UFC president Dana White said after a fight card Saturday that the promotion released heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou from his contract, and booked Jon Jones against Ciryl Gane on March 4 in the main event of UFC 285 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas for the vacant heavyweight title.
White said after the UFC Vegas 67 card the UFC had offered Ngannou a contract that would have made him the highest-paid heavyweight in UFC history, but that Ngannou had turned it down. He also said that Ngannou's injured knee still isn't healed and that he wouldn't have been ready to fight in March.
White also said that Jones had signed a new eight-fight deal.
News of the Jones-Gane fight first leaked as a result of the video boards outside of T-Mobile Arena, which were scrolling an ad featuring the bout. White said that was a mistake both by arena officials as well as UFC employees and wasn't supposed to be released when it was.
The board was displaying the UFC ad prior to a Las Vegas Golden Knights’ NHL game against the Edmonton Oilers on Saturday.
Ngannou last fought when he scored a decision over Gane on Jan. 22, 2022, in Anaheim, California, at the Honda Center for the undisputed heavyweight title. He said after the fight he had a knee injury, and he had surgery shortly afterward.
"We've been working on a new agreement with Francis for like two years now," White said. " ... We offered Francis a deal that would have made him the highest-paid heavyweight in the history of the company, more than [Brock] Lesnar, more than anybody, and he turned the deal down."
Jones has been training the last several days at Fight Ready MMA in Scottsdale, Arizona, under Henry Cejudo, the former UFC flyweight and bantamweight champion. In an interview with Michael Wonsover that was posted on Cejudo's YouTube page, Jones let slip the fight was occurring.
Jones, who is considered by many as the greatest MMA fighter of all time, hasn’t fought since defeating Dominick Reyes at UFC 247 on Feb. 8, 2020, in Houston. Jones, who first won the light heavyweight title in 2011, has spoken of his desire to win a heavyweight title as long ago as 2013.
"Absolutely, I'd love to have Henry coaching me for this Ciryl Gane fight," Jones said. "Hopefully our schedules can align and we can get on the same page."
White said Ngannou is free and clear to sign with whatever promotion he chooses. He said there is no matching clause or 90-day window. He's a total free agent.
Neither Ngannou nor his agent, Marquel Martin, could be reached for comment, but White suggested Ngannou wasn't interested in high-level opposition.
"I think Francis is in a place right now where he doesn't want to take a lot of risk," White said. "He feels like he's in a good position where he could fight lesser opponents and make more money. So, we're going to let him do that. We're going to release him from his contract. We're going to give up the right to match and he could go wherever he wants and do whatever he wants."
Ngannou has been one of the most exciting fighters in UFC history and his punching power was unmatched. Ngannou is 17-3 overall in MMA with 12 knockouts and four submissions. He won the heavyweight title for the first time in a rematch with Stipe Miocic at UFC 260 in Las Vegas on March 27, 2021. Miocic had defended his belt successfully when he faced Ngannou in Boston on Jan. 20, 2018, in the main event of UFC 220.
Ngannou regained it in the rematch with a vicious knockout and then defended it against Gane. If Gane is considered a champion, Ngannou defeated five fighters who at one point held the UFC heavyweight title at some point: Gane, who was an interim champion; Miocic; Junior dos Santos; Cain Velasquez and Andrei Arlovski.
Gane said he was happy, though he was disappointed he didn't get another crack at Ngannou.
"Everybody knows the situation," he said. "How long are we going to wait?"