MMA has punched its way into the mainstream, but fighters lack major league union

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Photo: Wikipedia Commons.

For years, mixed martial arts (MMA) fighters were forced to battle their opposition in and outside the cage.

Fighters were once the topic of programs investigating modern day "barbarity," but today, competitors from The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) can be seen applying their trade on network giants like FOX. Gone are the days when these highly skilled athletes were ignorantly referred to as "bar room brawlers." Instead, UFC champions like Jon Jones are sponsored by Nike.

While MMA has punched its way into mainstream acceptance, the vast majority of fighters do not possess the financial security and vocational influence that many other athletes have. So, is it time for the fighters behind the "world's fastest rising sport" to join other major league athletes and unionize?

"I think unionizing would serve the 99 per cent of fighters who don't have a voice at the bargaining table, who are subject to the whims of fight organizers or promoters, and all the politics that are involved with it," said David Beneteau, who was one of Canada's first pro MMA fighters, before he served as a president for an Ontario Public Service Employees Union local. "They have no voice. No matter what anybody says. Unless you're the champion or one of the top fighters, you're not calling the shots."

The argument that MMA fighters do not have the bargaining power that many other athletes enjoy, stems from the sport's landscape and oligopolistic like status quo. Unlike other professional leagues, where numerous teams can bid for an athlete, only a handful of MMA promotions can provide the income and exposure that's needed for an affluent standard of living. 

In fact, due to the enormity of the UFC and its acquisition of competing MMA promotions like Pride Fighting Championships and Strikeforce, the contentious 'monopoly' term has been associated with the company. The U.S. Federal Trade of Commission was called in to investigate the allegation; however, it concluded that no action was required earlier this year.

"It's a really a cut throat business," noted veteran MMA journalist Josh Gross, who currently works for ESPN. "It's the kind of business the UFC's created where you can be nowhere and fight for a championship six months later. You have to play by the rules, play by the game and not cause too many waves. Fighters see that and they understand how it works, and they're willing to operate within the system primarily."

In MMA, the trajectory of a successful fighter's career is heavily influenced by the promotion's upper management. For example, in the case of the UFC, its President Dana White plays a key role in determining which fighters will participate in high profile and lucrative fights. Unlike boxing, the promotion does not use any formal ranking system, and a fighter can be fired after just one defeat. Of course, many UFC boosters credit this hierarchical environment for producing the memorable fights the promotion is famous for. 

"How they stay in the driver seat of a fighter's career is all about match-ups and timing, and how favorable those are," said veteran MMA reporter Steven Marrocco. "If they make an investment in a fighter, they'll bring them along at a good pace ... there have been fighters that have not necessarily been unpopular, and they've gotten match-ups that were unfavorable, but you can't really prove that they got them from speaking out."

Leading fighters, like the retired Randy Couture and Jon Fitch, have had public quarrels with the UFC over issues like image rights, payment and contractual obligations, but very few competitors over the years have spoken out. Case in point: several UFC veterans were contacted for this story; however, none were willing or interested in talking. 

"I understand the reluctance of active fighters to speak out," veteran fighter, professional wrestler and commentator Paul Lazenby noted. "The guys that make the big money don't care about a union because they're getting well taken care of. Anyone who's not getting taken care of can't afford to fight against the system."

There's no denying the fact that thanks in large part to the UFC, fighters are earning more today than ever before. The sport's leading fighters, like Canadian star Georges St. Pierre, are reportedly millionaires. The debate continues, however, as to whether the sport's mid level and lower tier fighters could be earning much more. 

"People don’t seem to understand that the average fighter has a really tough time of it," Lazenby said. "I always talk about the parallels between mixed martial arts and pro wrestling, of which there are many, and this is one of those cases. Just like in wrestling, you've got five per cent of the guys making nearly all the money, and everybody else is struggling."

"I and other people want to know what is the revenue split," added Gross, while discussing the fact that no one outside the UFC knows how much of the company's revenues are going back to the fighters. "Whatever it is, it's not allowing the guys at the lower, lower levels than do much more than get by. And maybe it shouldn't. It's an individual sport; it's definitely results based."

While most fighters are members of tightly-knit teams that help prepare them for competition, at the end of the day an individual's own performance is what matters. This nature of the sport has left it open to the anti-union narrative that collective action has no role to play in economic activity that's completed by the individual. 

"There would be negotiations and rules in place that would dictate the terms and path of certain fighters," said Beneteau. "And if that wasn't the case there would be a dispute mechanism, some sort of negotiated resolution ... Just because fighters are individual athletes it doesn't mean unionization is obsolete, it just means you have to be a little more creative in delivering their protection."

Whether fighters and their representatives decide to pursue this form of protection remains to be seen.

 

Kelsey Mowatt is a veteran MMA journalist who has also written extensively on issues tied to socioeconomics and human rights. The Vancouver resident holds a Master of Arts-Integrated Studies degree in Global Change from Athabasca University.

Photo: Wikipedia Commons

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