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Would you trust Congress to take over matchmaking duties of the Ultimate Fighting Championship? The idea of Washington D.C. bullying itself big government-style into how UFC President Dana White books fights reared its head last week during a Congressional hearing between the promotion’s regulatory chief, Marc Ratner, and Oklahoma Republican Markwayne Mullin, the public face spearheading the effort to amend the Ali Act to cover mixed martial arts.
At the Congressional hearing, Mullin bizarrely engaged the UFC when he publicly proffered a deal: Create a “real league system” of matchmaking, and in exchange, Congress wouldn’t fully amend the Ali Act. It’s the kind of offer that should both terrify and excite the UFC at the same time. This is a republican, from Oklahoma no less, basically pushing the kind of Big Brother solution railed against every two years during the American campaign season. If the threat of such government action wasn’t so real, I’d hysterically laugh at Congressional competence; but I know better, and so you do. This is playing with fire.
I completely understand the temptation of Congress wanting to get a political edge. Attacking UFC matchmaking over the last year is an easy way to score some points. It’s also true that there is genuine anger amongst fans and fighters about the current direction of the UFC, and that is a pressure point to be exploited.
Mullin is mad about fighters not having enough rights and not enough leverage. Amending the Ali Act to cover MMA would at least, in theory, give fighters a private right of action to sue in federal court to get out of a one-sided, sticky contract. When UFC contracts hold venue clauses for Clark County, Nevada, and state court, the deck is already stacked against the fighters. It’s no different than you or I fighting a credit card company, only to realize that you waived your rights to sue in court and instead are stuck in arbitration. You want to help fighters? Give them legal protections to produce fairer contracts or, at the very least, better avenues in court to address grievances.
Instead of focusing on practical fixes, Mullin is more interested in fighter rankings. Not Sherdog fighter rankings, mind you, but UFC fighter rankings. If Mullin had his way, we wouldn’t have been able to watch Georges St. Pierre-Michael Bisping at Madison Square Garden. Mullin wants a “real league system” where fighters are determined by rankings and records over other factors that may appeal more to the fans.
Mullin is a former fighter. From a promoter’s point of view, he knows full well that rankings and sanctioning bodies don’t sell fights. The only rankings that seem to get MMA fans worked up revolve around the fictitious pound-for-pound argument, so why is Mullin focused on rankings rather than legal protections? He believes that creating a “real league system” of rankings would allow fighters and their agents/managers/attorneys a better shot of knowing their worth when it comes time to negotiate a fight.
Here’s the major flaw in that viewpoint: UFC contracts dictate the terms and conditions. Even if the UFC acquiesced and gave in to government manipulation on matchmaking, it still gets to determine the venue for the fight, the show money, the bonus money, how much of a pay increase or cut a fighter gets based on a win or a loss and what the UFC champion will make moving forward, vis a vis the champion’s clause in the contract. The value of the Ali Act is limited in scope but gives a boxer the right to sue in federal court. All MMA fighters, at a bare minimum, deserve this protection. Letting MMA promoters escape this reality is a travesty.
You don’t create leverage through a rankings system. You create leverage through independent purse bids. You create leverage through legal protections. The playing field is not level now, and it won’t be level if Congress manipulates UFC matchmaking. If the UFC takes Mullin’s bait and gives in on ceding some matchmaking authority to avoid giving fighters much-needed legal protections, it’s a win. Congress gets to say it did something without really doing anything while the UFC maintains legal control over its top fighters. During a time when UFC ownership is trying to negotiate the biggest television contract in the history of the organization, buying time sounds perfectly rational.
It’s a Pyrrhic scenario, however. Giving up some matchmaking authority to win the battle today does not mean you won’t lose the war in the future. The Overton Window has changed the political conditions to where the UFC and other MMA promoters will be under political threat of change. However, is it a threat to introduce the right kind of change? It depends on whether or not you trust Congress.
For many years, fight industry personalities such as Teddy Atlas have clamored for the creation of a federal commission to regulate combat sports. That will never happen. What could very well happen is the creation of a new set of federal rules and regulations that state athletic commissions would be compelled to enforce. Major state athletic commissions already are, at best, disinterested in enforcing federal laws such as the Ali Act. If Congress wants to provide real leadership, it should create the legal tools for fighters to utilize in order to build business leverage. Leave the rankings to the professionals at Sherdog.
Founder of FightOpinion.com and creator of Fight Opinion Radio, Zach Arnold is a long-time professional wrestling and mixed martial arts writer (focusing heavily on the North American & Japanese fight scenes, respectively). Arnold has written articles on numerous web sites including 1wrestling.com, WrestlingObserver.com, BoxingScene.com, and FoxSports.com. He is also the founder of PuroresuPower.com, a Japanese pro-wrestling web site started on June 20, 2000.