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We’re in the calm before the storm now. With all due respect to Bellator 157, which felt very much like a good Division II team compared to the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s D-I, the time between the last UFC event and the next one feels longer than 19 days. Part of it is the night-before-Christmas effect of having UFC 200 to look forward to, but there’s more to it than that.
If you’ve been following the headlines these past few weeks, you’re certainly aware that money is on our mind. The reports -- or rumors, depending on who you ask -- about the UFC sale come at an interesting time and not just because of the three-week fight doldrums. The company the Fertitta brothers bought for $2 million in 2001 has been given a price tag upward of $4 billion, which is a hell of an investment return. Even before news of the sale, the almighty dollar had been the focus of the UFC.
Leading up to UFC Fight Night “MacDonald vs. Thompson” on June 18, as the stories of the UFC sale gained more legitimacy, the main story was whether or not Rory MacDonald would re-sign with the UFC after his contract finished. This, of course, was all about money. The post-event situation did little to quell the finance talk from fighters, either. While it’s not news for fighters to voice their complaints and concerns about their pay, the possibility of the UFC sale -- and all the uncertainty that accompanies it -- has intensified those discussions.
Perhaps it all started with Conor McGregor boasting about his massive paychecks last year or the media’s obsession (myself included) with pay-per-view numbers, especially surrounding UFC 200, since it has a legitimate chance to break the company’s buy rate record. Or maybe there’s an air of desperation amongst fighters to negotiate with familiar faces before the sale goes through. Better to talk to the devil you know than the devil you don’t know, if you’re so inclined to think of the UFC in such a light.
What’s interesting about this moment in time for the UFC is how vocal fighters have been about how their pay affects their training. Joanne Calderwood may be the most prominent example, as she posted the now-infamous “Broke as Hell” Instagram picture and divulged how she would have to save up her allowance back home before she would be able to return to her newfound training camp at Tristar Gym in Montreal. As explicitly connected to fighter pay as that ordeal was -- and, might I discursively add, bravo to UFC President Dana White for taking care of Calderwood in the aftermath of it all -- there is a less-talked-about phenomenon when it comes to the intersection of training and salary. That is the incentive to overtrain to one’s own detriment.
Newly crowned middleweight champ Michael Bisping over the weekend penned a column about overtraining. It didn’t shed much light on anything new, in all honesty, as it mostly recycled his pre-fight talking points from UFC 199. However, it does highlight what most of us already know or suspect: that “everyone in MMA overtrains.” Bisping attributes the tendency to overtrain to a combination of the technical and logistical demands of the sport, as well as the intrinsic fighter psychology: “The problem is there are so many disciplines and we try to cram it all in. I usually go into a fight thinking, ‘OK, this time I won’t overtrain,’ but then I do because it means a lot to me. It’s subconscious, really.”
I’d be foolish to suggest that Bisping, who is in a far better and more personal position to speak on such issues than I, is patently wrong. To be sure, that’s not at all what I’m saying. I do, however, think his explanation is incomplete.
Injuries happen in every sport, and rarely do professional athletes perform at 100 percent on game day. Mixed martial arts is no different in this way, but it is an outlier when it comes to overtraining-induced injuries and how they affect actual fights. Suffering injuries in training camps is a regular occurrence, whereas more injuries that NBA or NFL players incur happen in actual games. This is for a number of reasons.
Obviously, the nature of team sports is very different than individual sports. If an offensive lineman gets injured, there are replacement options within the team while the injured player recovers. The UFC has done an admirable job with late-replacement fights of late, but the difference is that injured fighters have no guaranteed income, whereas other major athletes do. Thus, the pressure to get back into the cage -- prematurely or otherwise -- is compounded because an injury is not just a professional obstacle but also a financial one.
It ties back into what Bisping said about how he overtrains because fighting means so much to him. Especially for entry-level fighters, their careers are so dependent on winning -- for both the win bonus and potential future earnings -- that there is a huge temptation to overtrain. It takes tremendous knowhow and discipline to navigate training camps properly, and unfortunately for this young sport, the “One More Round!” and “Just Bleed!” macho mentality is still pervasive to a fault.
Ultimately, whether or not fighters train properly is up to them. I’m by no means saying that the UFC is to blame for training camp injuries. However, the lack of guaranteed income, especially in light of the sponsorship-supplanting Reebok deal and other ill-effects from being independent contractors and not full employees, cannot be brushed aside. Even if injured fighters get temporary stipends during recovery, it would do a lot to help the UFC’s investments/contractors, as well as set a precedent that it does, in fact, care about the fighters as people.
Hailing from Kailua, Hawai’i, Eric Stinton has been contributing to Sherdog since 2014. He received his BFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University and graduate degree in Special Education from University of Hawai’i. He is an occasional columnist for Honolulu Civil Beat, and his work has also appeared in The Classical. You can find his writing at ericstinton.com. He currently lives in Seoul with his fiancé and dachshund.