Ariel Helwani on why verbal deals should be scrapped, sensible welterweight bouts, UFC 250

Where to begin this week?

Seems like several of the men’s divisions in the UFC have some drama attached to them right now.

Heavyweight, light heavyweight, welterweight, bantamweight … it’s a lot to handle.

These are strange times, and I have some thoughts, so without further ado …

1. Ever since Jon Jones tweeted Sunday afternoon that he intends to vacate the light heavyweight title, I have been asked a bunch of times whether I believe him.

The answer is complicated, but it’s ultimately the same answer I had for the “Did Henry Cejudo really retire?” question we pondered a couple of weeks ago.

Which is to say: Yes, I believe Jones is ready and willing to vacate his title.

In short, Jones feels disrespected by the way talks have gone for the proposed Francis Ngannou fight. But I also believe this situation is fixable and Jones will eventually be back.

Also, it’s worth noting that Jones never said he was retiring. So, that’s a major difference between him and Cejudo.

The main similarity between them? It’s all about the money. And when it comes to Jones, no one is really hiding from this fact, either. Sources close to Jones say that when he signed his most recent contract, after his second win over Alexander Gustafsson in 2018, he was told he would get a pay raise of some sort if he ever moved up to heavyweight. Seems like a fair deal.

The problem is, an exact amount was never discussed. And that, on a micro level, is the crux of the issue here.

Most fighters are given multifight deals. The typical base pay is $10,000 to show and $10,000 to win. Those numbers usually go up incrementally as the deal moves along. Most deals are usually for four to six fights. Obviously, the top fighters earn way more than that.

As we noted on Monday’s DC & Helwani Show, Conor McGregor is largely responsible for dramatically changing how much fighters get paid. Did fighters earn a million dollars before he became a star? Yes. But he raised the bar and got fighters to think bigger once he was generating so much money.

Unlike with most major league sports, though, the MMA contracts are often frameworks rather than ironclad deals. Meaning, even if you are in the middle of a deal, you can renegotiate. Will it always work? No. But there’s usually some wiggle room there. A lot of fighters have benefited from this over the years, such as Derrick Lewis when the UFC needed him to fight Daniel Cormier in 2018. Fighters can sign a deal, become a big star in the middle of the deal and then get a new deal and a big bump in pay even though the contract hasn’t expired.

On the flip side, it also means you can get released after a loss or if you violate the code of conduct. So, you can sign a shiny six-fight deal, look bad in the first fight of the deal and get released right away. Neither the length of fights nor the money attached to those fights is guaranteed, as was the case of Elias Theodorou, who despite going 8-3 in the UFC was cut after the first fight of his four-fight deal (a unanimous decision loss to Derek Brunson last May).

In any event, while fighters and promoters have both benefited from the constant negotiation that seems to take place, I believe it’s time to change things up in order to avoid situations like we’re seeing with Jones and others right now.

MMA is now a mainstream sport, and everything needs to be in writing. I have talked to far too many managers, fighters, promoters and coaches over the years who have told me someone reneged on a verbal deal. The days of those deals need to end.


Dana White reveals the fiery negotiations with Jon Jones in an attempt to make a fight with Francis Ngannou.

If Jones and the UFC would have worked out an exact compensation plan for his eventual move to heavyweight during the negotiations for his contract, this disagreement over money for the Ngannou fight would not be an issue. The terms would be in writing. Everything should be in writing.

For example, you know when a fighter misses weight and there’s usually a negotiation to determine how much money will be forfeited to the other fighter? Or when a fight gets canceled at the last minute and there’s confusion as to whether the fighter who made weight will get paid? The outcomes of these situations should all be made clear beforehand. There should be no surprises.

So why does it keep happening? It keeps happening because fighters and their reps are programmed to work this way. Take the deal, score the big win, renegotiate. I get why they do this, but as long as this back-and-forth keeps happening, these public spats will continue to happen, too.

Solution: Sign shorter deals for, say, three fights max, honor the deal and then negotiate a new one when the deal is up. Simple.

The fighters and their reps have to accept some of the responsibility here. But promoters also have to recognize that their system is broken.

Also, any time a fighter under contract asks for a new deal, promoters will tack on more fights. That way, the promotion rarely has to worry about free agency. There’s a reason why Conor McGregor and Jon Jones have never been free agents while in the UFC. Surely, they would make a killing, but because they renegotiate so much, their contracts always get extended.

