Unionization is MMA’s Latest Battleground—But Can Fighters Organize Themselves?

While mixed-martial arts—and especially the UFC, its most popular and lucrative promotion—is more popular than ever, it still must face growing pains long settled in other professional sports. One of the touchiest subjects is unionization, a reality that hockey, boxing, or anything that ends with “ball” in the United States incorporated long ago but which MMA is just encountering. The topic has gained traction over the past year, as fighters have tried to create a unified voice to debate with organizations and promotions over paychecks, job security, retirement, and fix other issues faced by athletes who get punched in the face and choked out for a living.

While the world’s top boxers make millions per fight and many other top athletes bringing in seven or eight figures per season whether they ride the bench or regularly appear on ESPN, MMA fighters feel like they’re not sharing in the riches that their sport’s gatekeepers—the promoters, owners, and industry executives—rake in regularly. Many fighters still work day jobs just to survive, and even high-profile fighters can find themselves in financial trouble for non-Mayhem Miller reasons. Consider Irvine-based former UFC Strawweight champion Carla Esparza, who had to sell the 2015 Harley-Davidson she won as the result of The Ultimate Fighter on Instagram in order to pay her bills after recovering from an injury that put her on the sidelines for months.

MMA bigwigs argue that stars like Ronda Rousey or Conor McGregor create a trickle-down effect for everyone else. But even the biggest stars barely cross the $1 million mark for a fight. And with the UFC’s exclusive deal with Reebok excluding fighters from clothing sponsorships, and the promotion recently sold to William Morris Endeavor-International Management Group for $4 billion, progressive ideas are starting to seep into the famously libertarian sport.

Pay and the treatment of fighters are two reasons why many UFC veterans are switching to Viacom-owned Bellator MMA. CEO Scott Coker–a longtime MMA promoter who created and ran the UFC’s former biggest competition, Strikeforce, before selling it to them in 2011 – took over Bellator in 2014 and is known for catering to fighters better than the UFC’s hard-nosed business stance. But regardless of promotion, many fighters, coaches, and others want to see a union to give fighters not only a bigger piece of the financial pie.

“I wish one day that the big organizations could sit together with their fighters and find a way that’s good for fighters and good for the show,” says Master Rafael Cordeiro, head of Kings MMA in Huntington Beach and West Hollywood, and one of the most respected coaches in the sport. “If it’s just good for the show, you’re going to make the fighters not motivated to fight.”

MMA has come a long way since Cordeiro was the lightweight champion of Brazil’s International Vale Tudo Championship back in the late ‘90s. He recalls making around $300 for a 30-minute bare-knuckle world championship fight, in an era before network TV and pay-per-view providers figured out they could make billions of dollars off a sport that Senator John McCain infamously referred to as “human cockfighting.”

Cordeiro gets a look inside of the personal lives and finances of fighters not visible to everyone else. And he believes that even some of the biggest names in MMA could be in trouble if they don’t figure out how to make money outside of the Octagon, or have a financial cushion that a union can provide.

“Some guys just fought their whole lives and fought very well, but don’t know how to teach,” Cordeiro says. “How can these guys retire? Some guys make a lot of money and some guys don’t, but some of the guys who make a lot of money have to pay a lot of taxes. At the end of the day, they don’t make enough to live. It looks like a lot of money, but it pays your rent, your food, your coaches, and that’s it.”

In the last couple of months, groups like the Mixed Martial Arts Athletes Association (MMAAA), Mixed Martial Arts Fighters Association (MMAFA, which held an event in Cerritos this February to draw attention to their cause), and Professional Fighters Association (PFA) have launched efforts to unionize MMA fighters. Each group is still in the process of creating enough name recognition and support from fighters to create a singular union with the power to negotiate with promotions. But they’re encountering a significant problem: many current MMA fighters are fearful of losing their job for speaking out against their current employer. And with different groups attempting to be the one to organize a union (and reap the profits), the labor struggle is stuck in the MMA equivalent of a political primary race. For veteran fighters like OC native and UFC flyweight contender Ian “Uncle Creepy” McCall, the chaos caused by the rivalry between the different unionizing groups, particularly with the MMAAA and MMAFA openly criticizing each other, is no more attractive than the contracts currently offered by the UFC and other major promotions.

“I don’t have ties until someone proves themselves,” McCall says. “I’m a businessman, and I understand things on a different level. Let’s wait and see who can really prove themselves.”

And then there’s a bigger problem: a lack of fighter class consciousness. No matter how any of unionization attempts play out, plenty of fighters are willing to play the role of scabs and step into a cage. Cordeiro points out that most fighters continue their career out pride and pursuing championship dreams instead of a secure retirement.

“People just talk about money today,” he says. “It’s always ‘I want to fight against this guy because then I can make more money.’ For sure, it’s about money, but it’s about something more too. People work their whole lives for their dream of being champion. Put the dream first, and it makes everything easy. If you put the money first, it will mess with your relationships and your business.”

UFC Hall of Famer BJ Penn put it even better. “Why don’t you make yourself the money man?” he said. “Go knock everybody the fuck out, and then everybody will want to fight you for money.”

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