The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) is the fastest growing sport in decades. The merriment of high octane, fast paced and bloody competition has become the trinity of this enduring sport. With increasing exposure in new emerging markets from China to Russia, the proliferation of mixed martial arts (MMA) can be felt across the globe. Though as it continues to expand and evolve there is increasing need for the fighters to secure fair workers rights, comprehensive health insurance and even pension cover – all of which have become the embodiment of modern day competitive sports.
The UFC is a full body contact sport that blends many martial arts together in the pursuit of uncovering the next ultimate fighting champion. The early conception of the sport remained on the fringes of what many in the public deemed acceptable viewing as it struggled to cast the weight of its wire cage. Yet, through years of refinement and the careful implementation of rules and regulations, the UFC eventually managed to slip through a hole in the cage, finding its way into cities and onto screens.
The acquisition of the organisation in 2001 by the Fertitta brothers, under the banner of Zuffa, was integral to its (the UFC’s) change in trajectory. Zuffa were able to scrub clean the blood stained, testosterone-laden caricature of cage fighting and work towards a more palatable image easier marketed to a growing audience. The unparalleled growth of the UFC has secured its place as the dominant market leader of MMA. The legacy of the UFC however requires affirmative and united action from the fighters if they are to secure a future in the sport. Otherwise the fighters will continue to suffer some of the largest pay disparities across professional competitive sports, lopsided contracts and inadequate health insurances.
The UFC has been able to hold monopoly in MMA up until now and as a result exemplifies many of the issues you would expect in an overtly capitalistic organisation. The company’s rigid promotion that fighters should maintain individual contracts only furthers the power to exploit. This quirk in the legislation allows them (the UFC) to undermine the fighters position as an employee, despite the fact they govern when and where they fight, for just how much, and now even what they wear. Through inflating the belief that as individuals, the fighters have more autonomy, we see this tired American dream narrative recycled and once again manipulated. Fuelling the fires of narcissistic drive and ambition, its effect only truly serves to suffocate and restrict the fighters as a whole.
The organisation, which was purchased in 2001 by the Fertitta brothers for $2million, was sold this year for an eye watering $4billion to WME-IMG. While those at the top rungs of the organisation revel in unprecedented profits the fighters are subject to a trickle-down economy. The UFC would like to instil that hard work, exciting fights and importantly wins is all you need to achieve the ‘big money’ – the reality of which is that the fighters are competing over an increasingly small platform.
An initiative was introduced recently to provide a minimum of $10,000 per fight with an additional $10,000 for the win. In the face of this there are still huge pay disparities that echo throughout the promotion. When you take into account the cost of maintaining a team, medical expenses and the training camp amongst the other expenditures fighters incur, it is unsurprising that many walk away with a deficit.
The UFC 202 card, with headliners Conor McGregor and Nate Diaz, saw record highs for some of the sports biggest draws. Combined the two men walked away with $5 million in disclosed salaries (excluding fighter bonuses, and PPV draws). With a total purse of $6.1million, the remaining 11 fights on the card were left with just 18% to battle it out for. Some of the fighters on the same card as McGregor vs. Diaz would have walked away with a mere $10,000 that night.
The incongruous salaries within the UFC underline the problem at the core of the sport. As long as the UFC can bolster the belief that in some way individual contracts best protect the interests of the fighters, they can continue to supress the development of a fighters union which could arguably bring around fairer and more equal salaries. The requirement for fairer pay, health insurances and pensions are imperative to protect the fighters from situations like that of Mark Coleman’s reoccurring. Coleman, a UFC hall of famer, was forced to crowdfund his medical expenses after retiring from the sport where his employers and insurance no longer covered him.
There is increasing conviction amongst fighters and fans that something needs to change. Within a growing body many are starting to ask whether adequate cover, comprehensive health insurance and more equal pay could be achieved through the formation of a fighters union. The previous owners have always firmly opposed the development of a union, something that seems to have stemmed from a long running rivalry the brothers faced from the Nevada Culinary union.
While most major sports in the USA, including NFL and NBA all have unions, the UFC has been far from reticent in the face of growing support for a fighters union. The organisation were responsible for a number of subversive emails slating the formation of unions as both ‘pathetic and shameful’, even alluding to the fact that it would be detrimental to the workers negotiating powers. Yet, as the UFC continue to provide just 15% of the event revenue to the fighters, other organisations like the National Baseball Association see profit share much closer to the 50/50 mark.
Dana White, the UFC’s manager likes to promote backroom bonuses for entertaining fights, stepping over those who have been KO’d as he does so. The mention of incongruous salaries has become the elephant in the room after the UFC’s $4billion price tag earlier this year. The rise of a few superstar fighters who have transcended obscurity to feature on the surface of the sporting world media, like Coner McGregor, prompts the question of just how much leverage they have over the organisation. Yet as McGregor duly noted, after being cut from this historic UFC 200 event after negating media obligations, the UFC will seemingly self-sacrifice in order to maintain the upper hand. This coercive behaviour has insured fighters’ interests revolve around their own careers and worth, viewing union agreements with scepticism.
A man who has positioned himself to help the perilous state of the fighters earlier this year noted the draconian like legislation and lopsided contracts enforced by the UFC. Jeff Borris spoke out this summer against the UFC’s monopoly over the sport citing the asymmetrical dominance they (the UFC) exert over their workers. The fighters are being held in a guillotine, and many believe that Borris could be the one to find a gap that affords another gulp of air and the means to grapple for top position.
Borris, who has been involved within the National Baseball League union for years looks to form PFA – Professional Fighters Association. Due to legalities it would remain an ‘association’ until the fighters were officially recognised as employees, only then could it be an official union. The formation of PFA would help empower the fighters and create momentum that could restore autonomy and decision-making powers back towards the hands and interests of the fighters. Borris insists that this is in the interest of all the UFC fighters on the roster, from the new starts to the veterans to the titleholders.
As Borris attempts to legitimise the PFA this coming year the necessity for a fighter’s unity could be paramount to the future development of the sport. The requirement for the majority of the UFC roster to band together is imperative. The fighters now are responsible for creating the conditions that will support the fighters in years to come. The shear speed and trajectory of the UFC’s growth has allowed unfettered capitalism to dictate its course. For many it is time the pendulum began its swing back towards the fighters, with fairer pay from event revenues to comprehensive health care and pensions. The progression of this new and dynamic sport after all depends on the fighters who make the competition what it is today.
By Liam McGuckin