Anyhow, I know I’m talking about big changes here, and this system isn’t going to change any time soon. So here’s one more solution for Jones and the UFC: Talk.

No more tweets. No more text messages. Get in a room, or jump on a Zoom call, and talk. Back up your statements with facts and dates. Have a proper negotiation. Don’t make it personal. Just do it the old-fashioned way, because guess what: Everyone stands to gain from this Jones-Ngannou fight happening — the UFC, the fighters and the fans. It’s the one everyone wants to see.

Oh, and when you’re done negotiating whatever deal you agree on, get it all in writing. Please.

2. I do believe this situation is salvageable. I do believe the Ngannou fight is still alive. I think we might see Jones fight again by the end of the year. Maybe even twice. He and the UFC just need to figure out a few things first.

3. By the way, if Jones does in fact move up to heavyweight, I don’t hate the idea of him vacating his belt. I wrote last week that I think this should be a new rule. Let Dominick Reyes and Jan Blachowicz fight for it, and if Jones later wants to come back down to 205 pounds, he’d get first crack. Easy!

4. One could make an argument that this isn’t the best time to be playing hardball. After all, we are in the midst of a pandemic. It’s a valid point, but it’s also worth remembering that fighters never got a percentage of the gate in the past. They get a cut of the pay-per-view sales beforehand, however, their deal is decided well before the gate is generated.

5. You know all that stuff I just talked about regarding contracts? That’s pretty much what is going on in the welterweight division, too, with Kamaru Usman and Jorge Masvidal. They both have contracts, but they want more money to fight each other.


Jorge Masvidal says that Kamaru Usman has asked the UFC for too much money for a welterweight title fight between to two.

And now I see people advocating for Gilbert Burns to leapfrog Masvidal and/or Leon Edwards to fight Usman. That’s crazy.

Masvidal was the 2019 fighter of the year and is coming off finishes over Darren Till, Ben Askren and Nathan Diaz. His feud with Usman has been brewing for months.

Why should he get passed over?

Edwards has won eight in a row and has done everything the UFC has asked of him. He was supposed to fight the guy Burns just beat — Tyron Woodley — until the coronavirus pandemic canceled the fight.

If Fight Island is really opening next month and international fighters can fly there, why should Edwards get passed over?

Now, if Masvidal holds out and if Fight Island doesn’t materialize for Edwards this summer, that’s a different story. But neither of those possibilities is a reality right now, so I don’t understand why people are advocating for Burns to pass them up.

If life were simple and easy, here’s what I would do:

Usman vs. Masvidal

Easy! Who doesn’t want to see this fight?

Then ask Edwards if he wants to wait for the winner of that fight or if he wants to be active.

If he wants to wait, fine. If not, he should fight Burns next in a No. 1 contender fight.

If Edwards waits, Burns should fight Colby Covington, whom he called out in March.

If Edwards fights Burns, Covington should fight Tyron Woodley next. Finally.

How hard was that?

This makes too much sense.

You’re welcome.

6. I know bout order doesn’t matter these days, but am I the only one who is surprised that the Cory Sandhagen vs. Aljamain Sterling fight isn’t the co-main this weekend at UFC 250? I presume the winner of that fight would fight the winner of Petr Yan vs. Jose Aldo for the 135-pound belt. But the UFC is going with Cody Garbrandt vs. Raphael Assuncao as the second-to-last fight. Now, normally I would not comment on this stuff, considering it’s rather inconsequential. But when you also consider that all four men are bantamweights, it’s a little weird because the Sandhagen-Sterling fight is unquestionably the bigger fight.


In this excerpt of Unlocking Victory on ESPN+, Dominick Cruz explains how Felicia Spencer’s ability to scramble could potentially open up opportunities vs. Amanda Nunes.

7. Felicia Spencer, who headlines UFC 250 against Amanda Nunes, told me last week that she left her job as a virtual math teacher in order to concentrate on her MMA career exclusively. Think about that. For years, Spencer has taught math online to grades 6-12. This certainly seems like a good time to be a virtual math teacher, right? Dare I say, it’s the best time ever. But she’s all-in on this MMA career, and with good reason, I think.

