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I know it may be hard to believe, but the biggest story in the MMA world had little -- though not nothing -- to do with UFC Fight Night 125 on Saturday in Belem, Brazil. It sounds strange, since apparently the event was important enough to justify a 15-hour run time, or at least that’s how it felt. However, as good as it felt to see Lyoto Machida snap a three-fight losing streak in front of a supportive crowd of countrymen, a more pressing development was going on behind the scenes.
It was announced that heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic will fight light heavyweight titleholder Daniel Cormier in the UFC 226 headliner in July. That alone is big news. This is the first champion-versus-champion match in Ultimate Fighting Championship history to take place above welterweight, and it’s a genuinely compelling clash on its own. Cormier was undefeated at heavyweight for four years and 13 fights, and he didn’t just beat scrubs. Former UFC champions and title contenders like Frank Mir, Josh Barnett, Antonio Silva and Jeff Monson decorate his heavyweight ledger, and eight of his 13 wins resulted in stoppages. Cormier was a legitimate heavyweight talent despite being small enough to compete at light heavyweight. Now that Miocic is short on viable contenders, this is one of the best matchups on the UFC roster for the heavyweight champion.
Yet it isn’t just the matchup itself that is noteworthy. How the fight materialized is just as significant and potentially much more so depending on how the future shakes out. According to a Flocombat report, both champions talked to each other before signing off on the fight to figure out a more lucrative contract. Once they reached a mutually beneficial agreement, the Is were dotted and the Ts crossed. Everyone won. There’s a word I’m looking for to describe this phenomenon. What would you call it when fighters work together to form a unified front on the negotiating table? It’s almost like -- stay with me on this -- a union?
Attempts to unionize and/or form athlete associations in MMA have mostly been short-lived flops. Many problems have been cited as reasons why a players union like those in the NFL and NBA can’t be replicated in MMA. It’s an individual sport; its violent nature eschews cooperation between athletes; and the sport itself, with fighters and organizations located all over the planet, is simply too fractured. I tend to think these obstacles, while valid, aren’t deal breakers. The problem has thus far been the attempt to organize from the top down. What Cormier and Miocic have done, however, is start from the most basic foundational component and worked upwards to the UFC offices. This is the model to follow.
In the past, the UFC has been able to outmaneuver the martial artists on its roster because of the fractious nature of professional fighters. If a fighter tried to play hardball with his contract, the powers that be would call the bluff and find someone else to replace him. This is easy to do when fighters act as lone wolves. Only the most super of superstars had individual leverage that could compete with the UFC as an organization. This left fighters out in the cold -- see Luke Rockhold’s failed attempts to strongarm the UFC into implementing an interim title -- or sent them packing to Bellator MMA. Terms could be negotiated for Conor McGregor, Ronda Rousey or Brock Lesnar, but the UFC has been happy to let legitimate needle-movers like Nate Diaz sit on the shelf if the promotion thought it served its interests. Now, thanks to the two heaviest champions, a new precedent has been set: Fighters can increase their leverage when they work together.
Unions are frequently used as political fodder, and unfortunately, there is some truth to the anti-union rhetoric. This clip from “The Simpsons” aptly sums up the dynamic. Put aside whatever opinions you have about unions in general for a moment, however, and it’s clear that MMA needs to reallot its negotiating power more equitably. This is where UFC Fight Night 125 comes in.
John Dodson only made a portion of his show money after his opponent failed to make weight. Originally, Dodson wasn’t going to get paid at all, but enough pressure was put on UFC President Dana White and Co. to force their hand. How is that fair? Dodson still had to pay for a full training camp, and he fulfilled his end of the bargain by coming in on weight. Though it’s his right to decline a fight when an opponent shows up in another weight class, the UFC uses its bargaining power to pressure fighters into situations they shouldn’t accept by its ability to withhold money; and it’s not like there’s any consistency, either. Tony Ferguson got less than half of his show money when Khabib Nurmagomedov pulled out last-minute, and Vitor Belfort didn’t get anything when Uriah Hall pulled out. How can fighters expect to make a living when the actions of their opponents can completely eliminate their paychecks? Don’t be fooled; the difference between paying and not paying fighters their show money does not equate to an event being in the red or in the black for the UFC. All its events are profitable; it’s just a matter of the UFC paying itself instead of paying its fighters.
Even the most staunchly anti-union types can concede that this is an unjust power dynamic. Among other things, a union can normalize protocol for late-notice fight cancellations and do so in a way that doesn’t penalize the fighters who did everything right. For a billion-dollar company that pays celebrity amateurs the same as it pays its pays its champions -- and let’s leave White’s $20 million salary out of it for today -- a union is long overdue. Cormier and Miocic got the ball rolling and showed the rest of the fighters how to do it. Don’t wait for an overarching organization to handle everything for you. Just talk to each other and then build up from there.
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.