Rewriting MMA’s Script, Part 2: Agents of Doom

By Jacob Debets May 2, 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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I started this series—which aims to put MMA’s seemingly intractable problems under the microscope—with a discussion of how the fighters on the UFC roster routinely legitimize and defend the promotion’s actions even when they are averse to athletes’ interests. I argued that fighters’ extraordinary deference to authority reinforces the power asymmetry that is so central to the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s exploitative labor practices, while stifling any form of labor consciousness and making solidarity in relation to even most modest reforms seemingly impossible.

Now, we’re going to talk about the men—and, to a much lesser extent, women—who represent the fighters in their dealings with the UFC and other stakeholders, and their contribution to MMA’s inequitable status quo.

SOME HISTORY


Managers or agents have been a feature of the UFC and the modern MMA industry since its inception in the early 1990s. Back then, a fighter’s manager was much more likely to be a coach or a family member than it was a professional, as Frank Shamrock memorably told me in 2017 during an interview for a different project: “It’s always been home-brewed. Your brother’s your manager, your friend’s your manager. There’s always been an intimacy in that relationship. There [was] very little education in that world—what the values are, what the understandings are. [The fighters] don’t know anything. They’re just trusting guys that know something.”

At the turn of the century, when the UFC changed hands to Dana White and the Fertittas and the zenith of Pride Fighting Championships was just around the corner, there were signs that MMA was beginning to attract a more sophisticated breed of middlemen. Case in point was Shamrock, who by this time had replaced his brother as his manager with attorney Henry Holmes, who at one time or another counted famed boxers Oscar De La Hoya, George Foreman and Lennox Lewis as clientele. Holmes would facilitate Shamrock’s release from the UFC—Shamrock famously vacated the light-heavyweight title to escape the onerous restrictions contained in his contract—and assist him with a number of business ventures outside the cage.

However, figures like Holmes would prove to be the exception rather than the rule. While other established sports agents from other disciplines did fly in on occasion, the players in MMA were largely home-grown, graduating to management after careers as trainers or fighters or moving laterally from unrelated sectors. These figures, far from zealously representing their clients’ interests, cultivated an ethos and dynamic that saw managers in MMA play a decidedly less protective and partisan role than might otherwise have been expected, particularly by comparison to boxing.

As articulated in “The Black Lights”—Thomas Hauser’s 1986 classic account of the Sweet Science—the role of a manager in boxing is to “handle business details, negotiate fight contracts and get his or her fighter the most money possibly in the safest environment available in the shortest period of time.” The “cardinal rule,” according to famed manager Jim Jacobs, is to “never put your fighter in a match you don’t think he can win,” and “if you put him in a match that figures to be a war, you’d better be sure it will significantly advance his career or pay him a lot of money.” This mindset, combined with federal regulations we’ll discuss in depth later in this series, has seen boxers extract astronomical sums from promoters and TV networks for high-profile bouts, making men like Floyd Mayweather and Anthony Joshua among the highest-paid athletes in the world.

This philosophy of zealous advocacy was not widely adopted in MMA, partly due to the origins of the sport. By contrast to its pugilistic cousin, the early appeal of MMA was that it eschewed backstage politics and was highly accommodating to fan preferences. The “No Holds Barred” era was characterized by tournaments that pitted fighters of vastly different skill levels and sizes against one other, with wins and losses playing a lesser role in athletes’ marketability and status within the sport. While weight classes, titles and “independent” rankings would eventually come to be the norm in MMA promotions, the expectation that fighters would compete against whomever was put in front of them without so much as a cost-benefit analysis did not. This ancestry and the “league structure,” which sees fighters sign long-term exclusive contracts with a single promotion, have vastly reduced the role that MMA managers might otherwise be playing if the industry was configured differently.

Whereas pay-per-view buys and individual sponsorships may come into play for a tiny cadre of the high-profile athletes, the majority of fighters’ revenue comes directly from the UFC and is locked down for a number of fights at a time—with fighters’ advancement to higher tiers of remuneration being conditional on Octagon success and discretionary bonuses. The same lack of economic freedom applies in respect to matchmaking, with a significant portion of bouts, particularly those for unestablished fighters, being made by the UFC or Bellator MMA matchmaker simply calling a manager to confirm that his fighter is healthy, on-weight, has or will have their medicals in order by the prescribed time and can make it to the venue in time for pre-fight media. The opponent is all too often an afterthought, not only because fighters have a genuine, other-worldly self-belief in their own abilities, but because their management knows that the offer isn’t being posed as a question.