8. Speaking of Spencer, I will abide by my no-predictions rule, but I also feel compelled to say I like her chances this weekend. She is fearless and tough. She is great on the ground. The moment won’t get to her, especially since the title fight is happening in an empty arena. I think that benefits her greatly, because it won’t feel like a real championship fight without all the usual buzz and hoopla. In other words, don’t sleep on the “Feenom.”

9. This weekend’s pay-per-view card is nowhere near as stacked as last month’s, but it’s sneaky good on paper. There are several fights I like a lot, such as:

The people’s main event: Sandhagen vs. Sterling

The “Is Cody Garbrandt still a factor at 135 bounce-back fight”: Garbrandt vs. Assuncao

The Suga Show vs. the first WEC 135 champ: Sean O’Malley vs. Eddie Wineland

Plus, Brian Kelleher returning less than a month after his last win, facing the always tough Cody Stamann, super prospect Chase Hooper vs. Alex Caceres …

I’m looking forward to it.

10. While boxing events will start to reemerge this Tuesday, the UFC is still the only game in town in terms of major MMA. I expect that to change come July. I’m told Bellator is hopeful it will be able to return in July, and the promotion is looking at multiple locations to hold a series of events to make up for lost time. No specifics have been finalized yet, but the events would happen without fans, of course.

11. No word just yet on who will headline the UFC’s July 11 pay-per-view card. Really curious to see how this plays out. Conor McGregor appears to be a long shot at this point, because there isn’t a fight out there that makes sense. Jon Jones is a long shot, too. Stipe Miocic isn’t ready yet. Israel Adesanya told me last week he won’t be fighting on that card. Khabib Nurmagomedov isn’t available yet. Interesting times. I think Usman vs. Masvidal could be the answer, but the clock is ticking on that one.

12. Zhang Weili told me last week that she wants Rose Namajunas next. Love the fight, but I don’t think she’ll get it next. She doesn’t have anything in the works yet, I’m told, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the UFC does the Joanna Jedrzejczyk rematch right away and eventually does Namajunas vs. Jessica Andrade. In fact, Brett Okamoto reported on Wednesday Namajunas vs. Andrade is close to being finalized.

13. Of course, it’s weird to talk about any of these fights involving international fighters right now because we don’t know when they’ll be able to compete. It all makes my head spin a little.

14. Not surprised to see that Colby Covington and American Top Team have parted ways. This probably should have happened a long time ago. While this is undoubtedly a good move for the gym, considering Covington had so many enemies there, I’m not sure it’s a good move for him. We’ll only truly know the answer to that question once we find out who will be coaching him now.


Colby Covington speaks with Ariel Helwani about his decision to leave American Top Team, pointing to the issues he had with Jorge Masvidal, Dustin Poirier and Joanna Jedrzejczyk.

15. There was a time not long ago that the Nevada State Athletic Commission was the butt of every joke in MMA. The commission was called a kangaroo court on more than one occasion. But you know what? Led by chairman Anthony Marnell, the NSAC has turned things around. That was on display last week. I thought it was supremely impressive how the commission regulated the UFC event and didn’t bend on any of its guidelines. The rules were strict but fair. Heck, the NSAC even precluded Dana White from sitting cageside because he wouldn’t wear a mask. If you’re going to make rules, you should enforce them. The Florida State Boxing Commission could learn a thing or two from Nevada.

16. White told ESPN’s Dan LeBatard last week that the six-year $70 million Reebok uniform deal is coming to an end this year. I have reached out to Reebok for comment on whether it will seek to renew the deal. No word back yet. I’m told it’s not likely, though, which is probably for the best, in my opinion. That relationship didn’t work since day one. The UFC plans on continuing with the uniform look moving forward, by the way. Stay tuned.

17. Anyone else want to see all events use the 25-foot cage from now on? I wouldn’t mind.


Mike Tyson, along with friends and ex-UFC fighters Henry Cejudo, Rashad Evans and Vitor Belfort, all get into a brawl with Chris Jericho and his friends at AEW on Wednesday night.

18. I refuse to believe that Mike Tyson got into that kind of shape for a wrestling stunt.

The MMA community is composed of good, kind-hearted people, for the most part, so I’m glad to see legends like Chuck Liddell and Jon Jones, not to mention the likes of Israel Adesanya and so many others, using their platform recently to help make the world a better place. I’ve never subscribed to the idea that athletes should just stick to sports. We selfishly use them for entertainment, so the least we can do is listen when they talk about something that is important to them.

Enjoy the fights.

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