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If there is one thing that the COVID-19 pandemic pandemic has reinforced over the past several weeks, it is dangerous lengths to which the Ultimate Fighting Championship will go to protect its profit margins and feed the ego of its unhinged leader. For even as the virus sends the world economy into a death spiral, as America’s public hospitals struggle with devastating shortages in protective equipment and ghastly overages in dead bodies, UFC President Dana White insists that what the world really needed is short-notice, non-descript mixed martial arts bouts broadcast on pay-per-view.
Liters of ink have already been spilt on the UFC’s response to the coronavirus crisis, which has ranged from sycophantic cheerleading from the promotion’s broadcast partners to moral outrage from those who have bothered listening to infectious disease experts and public health officials. Now, as the wheels have finally fallen off the promotion’s flagship UFC 249 event and at least a few weeks of shows after that, it is time to start looking beyond the present to what we want the company—and the mixed martial arts industry more broadly—to look like when we get to the other side.
Historically, somber reflection on big structural issues like the UFC’s labor practices and its (alleged) monopsony over the MMA industry, has been difficult. There’s no doubt that’s by design to a certain extent. Unlike almost every other major sport, MMA has no off-season, with the modus operandi of promoters, fighters and spectators being to galop from one event to the next, dragging the media cycle along with them. While the MMA media—and occasionally walk-ons from the mainstream—still pontificate about issues like fighter pay, revenue share and federal regulation, these are almost inexorably addendums to the headlining act, which is “Fighter X is Fighting Fighter Y for Championship Z This Saturday.”
Even this last month, as the UFC Fight Night 170 and Cage Warrior 113 events faded quietly into the rear-view mirror and subsequent events were postponed due to the virus, the UFC still gave the media plenty of reasons to keep busy, principally with its extraordinarily—and ultimately unsuccessful—efforts to move ahead with UFC 249. First it went on the offensive against all the “losers” and “haters” who had reservations about the promotion’s plans. Then it scrambled to salvage the main event after lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov withdrew. Finally, it secured a venue on tribal lands in defiance of California’s stay-at-home orders and federal guidelines before ESPN, Disney and the State of California pulled rank on White and demanded that he stand down.
Now, mercifully, we begin something of a hiatus from the UFC where fighters have finally been given the green light to hibernate with their families and the lifeblood of the media—weekly fight announcements, fight breakdowns and pre- and post-event analysis—has stopped flowing. With that windfall of free time, now is the ideal period to reflect on the problems with our sport, both structural and cultural, and have a sober conversation about potential solutions. First, let’s start with the problems.
It would be easy to kick off this piece by relaying the nature of the incredibly exploitative UFC business model, from the tiny percentage of its revenue that it remits to fighter compensation and the one-sided contracts it coerces its athletes into signing to its proclivity for going scorched earth on those who have the audacity to think independently and its history of anti-competitive conduct. These are after all the most pernicious and all-encompassing problems in the industry, and it stands to reason that they are therefore the worthiest of examination and scrutiny here.
The rationale for why I’m going to relegate a discussion of those issues to later in the series: In focusing primarily on the UFC’s rapacious business practices, commentators routinely fail to put the enabling role of other stakeholders—from the athletes to their representatives and the media—under the microscope. The conversation therefore becomes limited to condemning the UFC, with the extent of constructive criticism being to tacitly invite the promotion and its leaders to consider altering the way they do business in the name of fairness. Such requests have fallen on deaf ears for close to two decades now.
Instead, we’re going to start with the 597 fighters who make up the UFC roster. More than any group, they legitimize the promotion’s hegemony and consistently advocate for its interests over their own.
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1. Deference to Authority
Fighters as a group are by and large tougher and more resilient than 99 percent of the human race, but contrary to their outlaw image, history shows that they are extraordinarily deferential to the authority wielded by the UFC, in general, and White, in particular.
Part of this is learned behavior. Since all the way back in 2005 when the UFC launched “The Ultimate Fighter” reality series, the promotion has carefully molded how athletes are perceived within the broader MMA ecosystem, feeding the gaping power asymmetry between a multi-billion company and its contractors and translating into a fan culture that routinely expects fighters to make enormous sacrifices for the sake of their entertainment and the promotion’s bottom line.
The turning point for this historically can probably be traced back to the “Do you want to be a [expletive] fighter?” speech in Episode 3 of the inaugural “Ultimate Fighter” season, during which contestants learned they would not be remunerated for their “exhibition” fights and expressed reluctance about competing without compensation. Upon hearing of the fighter’s apprehension, White promptly summoned the fighters into the gym and berated them for their failure to appreciate the “opportunity” they were being given before uttering those famous words. It led the group of prospective fighters to ultimately submit to the promotion’s demand that they fight for free.
This specter of this interaction hangs heavily over the UFC’s contemporary roster, with all but a tiny percentage of fighters willing to criticize the promotion on record and many routinely going out of their way to defend it when it makes unpopular decisions. This acts as a handbrake to honest commentary on fighter treatment—I can think of plenty of instances where fighters have reacted with fear and hostility when asked about issues like fighter pay and revenue share—and too often sees the fighters acting as ambassadors for the company’s commercial interests, even when they directly conflict with their own.
Just in the last month, a cadre of fighters has gone to bat for the promotion’s plans to continue putting on events in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, ostensibly indifferent to the enormous sacrifices they were being asked to make for the sake of the promotion meeting its obligations under its ESPN contract. Such behavior betrays both a remarkable lack of insight as to the value of their labor to the company and the naive belief that the promotion’s interests always align with those of the fighters.
2. Lack of Labor Consciousness
Reinforcing fighters’ historical submissiveness to the UFC is a corresponding skepticism towards collective action. When athletes do break with the herd to criticize the promotion’s practices, typically in response to an individual grievance over compensation or matchmaking, it is common for them to fight this battle alone rather than seeing it as part of a wider struggle. Even worse, fighters who have expressed frustration about their treatment from the UFC on one day have been seen weaponizing the same complaints from potential opponents the next, reinforcing the narrative that fighters who hold out for better pay and conditions are selfish, entitled and cowardly.
The even fewer athletes who have waged broader battles against the promotion—in favor of new weight classes or unionization, to name two examples—have also floundered due to a lack of support from their peers. Former UFC bantamweight Leslie Smith spent a decent portion of her fighting career lobbying for a fighters’ union under the auspices of the short-lived Professional Fighters Association and Project Spearhead, but only a tiny handful of fighters publicly vouched for that effort. In April 2018, when Smith was unceremoniously released in clear retaliation for organizing—she was ranked in the Top 10 and riding a three-fight winning streak at 135 pounds—the silence from the UFC’s roster was deafening.
Even more dispiriting is the example of Rafael dos Anjos, circa May 2019. Opponent Kevin Lee had proposed that he and the Brazilian should weigh in five pounds below the welterweight limit for their main event at UFC Fight Night 152. Why? To make a statement in favor of greenlighting a new 165-pound division—a campaign that had received overwhelming support from fighters, regulators, media and fans and was a far cry from forming a picket line. Dos Anjos, despite expressing support for the new weight class, categorized the request as a “deal with the enemy” and brushed off Lee’s suggestion, demonstrating that even the tiniest actions of solidarity are ostensibly beyond the pale of fighters in a position of influence.
Jacob Debets is a law graduate 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.
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