This isn’t to diminish the logistical hurdles managers must navigate on behalf of fighters; they’ll tell you that improperly completed visa paperwork and medicals can nix a bout just as quickly as a fighter blowing weight or failing a drug test. However, it underscores how little impact managers seemingly have on the tenure of fighters’ negotiations with the UFC and, as a result, the shape of the industry.

Let’s talk about some of the factors that contribute to this dynamic and make structural change initiated by managers seemingly unlikely.

1. Minimal Barriers to Entry

A much-lamented aspect of contemporary MMA management is the near total lack of barriers to entry to the “profession,” with mangers at most having to pay a few hundred dollars to a state athletic commission and fill out a form to become licensed.

As former manager Robert Roveta once lamented in an article published on Sherdog.com, in effect, “to be an agent or manager in the mixed martial arts industry, all you currently have to do is tell people that you are an agent or manager in the mixed martial arts industry.” That reality has seen no shortage of grifters and rank amateurs assume control of fighters’ financial affairs. A recent example of this problem is provided by Josh Fabia, the controversial self-anointed “guru” who was recently appointed manager and head coach of longtime UFC welterweight Diego Sanchez despite possessing ostensibly none of the skills or qualifications required to negotiate with a multi-billion-dollar company.

This state of affairs stands in conspicuous contrast to league sports, where strict licensing requirements apply to player agents, largely courtesy of players’ unions. To provide just two examples: To become an agent for NFL players, a person must, among other things, hold an undergraduate and a post-graduate degree (master’s or law) from an accredited college or university, pass a written examination and pay a $2,500 fee; the requirements for MLB are similarly onerous.

2. Rife Conflicts of Interest

Equally as problematic as the lax standards which apply to MMA managers is the high number of conflicts of interests involving some of the industry’s highest-profile players, most strikingly in respect of managers who also act as promoters.

Examples of this abound and are written into the sport’s DNA. Indeed, White was appointed president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship in 2001 while he was still technically manager to Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz. Similarly, Monte Cox—the first true “mega-agent” in the sport who emerged in the late 1990s—made millions as a promoter for Extreme Challenge, Adrenaline MMA and M-1 Global and as manager to an enormous roster of athletes, many of whom became UFC champions. As Jonathan Snowden records in the MMA Encyclopedia’s entry for Cox: “As a promoter, [Cox] always had plenty of fighters to fill out his shows. Conversely, as a manager, he could always find his guys plenty of fights. Some would call this a conflict of interest—including the federal government, had the Cox been promoting been boxing instead of MMA—but his fighters never seem to complain about the arrangement.”

A more recent and much more glaring case-in-point is provided by Ali Abdelaziz, the president of Dominance MMA Management and manager to a huge stable of UFC stars, including welterweight champion Kamaru Usman, lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov and bantamweight champion Henry Cejudo. Abdelaziz, who is easily one of the most influential and vocal figures in the industry, has been involved in a laundry list of controversies over the past several years, which revolve around his proclivity for playing both sides of the promoter-promoted divide. At the top of the list are allegations that he simultaneously worked as a senior executive for the World Series of Fighting—now the Professional Fighters League—while also managing a number of its fighters, leading to his departure from the promotion in 2015 following a lawsuit brought against the company by some of its investors. Since then, Abdelaziz has testified on the UFC’s behalf in favor of keeping fighter remuneration confidential, heaped gratuitous praise on White in the face of criticism for low fighter pay and resumed an outsized influence over the PFL’s roster and matchmaking, which has ostensibly allowed him to reap enormous financial benefits, according to reporting by the Body Lock MMA.

Abdelaziz may have mastered the art of the conflict, but he’s hardly alone, with plenty of counterparts and imitators playing a similar high-stakes game. To give just two other examples: Ed Soares is both the manager to high-profile UFC fighters like Anderson Silva and Brian Ortega and the CEO of the Legacy Fighting Alliance, while Suman Mokhtarian is the promoter of Urban Fight Night MMA and manages a number of UFC fighters through his management company, One Out Fight Management. None of this is to accuse those individuals of deliberate wrongdoing. However, it does raise the question of whether they can reasonably be expected to zealously push for better fighter pay and conditions in their capacity as managers when a different dynamic might impact their bottom line as promoters.

There’s a reason that the Ali Act prohibits exactly this kind of behavior. It imposes a firewall which prohibits managers from “having a financial interest in the promotion of a boxer” and “being employed or receiving compensation or other benefits from a promoter.”

Jacob Debets is a law graduate 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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