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Combat sports fans were treated to a semblance of normalcy in the form of live Ultimate Fighting Championship events, broadcast out of the empty VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Florida, between May 9 and May 16.
There was UFC 249, featuring one of the best main cards in recent memory—headlined by Justin Gaethje’s mesmerizing victory over Tony Ferguson to lift the interim 155-pound strap. Then there was the midweek UFC Fight Night 171, pitting former light heavyweight title contenders Glover Teixeira and Anthony Smith against one another to see who could take one step closer to a second opportunity at Jon Jones’ throne. Finally, heavyweight contenders Alistair Overeem and Walt Harris—the latter barely six months removed from the tragic death of his stepdaughter—went to war in the UFC on ESPN 8 main event, with Harris coming heart-wrenchingly close to an early stoppage before capitulating to punches in the second stanza.
Like many people in the MMA ecosystem, I initially approached the Jacksonville Three with a mix of cautious skepticism and unbridled excitement.
One the one hand, the decision to forge ahead during the pandemic had been criticized by epidemiologists as premature, with there being a higher-than-acceptable risk of the fighters or other stakeholders being exposed to or transmitting the virus in connection with the event. With fighters and media also being required to sign lengthy waivers containing amorphous non-disparagement, indemnity and confidentiality clauses insulating the promotion from liability and good faith criticism, I—like many fans and media—was outraged and dismayed at the efforts to shift responsibility away from the organization profiting from such a dangerous spectacle.
Then there was the reptilian part of my brain, which was nothing short of ecstatic to be spending one full half of my weekend and bits and pieces of the working week on the couch with my eyes glued to the action, escaping the reality that was unfolding outside. Particularly for UFC 249, which featured big-stakes fights across multiple weight divisions and no shortage of “Oh, s---!” moments, it felt really good to be back.
To top off the trifecta of emotions that attended my reunification with high-level MMA, there was a sense of garden-variety revulsion at a pair of absurd situations that unfolded inside and outside the Octagon over the course of the last two weeks. The fact that these had nothing to do with COVID-19 or the UFC’s measures to adapt its operations to the crisis and were in fact manifestations of deep-seated problems in MMA served to underscore the psychological and emotional rollercoaster that is being a proponent of combat sports who constantly expects its stakeholders to do better.
Cejudo’s Manager Detonates Bargaining Position
Henry Cejudo’s retirement announcement, which he made after steamrolling former champion Dominick Cruz to mark his first defense of the 135-pound title in the UFC 249 co-main event caught the MMA universe off-guard. “Triple C” said that he was content, at 33 years old, with what he had accomplished and wanted to hang up the gloves to start a family. Speaking at the post-fight press conference, he doubled down on this sentiment, asserting that he wanted to “leave on top” just like he had done as an Olympic gold medalist in freestyle wrestling. While many interpreted the move as a ploy to secure a better contract, there seemed to be an emerging consensus that Cejudo might just be willing to call it quits—or at least vacate the title—until he was appropriately incentivized back into the Octagon.
Speculation on this issue, attended by a predictable number of tepid career eulogies, lasted exactly eight days—until the narrative of Cejudo’s retirement was blown to smithereens by the man who in any other context would be relied upon to preserve the fiction: Ali Abdelaziz, Cejudo’s manager. Abdelaziz, perhaps the most visible non-combatant in MMA media, shot down the idea of Cejudo retiring in an interview with TMZ, stating that fans could expect to see the Fight Ready standout by the summer. With that, he effectively detonated Cejudo’s bargaining position.
Way to absolutely detonate your client's bargaining position. This is gross incompetence at best, collusion at worst. https://t.co/152JQEqDeq— Jacob Debets (@jacob_debets) May 17, 2020
There’s a legitimate question about whether Abdelaziz, in giving this interview, was in breach of his fiduciary obligations towards Cejudo. The essence of the principal-agent relationship, per Mittens et al, is that the “agent owes his principal the fiduciary duty of undivided loyalty and the duty to act in good faith at all times” and is subject always to the authority of the principal. Even more disturbing was the fact that Abdelaziz’s divulgences were not received with any sense of indignation by members of the MMA media. The saga serves to underscore how little we expect from the people responsible for protecting and advancing fighters’ financial and professional interests.
Corner Fails Bludgeoned Smith
The second saga, which received significantly more attention from the MMA media, was the failure of Smith’s corner to intervene and call off his headlining bout with Teixeira once it became clear that “Lionheart” no longer had a realistic chance of winning it.
Smith was knocked down early in the third round and spent most of the succeeding 10 minutes eating punches and surviving submission attempts from the bottom. Having effectively forfeited two 10-8 rounds to the Brazilian and offering little in the way of meaningful offense, Smith told his corner in between the fourth and fifth stanzas that his teeth were falling out. This admission prompted no discernible response, and he was marched out for the final round, where he took even more punishment before referee Jason Herzog mercifully stopped the contest. He was subsequently transported to the hospital, where it was confirmed that he suffered a broken orbital bone, a broken nose and lost two teeth.
In response to the significant backlash to which his corner was subjected by members of the MMA “commentariat,” fellow fighters and analysts, Smith offered an expectedly passionate defense of his most trusted confidantes during an interview with ESPN, asserting that he has explicitly instructed his coaches that if they ever called off one of his bouts, he would terminate their services. Given the long-term physical repercussions Smith and other fighters face as a result of prolonged beatdowns and the emerging research around MMA and CTE, it is a disappointing reminder that the conversation around fighters throwing in the towel seems never to get out of first gear.
These instances serve as a telling reminder that a return to business-as-usual should not be our aim when this pandemic is over.
Jacob Debets is a lawyer and writer from Melbourne, Australia. He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics of the MMA industry. You can view more of his writing at jacobdebets.com.