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Jon Jones wasn’t the first to speak up, but depending how things go, he may be the most important. For the last week and a half, the greatest light heavyweight of all-time’s Twitter feed has been a long overdue polemic against the contractual precarity of Ultimate Fighting Championship competitors.
“Just go ahead and release me from my UFC contract altogether,” he tweeted on May 29. He doubled down on that request the next day, bid the light heavyweight title farewell a day after that and otherwise railed against getting ripped off “tens of millions” of dollars throughout his career. The alternative—forking out a little extra money for a banger against Francis Ngannou—is looking considerably better than it already did, which is saying something.
If it were just Jones kicking up dust and if times were normal, the UFC would likely do what it always does in these situations: keep the gears in motion and wait for the unhappy party to come back around. In the meantime, focus on promoting the next batch of stars, so if the unhappy party doesn’t come back around, some other G.O.A.T.-of-the-week can slide right into the spot and keep the general order of things intact. Most of the time, however, fighters come back around. What other option is there?
Still, these are not normal times, and Jones is not alone. Recently, maybe-not-retired former flyweight and bantamweight champion Henry Cejudo said he’s open to a comeback fight against featherweight titleholder Alexander Volkanovski—if the money is right. Former featherweight and lightweight champion and perennial FOMO-weight champion Conor McGregor has thanked us for the cheese once more, retiring with all the authenticity that a six-sentence, five-exclamation-mark tweet suggests. Meanwhile, Jorge Masvidal is out here asking to be released and insinuating the UFC is like a communist regime.
It’s no wonder that so many fighters have been more comfortably voicing their financial frustrations. Sean O’Malley brought up renegotiating his contract in a post-fight presser; Gray Maynard has been speaking up about insanely low pay and just as insanely unfair contracts; and Cub Swanson chimed in about a more equitable revenue share with the UFC. Naturally, longtime voices for fighter rights like Jon Fitch and Nate Quarry also joined in.
The story of low pay and exploitative contracts is not new. A 2012 report on fighter pay is discouragingly similar to what fighters have been saying these past few weeks. The difference? In 2012, fighters wished to remain anonymous for fear of promotional backlash. Now, fighters are openly criticizing the people who sign their independent contractor paychecks. Not just any fighters, either. These aren’t easily ridiculed good/not-great fighters like Fitch and Quarry. We’re talking about some of the most successful and popular fighters in the sport today, and they’re at the forefront of a growing chorus.
UFC President Dana White is clearly aware that some of his biggest stars are upset, and his go-to refrain is telling. “[Jones] couldn’t be asking for a more absurd amount of money at a worse time,” White said, the last part being crucial here. “Financially, it’s not a great situation [to hold fights during the pandemic], and I guarantee you that’s why most of the other sports aren’t jumping right in to come back. It ain’t cheap, and it’s a lot more work,” he said at the UFC on ESPN 9 post-fight presser, even though it has been pretty great financially and that’s exactly why the UFC is putting on shows in the first place. Because the ESPN deal guarantees a minimum payment for each pay-per-view event on ESPN+—estimated to be in the range of $15 million—gate revenue is a fraction of a UFC event’s profitability. Even if it were true that the UFC is pushing forward so as to not let down staff, fighters and fans, the primary impetus for these pandemic fight cards is because Endeavor, the UFC’s parent company, is in billions of dollars of debt. If the UFC were losing money on these events, make no mistake, they wouldn’t be taking place.
Most recently, White used the pandemic to explain away the frustrations of McGregor, Masvidal and Jones on ESPN’s “First Take.” On McGregor’s retirement: “Conor McGregor is frustrated right now because, look at what’s going on. Look at what we’re pulling off. This is a matter of Conor being frustrated, I think, in that he can’t get what he wants right now. It’s just not possible.”
What about Jones and Masvidal? “These guys both have brand new deals that they were more than happy to sign less than a year ago,” White said. When host Dominique Foxworth asked about the general, long-term trend of fighters being unhappy with their pay, White played the hits: “Does anybody feel like they make too much money? Nobody does. By the way, I don’t know if you know this, we’re in a pandemic right now. Every other sport out there is arguing over money right now.”
The point, of course, is not that the UFC hasn’t honored the contracts the fighters signed; and the organization has done an admirable job avoiding layoffs and pay cuts, for which it deserves praise. The point, rather, is that these contracts aren’t fair, most fighters have very little leverage to negotiate for better pay and all of these issues existed years before COVID-19 did.
There will never be a good time for people in power to relinquish their power to the people they control with it. I’ve covered this issue for as long as I’ve covered this sport, and I’ve only been letdown by past hopes that fighters would finally bargain collectively for better treatment across the board. This time is probably no different, but it feels like it might not be, that the #revolution caption fighters are using may be more than a vacuous act of solidarity. We’ll see. All I know is, when the people in power are saying it’s a bad time to talk, usually that’s a good sign to keep talking and to talk louder.
Eric Stinton is a writer from Kailua, Hawaii. His fiction, nonfiction and journalism have appeared in Bamboo Ridge, The Classical, Harvard Review Online, Honolulu Civil Beat, Medium and Vice Sports, among others. He has been writing for Sherdog since 2014. You can reach him on Twitter at @TombstoneStint, or find his work at ericstinton.com.