Opinion: Swings and Roundabouts

By Jacob Debets Jun 12, 2020
Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

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Something is happening in the ranks of the Ultimate Fighting Championship.

Bantamweight champion Henry Cejudo has called it a career after defending his 135-pound strap for the first time, stating that UFC President Dana White “knows the number” that would make him reconsider the decision. Incumbent light heavyweight champion Jon Jones is goading the UFC to release him from his contract after preliminary negotiations regarding a move up to heavyweight to face Francis Ngannou were reportedly aborted when “Bones” asked for a bump in pay. Welterweight darling and celebratory BMF titleholder Jorge Masvidal is in a similarly recalcitrant mood, publicly comparing the promotion to communist Cuba and lashing out at the restrictions imposed on his mobility and bargaining power. Former two-division champion Conor McGregor, who made his explosive return to competition in January following a prolonged hiatus, has “retired” for the third time in four years, citing difficulties with UFC matchmaking. Nate Diaz is still tweeting Nate Diaz things, criticizing the promotion’s habit of offering title fights to the lowest bidder in reference to the recently announced UFC 251 main event between Kamaru Usman and Gilbert Burns. Even Sean O’Malley, the fast-rising bantamweight prospect who earned a quick knockout over former title contender Eddie Wineland on June 6, is griping about his pay stub to assembled reporters at the UFC 250 post-fight press conference:

“I think the whole week was kind of about the ‘Sugar Show.’ I was supposed to renegotiate after I knocked out Jose [Alberto Quinonez], and they wouldn’t; it didn’t happen. It sucks that I even have to bring that stuff up and it has to be about money. It shouldn’t have to be. It should be pretty fair. I think it should be something we can all agree on, and I just want to get paid what I feel I’m worth.”

White has been quick to deflect criticism stemming from the budding fighter rebellion. During the same presser, he attempted to attribute Jones and Masvidal’s positions to the uncertainty and confusion stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic and associated civil unrest, this before invoking some time-honored UFC-isms to justify the grossly inequitable share of revenue fighters receive.

“They signed a deal” he said, deftly sidestepping the laundry list of variables being cited in support of the idea that such said deal was less than an expression of free and informed consent. “Nobody has to do anything they don’t want to do.” He glossed over the fact that the standard UFC contract contains an exclusivity clause and tolling provisions that prevent fighters from offering their services elsewhere without first fighting out their contract. “Does anybody feel like they make too much money?” he offered later during an appearance on ESPN’s “First Take” when pressed on the issue of fighter pay, deploying the same old tired diversion to avoid discussing the specific circumstances of his dissenting athletes or the overall split of the income generated by their fights.

This isn’t the first time active fighters have come out in numbers against the UFC’s pay structure and business model. Way back in 2016, in the aftermath of the UFC’s multi-billion-dollar sale to entertainment conglomerate William Morris Endeavour, a string of high-profile contenders and former champions in Georges St Pierre, Cain Velasquez, T.J. Dillashaw, Donald Cerrone and Tim Kennedy banded together under the auspices of the Mixed Martial Arts Athletes Association to demand better from MMA’s torchbearer. Their objectives—including to revise the revenue sharing model so that fighter’s received 50 percent of revenues and to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement that would entitle fighters to benefits like pensions and comprehensive health insurance—had fighters and media briefly believing that the athletes might finally have found a group whose collective voices would not be drowned out by the UFC’s megaphone.

However, the MMAAA derailed quickly, right around the time that Dillashaw and “GSP” booked title fights, and it never made even the slightest inroads on its lofty goals. Subsequent efforts to unionize fighters, led by then-UFC bantamweight Leslie Smith, Kajan Johnson and Al Iaquinta were also squashed before they really got out of the starting gate, whereas individual skirmishes involving the likes of Demetrious Johnson, Robert Whittaker and Colby Covington have periodically punctuated the MMA news cycle.

This begs the question: Could this time be different? Could the efforts of Jones, Masvidal, McGregor and Cejudo—whether acting in concert or as individuals—attract the kind of support from fighters their predecessors could not, starting a process through which the status quo could genuinely shift in favor of the athletes?

Hope for this to be the game-changer after so many false starts certainly seemed a surer proposition on when the post-fight media cycle was dominated by all the aforementioned acrimony and nothing but lackluster fight night cards were penciled in the calendar. However, come mid-week, White had (somewhat anticlimactically) unveiled the long-anticipated location for “Fight Island” and (much more excitingly) announced the pay-per-view tripleheader that will anchor its maiden voyage, followed by the Stipe Miocic-Daniel Cormier trilogy in August and the Khabib Nurmagomedov-Justin Gaethje unification bout in September. The image of the picketing fighters was swiftly joined by the picture of company men and women dutifully putting on their hard hats and getting back to work, shifting the news cycle back to fight coverage rather than labor issues.

The real questions now center on whether Jones and Masvidal are willing to hold out longer than the UFC, whether or not they remain willing to cite antitrust filings and other hard data to support their demands in the public sphere and whether or not their absence will eventually have an impact on the promotion’s bottom line or its partnership with ESPN. It has been pointed out that the UFC receives guaranteed revenue for putting on events regardless of the men and women on top of the marquee, theoretically insulating the promotion from the effects of individual fighter strikes. Still, it’s hard to imagine ESPN accepting pay-per-views anchored by the likes of Jan Blachowicz and Petr Yan for any significant period of time, meaning change could realistically be just a matter of Jones and Masvidal keeping their poker faces for the remainder of 2020.

Ultimately, history tells us that the UFC will always be willing to take minor hits to its brand for the sake of preserving its bargaining power over fighters, and any concession it makes will consist of a meager—and highly confidential—bump in pay for individual fighters that puts them back into line. That’s probably the trajectory we’re on here, with actual, industry-disrupting changes still hinging on the results of the aforementioned antitrust lawsuit and/or the expansion of the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act to MMA.

Who knows? With antipathy towards the UFC’s business model seemingly at an all-time high and with ambassadors like Jones and Masvidal conspicuously making the case for something better, the beginnings of a broader labor consciousness may finally be on the horizon.

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.

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