on Saturday faces Todd Duffee at BKFC 56, told MMA Fighting. “He had a lot of people telling him you’re risking losing everything, and he said, ‘No, I’m betting on myself.’
“It takes a man like that to do what we’re gonna need to get everybody together, and he’s proving it now. He’s proving that he is that.”
When Ngannou became a free agent, turning down a new contract offer from the UFC, Rothwell was one of many who jumped at the opportunity to fight “The Predator.” That ship likely sailed when Ngannou signed with the PFL and booked a boxing match with Tyson Fury.
Now, Rothwell looks at Ngannou as someone who offers something others can’t when it comes up to standing up for fighters’ rights: credibility.
“We only know what I’ll say – it doesn’t mean s***,” he said. “Francis did it. Francis had it. He was there. He was a UFC champ, had pay per view buys, he got to threatened and god knows what else, and he still walked away, bet on himself and f****** hit a grand slam. That’s the guy we need.”
Ngannou once asked the UFC for a fighter’s rep at the negotiating table. The promotion refused that request and several others, including health insurance, and banned him when he declined an offer it said was its richest yet.
Rothwell has his own ideas on how to make things better for fighters. He’s short on specifics, wanting to wait until he’s no longer an active fighter. But he believes he knows what doesn’t work in fight promotion, and that’s burning cash.
Rothwell was a breakout star in the IFL, which bucked industry conventions by offering fighters a monthly cash stipend for living expenses only to run out of revenue and close up shop in under three years.
“You got these young fighters that are putting on these great shows, basically providing all the content you need,” he said. “But then you decide that you need Marco Ruas and Maurice Smith to fight in Chicago at $500,000 a piece – $1 million dollars – and that million dollars would have paid all the teams for the whole year, and then some, with our stipend. But on one fight, you needed to throw away $1 million dollars, and with people in the audience leaving during that fight. Does that sound like a good use of resources? Absolutely not.”
“And when I confronted the owners as a young 27-year-old – common sense here, I’m not a genius, but common sense is telling me there’s some things wrong here … and I got a finger put in my face, and I got told that those men deserved it,” he later added. “And I simply put my shoulders up and I said, ‘They deserve it, but you’re destroying your company.’”
When Rothwell looks at the PFL, he doesn’t take note of the promotion’s repeated fundraising efforts and costly acquisitions like Ngannou. Instead, he points to the promotion’s “necessary” place in the MMA industry.
“Matt Brown made a comment that they’re stupid, and the UFC is like Kleenex – name recognition – and that PFL isn’t even in the equation, and they’re not even part of it,” Rothwell said. “And I just said he sounds like a chained dog.
“Respect, he’s a veteran, respect him as a fighter, but to make that comment is kind of silly to me, and I don’t care who you are under contract with. The reason being is if there is only the UFC, that is the absolute worst thing for fighters, because UFC does not act like the NFL or NBA or anything like that. There isn’t equal sharing of profits. There’s none of that.
“I don’t care who you’re under contract with … The more combat sports, the better, the more opportunities for fighters is better. It’s better. Then we can have something to negotiate against each other. All of this only helps fighters. If there is only one name in MMA, then that’s good for that company and not the fighters.”
Upon signing with the PFL, Ngannou also took a role on the promotion’s “advisory board” to act in the role he proposed to the UFC. Another high-profile PFL signing, Jake Paul, also took a stake in the company in addition to a fight deal; the influencer turned boxer said he’s working on a project to organize fighters.
Whomever takes the lead, Rothwell said time is of the essence.
“As long as there’s no Ali Act and there’s no fighter union of any sort, then we need as much competition as possible. The fighters are gonna continue to get bent over, and that $12 billion [UFC valuation] will soon be $15 billion, $20 billion. The profits are just sickening, how much the brass behind the curtains are off the fighters’ backs.”