Fighters and Health Insurance

By Jake Rossen Aug 4, 2010
File photo: Stephen Albanese |

Not long ago, there was a story floating around that Bruce Willis -- who has made enough money in a career of smirking that he probably uses it as attic insulation -- sometimes holds a raffle for the blue-collar crew members on his film sets. The winning ticket each week gets $10,000.

Generous, yeah? The problem is, it’s also a major letdown to the losers, otherwise known as 99% of the set.

Zuffa does not raffle off financial mercy to fighters, but I’m not sure that discretionary bonuses are that much better. We know that a fighter’s base pay is often a useless marker for their real income: the promotion hands out checks in the locker rooms depending on an athlete’s performance, sometimes for a considerable and life-altering amount of money. It’s a way of corralling strategies that have the potential to be deadly dull. Be exciting, win, and make extra money. Bore the crowd and Dana White will not come bearing gifts.

When that cherry-picking extends to a fighter’s health care, it becomes a stickier issue.

The reality is that virtually no company offers coverage to independent contractors; athletes are normally covered by unions, not leagues. Instead, the UFC often pays the medical bills of contestants injured during a bout.

It’s what happens outside of the Octagon that should worry them. Joe Stevenson told this week that he traveled to Tijuana to get an X-ray rather than pay the exorbitant hospital imaging fees stateside. According to the piece, Stevenson has no insurance, and -- perhaps foolishly -- says he elected not to spend $500 a month on private coverage. (That number sounds incredibly low for a prizefighter, who carries the same scarlet letter to insurers as a chain smoker or volcano inspector: I wouldn’t be surprised if the “co-pays” were in the thousands.) But since Stevenson suffered an injury during training, Zuffa shouldn’t be expected to chip in, right?

Yet the UFC can and does come to the aid of fighters downed outside of the arena. When Brock Lesnar fell ill with diverticulitis, Zuffa went into emergency mode and, according to Dana White, figured they’d “send him to the Mayo Clinic or to Scripps…we’re going to have to do some stuff to take care of this guy.” Lesnar, the UFC’s biggest attraction, was not going to be left on the curb.

It’s unknown whether Stevenson asked Zuffa for financial assistance. It’s also fair to say that Stevenson’s knee issues are nowhere near as severe as a hole in Lesnar’s intestine, and that Zuffa reacted not only to Lesnar’s status as a seat-filler but the possible mortality of a fighter. While that’s not unfair, exactly, Stevenson may have had other thoughts when driving to Mexico.

Who is ultimately responsible for the health of a fighter? The UFC profits considerably from their risk, and acknowledges that by caring for athletes hurt in the cage. But that’s semantics: Stevenson tweaking his knee in training happened with the purpose of performing for the company. And because of his status as a near-contender, he’s not as financially flexible as someone like Lesnar, who made millions in the WWE and millions more in fighting. It’s the equivalent of gifting celebrities with iPhones and other expensive toys: freebies are best enjoyed by people without the means of acquiring them. In the UFC hierarchy, Joe Stevenson probably needs a medical favor more than Lesnar does.

Zuffa is undoubtedly generous to a fault, and they have taken care of many, many athletes without a word said to press. My only reservation would be the discretionary nature of that funding. Lesnar may be more valuable as a fighter than Stevenson, but certainly no more valuable as a healthy human being.
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