4 Francis Ngannou opponent options for his PFL debut, including Fabricio Werdum

Francis Ngannou made his best attempt at setting the MMA world into a frenzy with his recently announced deal with the PFL. The former UFC heavyweight champion deciding to test free agency at the height of his powers is likely to have an impact throughout the entire sport.

Of course, for fans that aren’t exactly tuned in to see the butterfly effect of contract battles, the most pressing question is who Francis Ngannou will face when he makes his debut in the SmartCage.

Also read: UFC rankings: Who are the 10 best fighters right now in the top UFC weight classes?

As of now, that isn’t supposed to happen until 2024 which gives us plenty of time to speculate. PFL’s tournament structure means that the company could simply let the upcoming season determine who gets the honors. That does lend a great deal of merit to the title as it would merge the UFC’s lineal crown with that of PFL

However, barring someone standing out beyond the view of die-hard MMA fans, it just doesn’t feel big enough to be on par with the super fights Ngannou’s expensive price tag warrants. 

It seems even more unlikely that other promotions that couldn’t come to an agreement with the champ would be willing to co-promote or loan out any of their top names. So that means Jon Jones, Ryan Bader, Arjun Bhullar, or whoever holds their respective belts in 2024 wouldn’t be in the conversation.

Additionally, many of the known names that are floating around on the open market are already part of Ngannou’s highlight reel. This would exclude Alistair Overeem and Junior Dos Santos.

As the rosters of promotions change rapidly, names both new and old can suddenly have an open calendar. But the $2 million purse that Ngannou’s contract guarantees his opponent means that there will be plenty of fighters who will get off the couch. 

With that in mind, here are four men that could find themselves with a bigger bank account in 2024.

Roy Nelson

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Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Roy Nelson is well known and respected primarily for two things: being able to hit really hard and getting hit just as hard. Those are two qualities that would be useful against Ngannou. 

It’s actually a minor miracle that “Big Country” hasn’t already faced “The Predator” in the Octagon. As Ngannou was making a name for himself with knockouts over other notable heavyweights like Andrei Arlovski, Nelson was being paired up against rising contenders like Derrick Lewis and Alexander Volkov. This fight being booked in 2017 would have fit the usual tactic of feeding older names with more mileage to the hungry up-and-comers. 

While it’s hard to envision a world where Roy Nelson isn’t at least considered, perhaps the ex-UFC stars are now too intertwined to get past that stage. Since Ngannou left Paris’ MMA Factory to set up shop in Las Vegas at Xtreme Couture, the two have become teammates and regular sparring partners. In fact, Nelson credits his competitiveness in those sessions for continuing his career during his unsuccessful run in Bellator. 

Obviously, it wouldn’t be the first time teammates would have to at least temporarily divide their training home. Plus, a check for $2 million seems like enough to get past whatever discomfort the situation might bring. It’s also worth noting that PFL President Ray Sefo is also a mainstay at the famed gym.

As far as name recognition and marketability go, Nelson checks all of the boxes. His resume and look would be easy to promote against the Cameroonian. His most recent outing at Gamebred Fighting Championship 4 proved that at the very least he still has a sledgehammer for a right hand.

Sergei Kharitonov

With the exception of Fedor Emelianenko, Sergei Kharitonov is probably the most accomplished and respected heavyweight to have never fought in the Octagon. With a resume spanning nearly every other major promotion, The Russian has amassed an enviable scalp collection along the way. 

While his 9 submission victories are a clear indicator of what he’s capable of on the ground, he’s far more known for the toughness he’s shown on the feet. From a style perspective, Kharitonov seems like the perfect opponent to stand across from Ngannou for his PFL debut.

Even though his quest to become a champion in Bellator came up short, his overall stint with the promotion and success after leaving might make him the best quality opponent available on the free agent market. 

Fabricio Werdum

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Credit: Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via USA TODAY Sports

It didn’t take long for Fabricio Werdum to make his intentions clear. The other former UFC heavyweight champion that defected for the PFL is willing to delay retirement plans to test himself against the new guy. 

Although Werdum has reportedly fulfilled his contractual obligations to the company, this is probably the easiest big-name fight that can be made. Even if his current listing among the roster on their website is an oversight, considering the cozy relationship his management at Dominance MMA enjoys at PFL, it’s unlikely that details couldn’t get ironed out in order to make the fight.

In addition to being perhaps the easiest bout to make at the negotiating table, it might be the easiest to market to a mass audience. Werdum has authored two of the most significant underdog submission wins in history against Fedor Emelianenko and Cain Velasquez. Ngannou surprised with his display of offensive wrestling against Ciryl Gane but it would be foolish to think his pure grappling abilities would be impenetrable against one of the best BJJ practitioners the sport has ever seen.

Tyrone Spong

After establishing himself as one of the world’s premier kickboxers, Tyrone Spong tested the waters in MMA with two victories in PFL’s predecessor World Series of Fighting. A gruesome leg injury at Glory 15 pushed the “King of the Ring” into the sweet science where he would eventually win WBO and WBC titles.

Even though Tyrone Spong hasn’t exactly had the most consistent MMA career, his overall resume in combat sports makes him a good fit for the opportunity. It gives Ngannou two attractive options when he makes his return to television sets around the world. First, it gives him a winnable fight that allows him to continue rounding out his game. Much like he did with Ciryl Gane, takedowns and top control should be available.

Alternatively, should Ngannou decide to play to Spong’s strength and succeed, “The Predator” might draw more attention from the boxing world that he’s attempting to cross over into.

Ant Walker is a native of the Washington DC area that now lives in Los Angeles. He has been... More about Anthony Walker

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