The UFC opting to not renew a contract is not that unusual. Plenty of fighters are removed from rankings and roster lists in the days following events, as losing streaks weed out those who need further development in smaller organizations, making room for those who have earned a spot in the big show. Inconsistency when dealing with late-notice bout changes is nothing new, and a topic that has been revisited many times recently. What is unusual is that when the UFC opted to let Smith walk away, she was on two-fight winning streak. Smith has been one of the most vocal critics of the UFC’s treatment of its fighters and has been at the forefront of Project Spearhead, a movement to organize and unionize fighters. By doing away with Smith, the UFC has made its message loud and clear: troublemakers will be dealt with.
The UFC does have something of a history with questionable releases of top-level talent. Most notoriously, Jake Shields, Yushin Okami and Jon Fitch were unceremoniously let go, despite being clear top contenders. Company president Dana White took to various media outlets to declare that all three fighters were no longer top-tier talent and had been passed on in favor of making room for up-and-coming fighters. With the exception of Fitch, who had suffered a knockout loss to eventual champion Johny Hendricks prior to defeating Erick Silva, all three had been the owners of lengthy unbeaten streaks. In each case, the company parted ways with the fighter promptly after a loss. Despite the fact that they were all legitimate contenders and easily among the best in their divisions, they were no longer welcome to compete under the UFC banner. Similarly, One Championship and former Bellator MMA welterweight titleholder Ben Askren was infamously overlooked when he was a prize free agent.
One common trait among the aforementioned is their reputation for less than aesthetically-pleasing performances. While an organization that boasts that it is the showcase for the best fighters in the world still shouldn’t abandon elite fighters because of the perceived boredom of the audience -- imagine the NBA stripping the Jason Kidd-led New Jersey Nets of their Eastern Conference titles because they weren’t exciting enough or the NFL bouncing the early 1990s-era Buffalo Bills from the league because they couldn’t win the Super Bowl -- passing these off as decisions to encourage action for our enjoyment was largely accepted.
However, the same logic can’t apply to Smith. Her two-fight winning streak included a decision win over Irene Aldana, which earned “Fight of the Night” honors, and a second-round TKO over Amanda Lemos. Before that, she stepped up to the unenviable task of standing in front of Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino. In the departments of exciting performances and winning fights, Smith checks the boxes.
Typically, standing out for action-packed fights results in receiving more favor from the UFC. Smith was rewarded for her efforts by being placed in lower spots on subsequent fight cards. Her “Fight of the Night” win led to her being placed as the UFC Fight Pass curtain-jerker against Lemos. The bout with Ladd was also slated for Fight Pass. It isn’t a far stretch to think that Smith’s vocal efforts to unionize fighters had something to do with this. We’ve seen similar tactics ahead of contract negotiations, as fighters like Aljamain Sterling and Lorenz Larkin found very rankings-relevant bouts placed on the UFC Fight Pass prelims before potentially becoming free agents. It was speculated that the higher-ups in the promotion attempted to limit the market value of fighters with this sort of card placement or poor style matchups which in turn led to more favorable conditions for the company in negotiations. Smith, as she told several outlets after the release, actively sought to renew her UFC contract and was rejected. So while others have been placed in the least-viewed spots to weaken their power on the open market, it appears the UFC has done the same to limit the power of an unspoken potential leader.
This isn’t even the first time that the UFC has tried to undermine union efforts. A now-infamous memo allegedly went out to the fighter roster in 2015, as several organizations intent on creating an association emerged. The memo reportedly attempted to discredit the need for, and intentions of, any union. About a year later the Mixed Martial Arts Athletes Association (MMAAA) popped up with public backing from notable fighters and former Bellator head Bjorn Rebney. Among those in the photo ops and big media grand entrance was Donald Cerrone. In response, White criticized the dual-weight-class fan favorite until “Cowboy” began vocally distancing himself from the organization as they faded out of the headlines.
There’s no doubt that when Project Spearhead was formally announced with Smith as its head and founder, UFC brass were not exactly enthused. After all, they’ve allegedly spent hundreds of thousands of dollars lobbying to keep the Muhammad Ali Act from being expanded to MMA, and maintain that fighters are independent contractors rather than employees, while fighting off a pending anti-trust suit filed by a group of former fighters, including Fitch. By choosing to not re-sign Smith in the fashion that they did, they have effectively undercut the unionization efforts in two ways. First, by getting rid of Smith from the roster, her efforts on behalf of other roster fighters can potentially be negated, as she may no longer have the access or platform to effect change. Second, they have re-ignited the culture of fear that has been common unspoken truth in the UFC. Fighters see the writing on the wall. Exciting fights and devastating knockouts be damned: if you speak out of turn and your last name isn’t McGregor, there will be consequences detrimental to your career. Project Spearhead has two other outspoken fighters among its ranks: Al Iaquinta and Kajan Johnson. Iaquinta’s improbable title challenge may have bought him some extra leeway for the time being. However, Johnson would be wise to keep his four-fight win streak going in order to avoid being shown the exit.
Unfortunately, this is likely to make it even harder for the fighters to get a fair shake in the promotion. Smith has threatened legal action which will surely not look good, considering the legal battles the company is already fighting. Let’s hope this is just a bump on the road for athletes to get what they deserve.