The launch of the Mixed Martial Arts Athletes Association (MMAAA) has been the biggest story of the past week in the sport. The one thing being talked about more than anything else, though — rather than the issue of fighters’ rights — is the presence of Bjorn Rebney as an MMAAA advisor.
Rebney, who once sued former champion Eddie Alvarez when he ran Bellator MMA, was a key spokesperson for the MMAAA on its announcement conference call last week, blasting the UFC and new owners WME-IMG. Some fighters and managers have come out on social media saying they will not be involved in the organization due to him having a role.
“If Bjorn Rebney is in, I'm out,” prominent MMA manager Malki Kawa wrote on Twitter. “He was the most anti-fighter promoter I ever met.”
On Monday’s edition of The MMA Hour, Rebney, who said he will be working with the MMAAA in an advisory capacity, said he did anticipate something of a backlash from those in the sport’s circle.
“I expected it,” Rebney said. “I was the second largest mixed martial promoter in the world for a number of years. I didn’t expect people would look at me and go, ‘Oh my god, what a natural transition that is.’”
Rebney defended himself briefly on the conference call last Wednesday, saying in his best year as Bellator’s president and owner, he paid fighters 53 percent of total revenue. The MMAAA has estimated that UFC fighters only get 8 percent of revenue.
“I didn’t expect people to go, ‘Oh that’s awesome, what a great dude,’” Rebney said “I expected people to go ‘Ahh, why is he doing this? That guy was part of the problem. Why is he now part of the solution?’ Yeah, I expected that. The good news is the negative vibe has been focused on me, which is exactly where it should be. But the better news is that the reaction has been big.”
Rebney and UFC fighters Georges St-Pierre, Tim Kennedy, Cain Velasquez, Donald Cerrone and T.J. Dillashaw all made the announcement of the start of the MMAAA on the call last week. The association will also be working with attorney Jim Quinn, who was counsel in lawsuits that led to NBA players and NFL players eventually gaining free agency. Those five fighters are some of the most prominent MMA names to come out and say they need representation.
The goals for the MMAAA are three-fold. First, the association (which will not be a union at first) wants a settlement from the UFC for current and past fighters. Second, the MMAAA wants closer to a 50-percent share of UFC revenue. And lastly, the association wants to negotiate a collective-bargaining agreement with the UFC.
Some of the things mentioned on the call regarding what the fighters are seeking were a pension, retirement plan and full-scale healthcare for current and retired athletes.
“There’s nothing in place and this is the most violent sport on the face of the Earth,” Rebney said. “The repercussions for a mixed martial artist far surpass those from hockey or football or, for god sakes, even boxing. Even boxing. And boxing has got a real ugly progressive step for its athletes. And you’ve got nothing in place? No.”
Along with the criticisms of Rebney, there were also questions about what his motivations were. Rebney said they aren’t financial — he doesn’t need the money after Viacom purchased Bellator from him in 2011. Rebney said primarily he wants to make a difference for fighters, after being around combat sports athletes from an early age.
Rebney said his grandfather Milton often had boxers stay with them while they were fighting in Los Angeles when Rebney was 6 years old and he kept in touch with them afterward.
“I see what happens to combat sports athletes when they’re 35 and 40 and 45,” he said. “And it’s frightening. Not for everybody, but for a lot of these guys that evolution is a very, very scary evolution.”
On top of that, Rebney said this opportunity gives him the chance to push back against the UFC and WME-IMG, both of which he has seemed as bullies.
“I hate racists and I hate bullies more than anything on Earth,” Rebney said. “They’re bottom feeders. And WME-IMG and UFC today — that conglomerate — they’re bullies. And it may not be with their hands, but it’s with their money and it’s with their power and it’s with their influence.”
Rebney added that the UFC’s $4 billion-sale to WME-IMG in July — at the time, the largest sports franchise acquisition ever — was not only because of the work of former CEO and owner Lorenzo Fertitta or president Dana White.
“That didn’t come from Dana or Lorenzo,” Rebney said. “That came on the backs of fighters, who packed the arenas, drove the pay-per-view buyrates, drove the international and domestic television, the sponsorships, the closed circuit, etc., etc. They deserve to get paid what’s fair. And to be able to fight that fight, to be able to be in the middle of that and also to be able to Superman punch bullies in the back of the head, that’s a very attractive proposition for me just given my personality.”