Ian McCall may be one of the smallest fighters on the Ultimate Fighting Championship roster, but his recent statements on the state of mixed martial arts allowed him to momentarily lead the choir.
The mustachioed, tattooed flyweight was the world’s best 125-pound fighter back in 2011. “Uncle Creepy” came to the UFC in 2012, when the flyweight division arrived in the Octagon. The Orange County, Calif.-based fighter hasn’t met expectations, posting a 2-3-1 record in the UFC. He last fought in January, losing to an overweight John Lineker via unanimous decision. Shoulder surgery has sidelined McCall, who demonstrates no indecision when speaking out about struggles even top-10 fighters endure in the sport. Fighters don’t always share their candid opinions, fearing backlash that may impact their careers. That’s why McCall’s recent advocacy for medical marijuana on the Talking Brawls podcast bears repeating.
“Having a former addiction to painkillers, I can’t take painkillers, so I use cannabis,” said McCall, a 13-year veteran of the sport. “I smoke a lot of pot. I always have. That’s because I’m in so much pain.”
MMA has its own sweet-leaf fascination, between Nick Diaz’s quotes on the subject and UFC color commentator Joe Rogan’s declarative THC explorations. Diaz’s recent five-year Nevada Athletic Commission suspension contrasted with Anderson Silva’s slap-on-the-wrist one-year suspension for performance-enhancing drugs, illuminating more than ever the absurdity of policing and punishing cannabis in this sport.
McCall doubles down by sharing something most active fighters do not: There is a consequential amount of everyday pain associated with this profession. Treating and managing that pain is necessary. McCall is on his fourth surgery in a six-bout UFC run.
Injuries are commonplace, but their impact cannot be understated. Take Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira’s recent comments to Sherdog: “I have done a total of 22 surgeries; I’m all broken.” If that statement doesn’t stir one to acknowledge fighters need proper access to natural, non-lethal, non-physically addictive pain treatments rather than painkillers, it’s doubtful anything will. It’s about having the option where it’s legal since marijuana has no bearing on competitive ability, no matter what the NAC might argue.
One of MMA’s worst outcomes would be for it to be associated with painkiller addiction. It can’t afford to have the same addiction issues that characterized the dark times in professional wrestling. Ask Bellator MMA’s new ambassador, former World Wrestling Entertainment champion and U.S. Olympic wrestling gold medalist Kurt Angle, about those downfalls. Mike Tyson, former heavyweight boxing kingpin, remarked in his autobiography that he didn’t realize his wide-ranging drug use was in part linked to daily pain resulting from punishment suffered in the ring.
What McCall has pointed out should be kept at the forefront of cannabis conversation in mixed martial arts. Rogan has said over and over that more UFC fighters than not utilize cannabis. McCall has revealed why. The sport lags behind financially, according to McCall, prompting him to venture into business by starting one of 20 federally regulated medical marijuana facilities. He’ll serve his customer base’s pain needs the way it serves him personally as a pro athlete dealing with wear and tear. McCall believes his efforts might be more lucrative than continuing in mixed martial arts: “The Reebok deal is s---; it’s complete bulls--- and it [expletive] us. I made close to fifty grand on my first fight with sponsorships. I’d be making a lot more than that now.”
All evolution is subject to adaptation. Look no further than McCall and others vocalizing their thoughts about the UFC-Reebok deal. These voices are adding up more than ever, and it’s important to account for them, as these issues all factor into the unrest getting its grip on the sport.
The Diaz vs. Nevada Athletic Commission rally seemed to unify fighters more than any other issue in recent memory. It was so galvanizing that it even spilled over into mainstream discussion, most notably in a tweet from pop icon Cher. No one could have ever imagined a situation where Cher would support Diaz, yet here we are. Something is clearly bubbling up in 2015, and why shouldn’t it? It has been a decade since the UFC hit mainstream consciousness in the United States; eight years since UFC parent company Zuffa absorbed Pride Fighting Championships; seven years since Vitor Belfort returned from being on the lamb for PEDs to fight in America for Affliction; six years since Fedor Emelianenko headlined on CBS; five years since World Extreme Cagefighting had a pay-per-view; and four years since the UFC absorbed Strikeforce.
Today’s landscape features market options through which fighters can test their worth outside the UFC, with Viacom-owned Bellator, One Championship and Japan’s latest attempt at MMA revival, Rizin Fighting Federation. There is a palpable feeling that more fighters are considering giving alternatives a go because more of them are doing it. See Phil Davis, Ben Askren and, of course, Fedor Emelianenko. Although fighters might have potential to earn millions with the right fights, they are similar to anyone else in the 1099 economy, subject to a murky future in which they incur many costs and have to piece together their income from multiple sources.
UFC middleweight Tim Kennedy, who has been vocal about bleeding sponsorship money that won’t be recouped by Reebok while sitting out for more than a year, told the SiriusXM Fight Club recently that “[UFC matchmaker] Joe Silva has to give me a really good reason to come back. I haven’t had that reason yet, but there’s a lot of good reasons that I would.” Pressed on whom he would fight next, Kennedy responded with “Fedor [on] New Year’s Eve,” reminding everyone that he favors fighters controlling their own places in the market.
Kennedy mentioned recent film and television work being more lucrative than fighting and may focus on that going forward. Fighting in Reebok fights isn’t worth it to veterans who know their market value and don’t have a Reebok-exclusive deal. Kennedy was at it again on Submission Radio: “If I wasn’t contractually obligated to the UFC, would I go fight for [Bellator President] Scott Coker? I think I definitely would. I love the guy, I love fighting for him and I kind of miss those days.”
The worst PR possible for the UFC has been that Reebok payouts are reported after every event. That Rashad Evans, a 10-year UFC veteran and one of the few headliners to ever hit a million pay-per-view buys, made $15,000 from Reebok payouts at UFC 192 is telling. Some top-10 fighters make far less than bench players in the NFL, MLB, NBA or NHL.
McCall, still a top-five flyweight, expounded on the situation on MMAJunkie Radio: “It evolved like a big, big sport,” he said, “yet we don’t make that kind of money.”
McCall and Kennedy share a no-care attitude toward the potential repercussions their outspokenness might bring their way. McCall went on to mention he’s not making enough to have his voice squashed. That’s because his division is nascent and he hasn’t delivered stellar results, but this is still business and he doesn’t see it paying enough hush money to not share his true feelings about it. At best, he might be angling for one last run before his body gives out, if it’s even possible. That’s a regular narrative in the sport. Scramble for whatever one can get before there’s no other ways to get it. Take lightweight No. 1 contender Khabib Nurmagomedov, who is so prone to injury the he is leaning towards retirement at 27 years old without having reaped financial benefits from being a world-class 155-pound fighter.
Little is normal about how fighters are tasked to meet performance demands. Getting pats on the back and being called a “warrior” doesn’t do anything for their retirement, from the fiscal side to their longevity of health. Prizefighting is about the money, so the new refrain wondering whether pro MMA is a viable, worthwhile profession is worth considering.
The sport is at the point where criterion for competition’s highest level is unclouded. What’s falling behind is quantifying what this is all really worth to those most affected by it when the show is over -- the fighters. That’s why turning-point subjects like medical and monetary issues require the most attention.
Danny Acosta is a SiriusXM Rush (Channel 93) host and contributor. His writing has been featured on Sherdog.com for nearly a decade. Find him on Twitter and Instagram @acostaislegend.