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It is probably not the best use of one’s time and energy to spend too much time thinking about the latter stages in a process everyone agrees is a long way from starting. However, in a week sandwiched between two ho-hum fight nights and with labor issues seemingly still at the forefront of the MMA news cycle, I thought I’d indulge myself.
Earlier this month, The Athletic published the illuminating results of its inaugural fighter survey, which polled 170 fighters across a range of promotions, age groups, experience levels and countries about a diverse range of issues, including fighter pay, Ultimate Fighting Championship President Dana White and CTE. Unsurprisingly, one of the more attention-grabbing topics was on unionization, with an overwhelming 79.4 percent of surveyed fighters being in favor of organizing with their peers in a way comparable to the professional unions and associations in other sports. This was accompanied by a list of “active” fighters nominated as the best candidates for leading said organization, with Conor McGregor (24.6 percent), Daniel Cormier (17.4 percent) and Georges St. Pierre (11.4 percent) collectively accounting for over half of all votes cast.
The elevation of McGregor, “DC” and GSP—three of the highest-profile names in the sport, who have each held UFC titles across multiple weight classes—to the role of fictional union leader is reflective of the fact that the rank-and-file is largely powerless and expandable in its dealings with the UFC. Structural change, in the form of better health care, a higher revenue share, fighter-friendly apparel and sponsorship arrangements and a revised anti-doping policy, can only be realistically brought about by fighters at the apex of the organization. Name recognition and drawing power are prerequisites to acquiring the attention of the promotion, the fighters and the broader MMA ecosystem.
Regrettably, however, the three men identified in the fighter survey have historically demonstrated little sustained attention towards or sympathy for organizing. McGregor was asked about supporting a fighter’s union in August 2016, shortly before the short-lived Professional Fighters Association went public, but he brushed it off as something he might be interested in “maybe in the future” if it was “presented correctly.” Likewise, GSP briefly cosplayed as an activist in his short-lived role as co-founder and ambassador for the Mixed Martial Arts Athletes Association—before booking a title fight a few months later and promptly forgetting about the rebellion.
Cormier’s comments on the recent contract disputes between the UFC and some of its big draws also do little to inspire confidence that he would be interested in change in favor of the athletes, much less an enthusiastic driver of such a movement. When asked in May about Jon Jones’ request for more money in exchange for moving up to heavyweight to fight Francis Ngannou, Cormier conspicuously sided with the promotion, appearing to suggest that the hypothetical superfight wouldn’t be a needle-mover on pay-per-view and scoffing at the suggestion Jones’ alleged starting price was $20 million. He again echoed the company line this month when asked about Jorge Masvidal’s pay gripes, saying that “Gamebred” was better off making his appeals for greater compensation behind closed doors, repeating his critique on ESPN.
“The reality is this: I want Jorge Masvidal to get his money,” Cormier said. “All I’m saying is that there’s better ways to go about it. That’s all I’ve said for weeks. Go talk about it directly. Deal with it. That’s how I would do it. Hey, look, don’t listen to me. I’m only the guy that’s gotten every single opportunity that I’ve really tried to get or asked for. I’ve gotten paid fairly. I’m just that guy.”
Cormier’s pro-company stance and his unwillingness to engage with the cold, hard data showing fighter’s revenue share at a measly 16 percent is disappointing, although it should not be all that surprising for those who have paid attention to the career of the “Daddest Man on the Planet.” Not unlike Tim Green—a linebacker for the Atlanta Falcons who infamously played in every NFL “scab” game during the 1987 players strike—“DC” is prone to coming to the defens of and offering gratuitous praise for the company that has enriched him.
Getting ready for Xmas holidays reminds me of 2012 and 15 days before Xmas the @ufc sends me a 10k holiday bonus check. No reason for it but I remember thinking wow this was my fight purse before. We really do work for a beautiful company. Thank you guys. DC— Daniel Cormier (@dc_mma) December 9, 2019
This behavior, from a widely admired and trusted voice, works to shore up the UFC’s legitimacy in the eyes of the fighters and broader community and obfuscate its objectively problematic labor practices. Indeed, it is telling that “DC” is so beloved; he has been talked up by both sides of the labor/capital divide as a potential association leader and as a possible successor to White at the helm of the UFC. Of course, that Cormier has been able to gain the respect of his peers and his promoter speaks to his natural charisma and genial personality. However, such fence sitting, much less company-line parroting, does not a union leader make.
Jacob Debets is a lawyer and writer from Melbourne, Australia. He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics of the MMA industry. You can view more of his writing at jacobdebets.com.