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Emergence of MMAAA effectively deals blow to fear culture in UFC

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Bjorn Rebney reappeared on Wednesday in a new form, no longer the merchant sailor Edmond Dantes from the Bellator days, but now a full-fledged Count of Monte Cristo — the defender of justice against the tyrannical UFC! — descending from the remote Anaheim Hills of California! —  speaking legalese a mile-a-minute, but in a way that didn’t preclude him from saying ‘wussup’ to Mike Straka.

Weird? Hell yeah, weird. Meaningful? Probably that too. People aren’t afraid to stand up to the UFC anymore.

At some point you knew all that grumbling would grow up into something more action intensive, something like a singular chant in a loud voice, and on the last day of November in 2016 it did. It wasn’t spurned current and ex-fighters with nothing left to lose that formed the Mixed Martial Arts Athletes Association (MMAAA) — a spearhead that wants to even the playing field between fighters and UFC ownership —  it was current fighters. Legendary fighters. Former champions.

Fighters who compete in 10 days. People active, vital and mattering in the right here and now. People who could enact a labor strike if they wanted (That’s not what they want! Heaven forfend it coming to that. But they could).

It was Georges St-Pierre, who is either a free agent or not a free agent, depending on which side of the courtroom you’re on. It was former heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez, who competes at UFC 207 at the end of the month, and former bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw, who is on the same card. It was teammates Tim Kennedy and Donald Cerrone, who both fight on Dec. 10 in Toronto. It was cats who will be dealing with the UFC — that "egregious, predatory monopoly," as Rebney stated it — in the very near future.

In other words, the MMAAA is very "elephant in the room," and that’s exactly the kind of thing people have been waiting for — a hydra of trustworthy players to try and galvanize their fellow fighters to action against the unfair treatment of UFC athletes. It’s GSP and the gang. What are they after? Justice in three forms. A settlement for current and former fighters for shady, ongoing business practices; a percentage tilt in the fighter-to-ownership revenue landscape from the range of 8 to 15 percent to a solid 50 percent; and to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement with the UFC. They want security, and what’s fair. They want what other sports leagues have.

Somewhere Lorenzo Fertitta just wiped some piña colada foam of his mustache. That was some Houdini shit he pulled, getting out while the getting out was good. The writing on the wall is now completely legible.

Still, how weird that Rebney showed up as a mouthpiece in the most formidable attempt at an association yet. Rebney, who didn’t exactly endear himself to fighters as a promoter, was the one pointing out the "enormity of ugly" going on in the existing UFC. He said the WME-IMG ownership group has taken the tainted baton and ran with it. He pointed out that he was a passionate MMA fan, and appealed to the 100 or so journalists on the media call to at least see him eye-to-eye on that level. And for all the euphemisms and justifications we assign to a combat sport where people are trying to knock other people out, it was him who effectively said, hey, let’s be real, this is brutal.

Lest we grow too romantic, just remember what it is we’re watching. This is a BYOG sport. Bring Your Own Guilt. Rebney — who once ran what he called "the toughest tournament in sports" in his Bellator days — wasn’t afraid to point that out.

It became the job of Kennedy and the others to actively downplay Rebney’s reach in the association, saying that he is strictly an advisor with MMAAA, not a board member. It’s the fighters that will push this thing, and it’s the fighters that will see it through. How? Largely through word of mouth. The five pillars said they would begin having conversations with their fellow fighters about the importance of banding together forthright, and that it’s time for this change.

"The dream is that we’ll be representative of the fighters as a whole," Kennedy said. And he said a lot of other stuff. Kennedy is cut out for this.

And it is time. It’s been time for the change. Right away certain fighters such as Cole Miller, Thiago Alves and Josh Barnett chimed in through social media. The excitement meter spiked up, as it will when a repressed group suddenly feels a tinge of liberation, and it remains to be seen how this all plays out. Already there were signs that a group meant for inclusion began with exclusion. Leslie Smith, who was part of the other recent association group — the Professional Fighters Association (PFA) — said there needed to be female representation, and volunteered herself. Others pointed out the conspicuous lack of Brazilian presence, given that a hefty percentage of the UFC roster is Brazilian.

And there are other elements, little subplots in play. For starters, the whole CAA vs. WME-IMG ordeal, which was downplayed but can’t help but be present. What galvanizes people to action? There’s always more to it.

But on the surface, it’s exactly the kind of show of hands that MMA has been waiting for. Even removed three years, St-Pierre is a star in MMA, who is wealthy and doesn’t need to lift a finger. That he’s empathetic enough to act on behalf of his fellow fighters is some big picture, legacy-expanding stuff right there. It takes a GSP, a mega-watt star, to undertake such a selfless role. And it takes current players, such as GSP’s fellow board members, who have to account for the consequence of their actions, against a league that in its own right has been petty enough to hold onto grudges for a long, long time.

What is the MMAAA, and what comes of it? If nothing else, it’s the true turning of the corner from the fear culture that has pervaded the UFC for so long to the outspoken call for change. The media call clocked in at just over two hours, and there was a passionate note riding the whole way through — as if the very voices we were listening to had been stymied for so long that venting was the only healthy way to proceed — and that’s what it did. It’s a considerably unlazy thing to do, forming an association and defining the ills that need to be addressed. Maybe it’s because of the Sphinx-like silence of the new ownership group, but it feels like the right time for fighters to come together.

"I’m scared to fucking death," Cowboy Cerrone said. "But I still have a contract. I still have a fight next weekend."

Yet it didn’t stop him from joining the MMAAA. "Fear" no longer leads to paralysis in the UFC. If anything, it leads to movement.

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