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Former American League MVP and future MMA hero Jose Canseco began making accusations about performance-enhancing drug use in baseball in the mid-2000s. Through his book “Juiced” and a series of media interviews, Canseco became the most outspoken figure blowing the whistle on rampant steroid use in baseball. To that point, sportswriters and fans had largely looked the other way at the expanded physiques and statistics of the game’s biggest stars. Canseco fingered one after another for cheating.
The reaction to Canseco’s revelations was abject rage. Canseco became perhaps the most reviled figure in sports, pilloried and ridiculed as a bitter, dishonest hypocrite. Many actually jumped to the defense of players who didn’t deserve that protection in the slightest. Canseco was nothing short of a pariah. The problem wasn’t just what he said; Canseco himself was an awful messenger. He had a sordid criminal history, he was a cheater himself and he was viewed as a rat looking for whatever attention he could get from throwing his former friends under the bus.
As it turned out, Canseco was not only right on pretty much everything he said in regards to performance-enhancing drugs in baseball, but he will be remembered historically as a crucial figure in the movement towards expanded drug testing in all sports. Baseball had a big problem and Canseco was arguably the most important person in bringing that problem to light. Still, Canseco’s past and public image meant that it took a while for his revelations to be accepted; he still hasn’t gotten the credit he deserves in some circles.
It can be difficult to bring serious issues to light when people don’t take you seriously. Just ask Al Iaquinta. Over the past few years, “Raging Al” has made his nickname a way of life. No fighter has taken a booed decision more to heart than Iaquinta did in Fairfax, Virginia, in 2015. He directed a mighty stream of obscenities at the crowd for thinking Jorge Masvidal deserved the decision in their contest. Unhappy with his contract, Iaquinta then left the sport for two years to pursue a burgeoning real estate career. Upon his return, Iaquinta picked up where he left off, directing his hallmark rage in all sorts of different directions.
Iaquinta’s Twitter feed is rapidly spiraling into self-conscious parody, as he attacks one fighter after another while overtly emulating the mannerisms of President Trump. You might think it is part of a savvy strategy to build up interest in future fights, but he has also said he plans to take another break from fighting; and he’s simultaneously trashing UFC President Dana White in one post after another. The self-proclaimed new president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship has also gone after Reebok while praising figures on the outs with the UFC, like Jacob “Stitch” Duran and Burt Watson. It’s hard to figure what exactly Iaquinta’s goals are but he certainly seems to be quite upset.
In the midst of all this madness, Iaquinta is actually voicing some legitimate criticisms that few other fighters will mention publicly. Some of it is just standard contract disagreement. Iaquinta feels he should be paid more. Fighters still make much less than their peers in other sports, but that is likely to change over time, just like UFC fighters have seen their pay steadily increase over the last 15 years. Still, fighters like Iaquinta making issue of it publicly increase the pressure on the UFC to pay fighters more on balance. Other points he has made are more directed at the UFC’s distinct structure. In particular, Iaquinta has raged against the UFC’s bonuses.
On the subject of bonuses, Iaquinta is spot on. For years, the UFC has deftly utilized bonuses for its purposes. Bonuses encourage exciting fights, which helps to build the sport. Bonuses also help to keep fighters in line. When large amounts of money are given out by the company on a discretionary basis, it encourages fighters to play nice with the company because over time the fighters who do that tend to make more money than the fighters who are “difficult.”
Iaquinta felt he deserved a bonus for his performance against Diego Sanchez at UFC Fight Night 108 on April 22 and didn’t get it because of politics. It’s debatable, as both Brandon Moreno and Mike Perry were worthy of bonuses, as well, but the perception that it might be the case plays to the UFC’s benefit. Other fighters wonder if speaking out for fighter interests rather than management interests will mean less money for them, and it has a chilling effect on speech the UFC doesn’t particularly like.
The bonus issue is actually something that could be resolved fairly easily. The UFC could put a set amount of money into a pot for bonuses and then appoint an independent panel to decide on where the bonuses go to avoid any conflict of interest. That would leave in place the beneficial incentives to have exciting performances while removing any perception that the bonuses might be used as both carrot and stick. However, it’s unlikely the UFC would adopt such a system without significant public pressure from fighters, fighters like Iaquinta.
Iaquinta isn’t bringing to light an issue that needs highlighting in the same way that Canseco did. However, worthwhile causes are perpetually going to be championed by flawed messengers. Iaquinta may be perceived as something of a clown right now, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t merit to some of the issues he is out on a limb talking about.