Despite clothing adorned with rhinestones and seemingly impulsive mohawk haircuts being associated with mixed martial arts, there are more serious concerns that currently affect the overall health of the sport. In a time when performance enhancing drugs and inconsistent officiating still plague MMA, those issues are relatively insignificant. It might actually be the case that these issues are due to the sport’s relatively short existence. But as the sport continues to grow, regulation and uniformity will follow; there is reason to believe that MMA organizations like the UFC will aim to remedy some of these issues. The biggest threat to the overall health of mixed martial arts is one that MMA organizations currently have no incentive to address: collectively, fighters are not protected against the arbitrary decisions of fight promoters and are therefore susceptible to the kind of exploitation against which other professional athletes are protected.
Now, before Vitor Belfort critics and Diaz Bros. supporters advocate for stricter drug testing and a revamped scoring system, let’s acknowledge that these are issues that are more likely to be addressed by MMA promotions. Leading up to Jon Jones’ April 26 title defense against Glover Texeira at UFC 172 in Baltimore, UFC chairman and CEO Lorenzo Fertitta stated that “[enhanced drug testing is] going to be something that continues to happen on a pretty regular basis going forward” (Jeff Wagenheim, ‘UFC’s Lorenzo Fertitta discusses new random drug testing efforts’). While it’s too early to commend or criticize the organization’s renewed stance, it’s certainly a step in the right direction, and one with overwhelming public support. Most notably, this happened after former UFC welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre publicly decried the UFC’s reluctance to pursue stricter drug testing. And while there are still questionable decisions that make the MMA community reconsider the current scoring system altogether, poor officiating is largely an internal problem that has been addressed as the sport has grown. Perhaps the ten-point must system should be reevaluated, but does the current scoring system necessarily jeopardize the overall health of the sport? Not quite. While a flawed scoring system certainly delays, and sometimes even deprives, a fighter from fighting for the title, a fighter’s union would better protect fighters’ interests.
The only times the idea of a fighter’s union has been mentioned is when fighters have expressed their dissatisfaction with reported salaries. The biggest reported payday for a single fight, according to Fertitta and UFC President Dana White, is $5 million (Damon Martin, ‘Dana White Reveals Biggest Single Payday for a Fighter in UFC History’). But what if the payday, whether disclosed or not, is not the problem itself? Though White proposes that the reason the UFC does not disclose fighter salaries is the fighters’ well being, keeping salaries private also decreases a fighter’s bargaining power. In previous cases where the UFC has been criticized for what it pays its fighters, fighters have ultimately been silenced. In the case of Randy Couture, the UFC claimed it had been publicly misrepresented and threatened to take him to court for punitive damages instead (LA Times, ‘UFC details Couture’s salary’). After Tim Kennedy alleged that he could make more money as a garbage man, he publicly retracted his statement and was coincidentally also scheduled to headline a UFC Fight for the Troops event. These instances only further prove that the UFC understands that it must suppress anything that might translate to public criticism.
While the UFC has done a remarkable job of growing the sport and establishing mainstream credibility, it is necessary for mixed martial arts fighters to have the ability to collectively bargain. The current MMA landscape resembles an antiquated version of other professional sports. In the NFL, it used to be the case that league executives who, much like MMA promoters, exercised exclusive rights over their athletes used to blacklist participants who did not acquiesce to their demands. It wasn’t until Bill Radovich decided to take the league to court that players eventually obtained the right to seek representation and negotiate in good faith (William Rhoden, ‘Sports of the Times; NFLs Labor Pioneer Remains Unknown’). In boxing, it wasn’t until Congress passed the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act in 2000 that fighters were protected, at least in theory. However, due to lax oversight, the provisions of the act have been eviscerated (Thomas Hauser, ‘No one is enforcing the federal boxing laws’). If an independent governing body were to exist, in the form of a fighter’s union, fighters would be able to better negotiate their contracts and not have to worry about promoters gutting legislation or negotiating lucrative contracts that might jeopardize their ability to enjoy their winnings the same way other professional athletes do (Ben Fowlkes, How Team Takedown is changing the approach to building MMA champions).
Hoping for independent oversight that protects fighters’ interests is optimistic, but there exists precedent that allows for such hope. After UFC lightweight Gilbert Melendez reportedly negotiated a deal with Bellator MMA, the UFC decided to match the terms of the contract in order to keep him on its roster. This example, though isolated, proves that fighters who are willing to publicly disclose their income are more likely to benefit from contract negotiations. Also, as the sport seeks public acceptance, competing organizations vie for public recognition. So while MMA continues to grow as a sport largely dependent on individual performance, the overall health of the sport is a shared responsibility.
Fowlkes, Ben. “How Team Takedown is changing the approach to building MMA champions.” MMAjunkie. MMA Junkie, 5 Apr. 2014. Web. 16 May 2014. <http://mmajunkie.com/2014/04/how-team-takedown-is-changing-the-approach-to-training-and-managing-mma-champions>.
Hauser, Thomas. “Hauser: Federal boxing laws go unenforced.” ESPN.com. ESPN.com, 25 Sept. 2007. Web. 19 May 2014. <http://sports.espn.go.com/sports/boxing/news/story?id=3032059>.
Martin, Damon. “Dana White Reveals Biggest Single Payday for a Fighter in UFC History.” Bleacher Report. Bleacher Report, 12 Sept. 2013. Web. 19 May 2014. <http://bleacherreport.com/articles/1772159-dana-white-reveals-biggest-single-payday-for-a-fighter-in-ufc-history>.
Pugmire, Lance. “UFC details Couture’s salary.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 31 Oct. 2007. Web. 20 May 2014. <http://articles.latimes.com/2007/oct/31/sports/sp-ufc31>.
Razak, Bobby. “History of MMA: Big John McCarthy.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 11 Feb. 2012. Web. 20 May 2014.
Rhoden, William. “Sports of The Times; N.F.L.’s Labor Pioneer Remains Unknown.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 2 Oct. 1994. Web. 18 May 2014. <http://www.nytimes.com/1994/10/02/sports/sports-of-the-times-nfl-s-labor-pioneer-remains-unknown.html?src=pm>.
Wagenheim, Jeff. “UFC’s Lorenzo Fertitta discusses new random drug testing efforts | SI.com.” SI.com. Sports Illustrated, 8 Apr. 2014. Web. 18 May 2014. <http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/mma/news/20140408/ufc-randon-drug-testing-jon-jones-lorenzo-fertitta/>.