Dear MMA Media who think the UFC hosting fights is irresponsible,— Cody Gibson (@TheRenegade559) April 7, 2020
You're probably right. If you want to critique the UFC and its profit driven mindset then go ahead. But don't criticize the fighters. The fighters are willing to fight for a lot of reasons. Bread being the first.
The orders across much of the world have been explicit: Stay at home. Unless it involves picking up groceries or traveling to and from work at essential services, hunkering down at home and binge watching seems to be the schedule most people are following. The entertainment on which most of us rely for an escape has slowed to an almost complete halt, as well. Movie studios like Marvel and Warner Brothers have delayed surefire hit movie releases and production. The overall sports world has turned into hypothetical debates and reruns. However, the leading brand in mixed martial arts isn’t exactly on the same wavelength.
Beyond the unbelievable push by the Ultimate Fighting Championship and parent company Endeavor to keep the Octagon active, a surprising number of fighters have been vocal about keeping to business as usual as an unprecedented viral outbreak sweeps away any notion of regular life. Why? What could possibly persuade these athletes to literally campaign in favor of operating against the guidelines of medical experts and governing bodies, either sanctioning commissions or overall authorities? After all, the fighters are human beings with families that likely include those considered at risk for potentially deadly COVID-19-related complications. There’s also the very real possibility that they themselves are at risk, as an increasing number of younger and seemingly healthier people are falling victim.
Perhaps we can look toward the millions of Americans who live at or below the poverty line while working essential jobs at grocery stores and fast food chains. The presence of a virus and the resulting shutdown of the world does nothing to pay the bills. As millions of Americans are sidelined from work and others are forced to work with potentially dangerous contact, it’s hard to separate the financial realities the circumstances bring.
Unfortunately, MMA isn’t immune to this. Quite honestly, no sport or entertainment sector is immune to it. For obvious reasons, there is not a single sport that should be deemed essential, nor is there any movie or television property that needs to be producing content at the moment. However, the big difference separating these entities is some level of protection in the form of collective bargaining. The level of monetary cushioning has for example allowed NBA players as a whole the ability to pause their season without the same level of immediate burden.
The idea of fighters organizing to push their collective agenda has been the subject of much speculation over the years. While the occasional spark of momentum came via the efforts of Project Spearhead and the star-studded press conference for the woefully ineffective MMAAA, that movement was stopped dead in its tracks, one way or another. Ironically, one of the more common ways the steps toward unionization have been undermined is the actions of the fighters themselves.
Look no further than UFC 232. With less than a week to go before the opening bell, a PED test irregularity resulted in the promotion moving from Las Vegas to Los Angeles in order to preserve Jon Jones’ main event spot. This change in plans happened at the expense of the other fighters on the card. With the year-end holidays in full swing, the other 25 fighters were forced to alter their weight cuts and final training sessions. Additionally, they were ultimately footing the bill for travel and lodging changes for loved ones and cornermen, all while bringing home less money due to California’s state income tax and more commission-mandated medical screenings. With a clear air of discontent among the fighters, nothing changed. They simply accepted the circumstances without any meaningful fuss. The desire to tow the company line and earn the immediate payday took top priority to future leverage.
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Yet again, we are faced with a scenario that should be a rallying cry for the roster. Fight cards have been altered, athletes have been left without bookings and those competing have had to make hard and unfair decisions to remain active. Cody Gibson’s straightforward tweet summed up the situation for a great deal of fighters who are hoping to get an assignment.
While assessing the situation, it’s a good idea to pay attention to which athletes across the entire spectrum are demanding to compete despite the situation facing the world. How many MLB players are taking to Twitter to insist that their season start on the original date? How many NBA players are up in arms about not traveling the country to fight for a coveted playoff spot? In the world of combat sports, how many high-level boxers are demanding that Top Rank and Matchroom resume operations right now?
Compare that to the number of UFC fighters who have raised their hands to say they are willing to fill in a booking. Better yet, let’s look at two who have not: Conor McGregor and Khabib Nurmagomedov. While McGregor didn’t shy away from an opportunity to take a shot at his rival, he has very vocally demanded that social distancing be taken seriously. Nurmagomedov initially did his part in keeping the original main event against Tony Ferguson intact. However, with his homeland locked down and the UFC unsure of its plan, the desire to be near his family became the number one priority. They are two of the highest-paid athletes in the sport and have other revenue streams. It’s very possible that without the backing of a successful liquor brand and the support of billionaire oligarchs, those two men would be throwing caution to the wind on the way to the Tachi Palace or Zuffa Island. It’s not hard to envision a debuting former plumber’s apprentice enthusiastically shouting “60 Gs baby” on the ill-advised card. On the other hand, it’s extremely difficult to picture a man sitting on millions of dollars doing the same thing.
The need for some level of solidarity for the greater good is more obvious than ever before. A world in which fighters are not subjected to Reebok apparel would be very helpful right now. Either being able to negotiate for a bigger piece of that pie or the freedom to maximize other sponsorship opportunities could have contributed to a more solid financial foundation on which to fall back. Seeing increased revenue in light of the company’s $4.2 billion sale would certainly be useful right now. If UFC fighters received the 50 percent of revenue athletes of other major sports enjoy instead of an insultingly low 16 percent, maybe there wouldn’t be the need for these men and women to risk themselves beyond the confines of combat. Maybe a CBA would’ve been able to structure a clear monetary plan for natural disasters and circumstances beyond their control, similar to Wimbledon’s reported pandemic insurance.
We simply don’t have anything of the sort to protect the fighters who already risk life and limb for our entertainment. Instead, there’s a huge amount of rhetoric that ignores the cause of their current predicament. Simply stating that the show must go on so the fighters can earn money is grossly ill-informed and gives zero attention to the set of conditions that created the situation in the first place. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy that has no end in sight.
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