Opinion | Cage Fighters Need Unions, Too

Last week in Cooperstown, N.Y., Marvin Miller, the first head of the Major League Baseball Players Association, was posthumously inducted into baseball’s Hall of Fame. No one figure, aside from Jackie Robinson, more profoundly changed American sports. When Miller, who had worked with the United Steelworkers union, began his work in baseball in 1966, the average player made $19,000 a year and was bound to the team that had first signed him — a result of a rule called the reserve clause, which placed all the power in the hands of owners to determine where a player played and how much money he made. Miller, along with Curt Flood, a center fielder for the St. Louis Cardinals who sacrificed his career for the cause, undid the reserve clause over the course of the early 1970s and ushered in the modern era of sports.

Miller’s induction came one week after Tyron Woodley, one of the highest-paid mixed martial artists of all time, stepped into the ring with mega influencer-turned-pro-boxer Jake Paul. In the run-up to the fight, a time when both sides typically exchange some tepid, oftentimes scripted back-and-forth to help sell the fight and convince the audience these guys just don’t like each other, Paul instead continued a line of argument that he’d started before his fight with Ben Askren, an accomplished wrestler who went on to a relatively undistinguished mixed martial arts career. The target of Paul’s barbs wasn’t Askren or Woodley, but rather Dana White, president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship.

“In my 3rd fight I made more in total pay than any fighter in UFC history,” Paul wrote in a social media post. “Maybe it’s time to pay your fighters their fair share? No wonder they all want to get into boxing.”

Woodley, a former U.F.C. champion, landed the biggest payday of his career by agreeing to box Paul. If he fights Paul again in a proposed rematch, that will, again, also almost certainly be the biggest payday of his career. That U.F.C. fighters have to participate in these (admittedly entertaining) farces should tell you all you need to know about the labor situation in mixed martial arts. What’s perhaps more telling is that a YouTuber, of all people, has to be the one to bring attention to it. “Never before has this much attention been paid to the situation, and Jake Paul deserves a great deal of recognition for that,” wrote Andreas Hale of Sporting News. “He may be the villain inside the ring, but outside it he’s the most unlikely hero combat sports has ever seen.”

Hale is right. Jake Paul deserves credit. But the U.F.C. needs more than awareness spread by a YouTuber. It needs a Marvin Miller.

According to White, in 2019, the U.F.C. made about $900 million in revenue; 2020, he says, has been even better. Much of this goes to U.F.C. management and investors. In 2020, for example, The New York Post reported that $300 million had been paid out to celebrities who had invested in the promotion company in the form of one-time dividends. Fighters that year made less than $150 million, according to the same report.

According to most estimates, U.F.C. fighters get around 15 percent to 22 percent of U.F.C. revenue, much of which they have to use to pay for their own expenses, which include managers, trainers and even travel. N.B.A. players, by comparison, receive about half of the league’s “basketball-related income,” which encompasses most of the money the league generates. N.F.L. players receive roughly the same percentage. Boxing pay varies wildly, but a well-known boxer will usually make far more than a well-known mixed martial artist and will probably make more on his way up the ranks as well. And while U.F.C. pay has gone way up since the days when John McCain famously called mixed martial arts “human cockfighting,” that increase has tracked with an explosion of money into the sport from television contracts and sponsorship deals. The fighters, who take on the risk to their health and are the actual product that people pay to watch, still get about the same small percentage they always have.

There are currently two antitrust lawsuits filed on behalf of fighters making their way through the court system. The first was filed in 2014 and recently was OK’d by a judge to proceed as a class action claim; a second lawsuit was filed this past June. The suits are more or less the same: They allege that the U.F.C. has been operating as a monopoly, restricting pay and forcing fighters into long-term contracts that keep salaries low, even if performance improves. They also argue that fighters should receive about 50 percent of revenue, in line with other sports. If judges find in the plaintiffs’ favor, the U.F.C. could be forced to pay out almost $5 billion to former fighters.

There’s no immediate timetable on the resolution of these lawsuits, nor any guarantee how a judge may rule. Unionization is another solution that’s been proposed by several fighters, including Leslie Smith, who says she was booted from her U.F.C. contract for trying to organize her colleagues, but it faces a slew of challenges. MMA is a truly international sport; champions come from Brazil, New Zealand, Nigeria, Russia. They mostly train isolated from one another and have vastly divergent attitudes about organized labor. There’s also a bit of a winners-win dynamic — the top earners in the sport can make upward of a few million dollars per fight, especially when you factor in sponsorships. New fighters may not like how much they’re paid at the start of their U.F.C. careers, but a vast majority of them got into the sport hoping to become Conor McGregors.

When asked if unionization was possible, Jordan Breen, a longtime fight writer and a font of information about the sport, told me, “the U.F.C. is too politically and financially powerful. When that’s combined with the inherently self-interested nature of MMA fighters on the whole — something the U.F.C. has long sought to reinforce — it creates a devastating one-two punch to help smash any attempted unionization efforts.” Breen went on to point out that the U.F.C. has donated money to political campaigns for years and spent a great deal of money lobbying against the 2017 Muhammad Ali Expansion Act, which was written and promoted by Representative Markwayne Mullin, Republican of Oklahoma and a former MMA fighter. There was some talk that the bill, which would call for stricter regulations on mixed martial arts and more guidelines and transparency when it comes to fighter pay, would resurface this year, but there’s been no action on it to date.

It is likely to take all three pathways — continued organizing, lawsuits and legislation — to change labor conditions at the U.F.C., but all three face a tough road ahead. (UF.C. fighters might actually need more than a Marvin Miller.) There are many reasons for that, but one stands out as unique to the sport: In many corners, mixed martial arts is still seen as déclassé brutality that deserves to slither around underneath the concerns of civilized people. This, in turn, discourages legislators and advocates from really getting behind the fighters. That characterization is wrong. The U.F.C. has thousands of problems, but its athletes, who have trained their entire lives to master several forms of martial arts and oftentimes come from impoverished backgrounds, deserve the same respect and protection afforded to their colleagues in other professional sports. On any given U.F.C. card, you’ll see women and men from all over the world compete against one another with emotion, respect and full dedication to the sport and its fans. (If you want to watch the best of U.F.C., check out last year’s fight between Zhang Weili and Joanna Jedrzejczyk.)

In August, a women’s strawweight fighter named Cheyanne Buys was featured as a co-main event of a U.F.C. card televised on ESPN. This was a huge break for Buys. To prepare for the fight, she took out a loan to rent a house and brought her husband and her pets with her. “I knew coming in here tonight that my whole paycheck was just going to go back to that loan,” Buys told the website MMA Fighting. Buys knocked out her opponent in the first round following a head kick and earned a one-time bonus of $50,000 for the “performance of the night.”

“I’ve been so broke my whole life because of this sport, but it’s so worth it to me because I love this sport,” Buys said. She and the rest of the U.F.C. athletes who love the sport and put their health on the line every weekend deserve better.

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Jay Caspian Kang (@jaycaspiankang) writes for Opinion and The New York Times Magazine. He is the author of the forthcoming “The Loneliest Americans.”

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