The attempts to secure basic rights for mixed-martial arts fighters continue in the US.
Much has been made recently in the sports media Stateside of the disparity in pay between the top-level MMA fighters in promotions such as the UFC and those fighters on the undercards, that is, the majority of fighters. Recently an ESPN documentary highlighted the concerns, and fears, of many UFC fighters that promotion bosses were creaming off millions at their expense.
However, unlike others sports in the US, where strikes have precedent (see links here), fighters were overwhelmingly afraid to criticise the bosses. Many of the fighters that were critical did so on the condition that they would remain anonymous.
"It would be the end of my career," said another current fighter, a former champion, when asked for an on-the-record interview about the UFC's fighter pay scale. "
While paydays for top draws like Anderson Silva and Georges St. Pierre can run into the millions (St. Pierre recently told Agence France-Presse he earns between $4 million and $5 million per fight), entry-level fighters who compete under the banner of the UFC do so for as little as $6,000 if they fail to win their first match.
"We're basically fighting for crumbs," said one current UFC fighter, a veteran of more than a dozen years in the sport who also asked that his name be withheld for fear of reprisals from UFC management.... "The top 5 percent [of fighters] are definitely making good money, but you've got to look at the guys at the bottom of the card," the fighter said. "They can't fight anywhere else. If they make $10,000 a fight and fight every six months, they can't make ends meet." "
To a critical MMA fan this fear of the UFC bosses isn't all that surprising. Watch any UFC event and in the post fight interviews you'll hear deference to bosses unlike anywhere else.
"I just wanna thank Dana White and the Fertittas for giving me this opportunity, I hope you guys like me and will have me back"
That sentence could be from ANY of the almost weekly events that the monopolistic UFC franchise is running. It's extremely uncomfortable to watch grown men pandering to their bosses like that, thanking them for coming to work and basically begging for more work.
It's apparently not enough getting punched in the face for a living. Imagine having to THANK your boss for going to work. It's disgusting. The fighters are the people putting in hard time at the gym, getting up at stupid-O-clock to do roadwork, risking serious injury with every fight and often being away from family and friends during fight camps.
One interview from ESPN's Outside The Lines attempts to describe experience of anyone attempting to make a living in MMA:
"I try to fight three times a year. I'm in the middle tier of fighters. I make between $20,000 to $28,000 to show and $20,000 to $28,000 to win. That's terrible pay when you think about how many millions these guys [UFC ownership] are making [...] Their business practices are hardcore and cut-throat. We're paid like entertainers when we should be paid like athletes. They want us hungry. They want us to be poor … so they have more control over us.
"We have to pay a boxing coach, a wrestling coach and pay for all of our supplements. We have training insurance, but we're not covered with complete medical coverage. Training expenses in an average year can run $22,000, and that's with no travel. For a typical fight, you and your corner man share a room. You fly in on Tuesday and leave Sunday and get a $50 per day per diem. If you bring anybody extra, they take it out of your show money.
"They make the fans out to think that they give out all these bonuses. They're [the bonuses] $5,000 to $10,000 on average. Most of the locker room bonuses I've seen are $5,000. If you're winning all your fights, it's good [Fighter X says he made $80,000 in his best year]. But we have no retirement. We're not employees. We're all independent contractors. Just like in boxing, 10 to 15 years from now, just like you see a lot of old, broke boxers, you're going to see a lot of old broke MMA fighters.""
The Culinary Workers Union/Unite Here local 226 in Nevada has been involved in a battle with to organise hotel workers at Station Casinos, the majority owners of which are the Fertitta brothers, the UFC's co-owners.
The union has "unsuccessfully been trying to unionize Station’s many valley casinos for years, with the fight intensifying in recent years, to include high-stakes federal litigation." The fight has led to allegations that bosses have been disciplining and firing union organisers in the casinos and hotels under the Station name.
Known as the 'Ali Act', this US law "provides for various legal protections to boxers" as well as restricting "the types of contract that a boxer may be required to sign in order to box at an event. The boxer cannot, for example, be required to give away future promotional rights as a requirement of competing in a fight that is a mandatory bout under the rules of a sanctioning organization." It also demanded greater transparency regarding fees and fighter purses.
The Culinary Workers Union's proposed bill (full text), seeks to protect MMA "athletes from abusive business practices and coercive contracts." The union lists the following exploitative practices:
· Long-term , exclusivity contracts that bind athletes to a single promoter, in some cases indefinitely. These contracts make it more difficult for athletes to negotiate higher pay and diminish the incentive of smaller promoters to bid for talented fighters
· Limited control over image and likeness rights. Professional mixed-martial arts fighters must frequently forfeit future revenue streams from DVD sales, video games, clothing and other merchandise, even after retirement.
· Lack of financial transparency. Under the federal Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act (Ali Act), business promoters are required to make extensive financial disclosures to state athletic commissions. No such requirements govern MMA. As a result, fighters often have to negotiate in the dark and are unsure if they are being compensated fairly.
UFC president Dana White reacted by describing the union as a 'old school gangsters'.
I'd mentioned industrial action in sports before, noting that "team sports seem to a have a longer history of organising and striking – footballers do it, and US team sports have done it more than most apparently, so what of an individual sport? Other individualised sports have had threats of strikes in the last few years – Andy Murray threatened a tennis strike (over too many matches) in September, Formula One drivers did something similar in 2008 regarding licence fees"
Having had a search after that discussion, I came across a few attempts to organise boxers in the last 20 years:
"it seems Barry McGuigan tried a few times in 90s and early 2000s with the Professional Boxers Association (90s) and then British Boxers Association (2002) which were actual unions, affiliated to GMB. It seems they are defunct now, and McGuigan's latest attempt was in 2007 as the Professional Boxing Association, which is more of a professional association or support network rather than functioning union."
Further, libcom has also seen discussions of attempts to organise in the atomised world of 'pro-wrestling', that's 'wrestling entertainment' or 'fake wrestling' to the rest of us.
The discussions surrounding an MMA union do not seem to go beyond basic reform union demands. But given the completely disorganised, atomised nature of fight sports, this makes for an interesting time in MMA and fight sports generally.
I do look forward to asking Jeff Monson, on his UK seminar tour in March, what he thinks the likelyhood of any sort of organising taking place within the combat sports. He epitomises the career fighter, journeyman at the minute - fighting for any and every promotion, big and small, all over the world. He carries injuries, and is 41, but still fights more than any UFC fighter does, to make ends meet. As a fighter, does someone like him ever think he could enjoy any basic security as a fighter? What about future fighters?
It'll be interesting to see where any of this goes or whether radical elements emerge within it.