Why you should care
Because maybe, just maybe, fighting professionally shouldn’t have to be a fight.
The instinct is good. If your job is already backbreaking — almost literally in the case of cage fighting and the men and women who are called to make their cash this way — the urge to be protected from having it be even more so makes a lot of sense. So much so that on the cusp of superagent Ari Emanuel’s William Morris Endeavor’s (WME-IMG) $4 billion purchase of that clearinghouse of caged and somewhat controlled brutality, the Ultimate Fighting Championship, or UFC, there is a certain collective awakening on the part of all parties concerned.
The smelling-the-coffee moment for WME-IMG? What they just bought: a damned near unruly sports enterprise that features no competitive teams and oodles of very tough men and women whose primary allegiance is to themselves. The self-same men and women, “independent contractors” who, arguably, have been underpaid for as long as they’ve been getting paid, according to Levi Nile at Bleacher Report. Nile, as far back as 2013, had made claims that tied in United States Bureau of Labor statistics to show that mixed martial arts (MMA) athletes were routinely getting paid $11k less than their nearest sport familiars, boxers. Not counting money fighters like the “retired” Floyd Mayweather, Canelo Álvarez or Manny Pacquiao.
There was some generalized sense of loyalty. That shit is dead.
MMA sports journalist Nathan Wilcox
And for the fighters? That moment was realizing the major mainstream-publication news that the house they had called home had just been sold for an amount of money that would let you buy the Dallas Cowboys, or what SportsCenter calls the most valuable sports franchise in the world. Or to put a finer point on it, according to CNN, “the richest sale in the history of professional sports. The sale dwarfs previous sales of any sports franchise.”
Which is right around the time all hell broke loose.
“Most fighters thought and bought into this idea that once they were in, they were in,” says MMA sports journalist Nathan Wilcox. “There was some generalized sense of loyalty. That shit is dead.”
Because on the heels of an acquisition that saw, as acquisitions do, longtime front-office layoffs (15 percent by some accounts), along with reports of UFC president Dana White walking with $360 mil and indications that there were going to be fewer fights in 2017, fighters were freaking the fuck out. And with the freak-out? A natural tendency to test the parameters of their new understanding with the new owners via their freak-outs.
Which saw a steady trickle of fighters — Rory MacDonald, Benson Henderson, Phil “Mr. Wonderful” Davis among more than a few — jumping ship for other fight organizations, all while fighters like Nate Diaz are demanding the same millions that the gold standard, golden boy and Irish phenom Conor McGregor finds himself getting. On the regular. And in the midst of all this agita, Bjorn Rebney, the onetime head of competing fight organization Bellator before he was fired, rises from the ashes of a semi-self-imposed exile to helm the Mixed Martial Arts Athletes Association, or MMAAA. Not a union but as close as we’re likely to get in the short term.
“At one point, Dana had total cred with fighters and fans alike,” said Wilcox about White’s neither-fish-nor-fowl standing that routinely played on the fact that Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta actually OWNED the UFC. “But it started to erode right around the time he threw his then-premier guy, Jon Jones, under the bus for not fighting on a card that fell apart on the basis of injuries, none of which were Jones’.” Then a steady stream of unpopular management moves, some good, some not so.
My take? Good message, bad messenger.
To wit: The Reebok deal that effectively edged out all outside sponsorship money — a steady stream of income for most competitive fighters — replacing it with not very much in return for gear that featured fighters’ names misspelled on some and the wrong country’s flags on others. Kerfuffles over video rights. Dustups over health care. Increasingly difficult drug-testing guidelines. The costs of doing business but also setting the stage for some larger names, all still on the UFC roster — former welterweight champ Georges St-Pierre, former heavyweight champ Cain Velasquez, Donald Cerrone, Tim Kennedy and former bantamweight T.J. Dillashaw — to say fuck it, we need representation. And apparently that representation involved Rebney, resulting in one of the all-time, most wonderful winning-the-web tweets ever, now deleted, in response to a photo announcing the association, courtesy of former Bellator light heavyweight champ King Mo Lawal.
“U got 5 great fighters standin by 1 big dick rider on the far left,” Lawal wrote. “These boys are about to get finessed f—-in’ wit him. People learn the hard way tho.” And we were off to the paranoid races. Former light heavyweight champ Jon Jones’ manager, the avowedly pro-union Malki Kawa, described Rebney as “the most anti-fighter promoter I ever met.” Echoed by Hall of Famer Randy Couture, himself no fan of the UFC, who was concerned not about the need for collective representation but Rebney’s involvement and the motivations for it.
My take? Good message, bad messenger. But most significantly, the track record for collective action spurred by individual actors/solo competitors is dismal. Look at boxing. Or Google bodybuilding’s Kal Szkalak. You’ll find him referenced under “crucifixion.” Because while we can all agree on a more aggressive health care program for fighters who routinely put their health on the line for the bottom line, for example, almost none of us would probably agree on issues of actual worth. Which makes fighters imminently easy to get to break ranks and go for self.
Add to that the dark whispers about which fighters are repped by WME-IMG’s crosstown competition Creative Artists Agency (CAA), various outstanding sponsorship deals with non-Reebok companies like Under Armour, which is still under contract to the UFC and has hit free agency, and you have an open prescription for the kind of chaos that seems to argue strongly against an orderly march to management–fighter bonhomie.
“If you have fighters openly saying they don’t give a fuck about fighting if they’re not getting paid for fighting?” chortles Wilcox. “Seems like any organizing principle will have to deal with that first. Simple, right?”
Yup. Nope. Well, we’ll see.