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Sports agent Jeff Borris explains why he’s attempting to start a UFC fighters union

MMA Fighting

Jeff Borris is the counsel for the Ballengee Group, the agency that represents Nate Diaz. The longtime baseball agent took a look at Diaz's contract for the fight with Conor McGregor at UFC 196 in March and could not believe what he saw.

"They're baffling when you read them," Borris said of UFC contracts on Monday's episode of The MMA Hour with Ariel Helwani. "It's just preposterous the things that are in there that I don't believe are legal, valid or enforceable. I even believe the UFC knows that."

Soon after, Borris said he and Diaz's agent Lloyd Pierson met with UFC president Dana White and other UFC execs. Borris said he asked White why fighters have yet to unionize and White "kind of scoffed at the idea."

"I walked out of the meeting and I turned to Lloyd and I told him, ‘I'm gonna unionize these guys,'" Borris said.

A few months later and that's exactly what Borris is attempting to do. The former agent for the likes of baseball stars Barry Bonds, Rickey Henderson and Jose Canseco is putting forth an effort to get fighters to unionize through a new organization called the Professional Fighters Association (PFA). Borris, who describes himself as a longtime fight fan, feels like fighters are currently competing on an unfair playing field.

Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta sold the UFC to Hollywood talent agency WME-IMG last month for $4 billion. Multiple groups have come forward attempting to unionize fighters, including the PFA. The MMA Fighters Association (MMAFA), which is currently focused on bringing boxing's Ali Act to MMA, has been in existence for the last eight years.

Borris, whose life as an agent inspired the HBO show "Arliss," said his group has the backing of all the other major sports players unions, including the MLPBA and NFLPA. There are quotes from the heads of those organizations on the PFA website.

"This just can't happen," Borris said of current fighter conditions. "With the sale also. It indicates that the UFC is really the premier league. When you look at Major League Baseball, the NFL, NBA, National Hockey League, it's right up there with them now. And these fighters need representation. Their rights right now are being trampled upon and it's probably worse than ever. The UFC is profiting, which is OK. They're running a successful business, they're entitled to it. But the fighters, they're the show. They're the ones that drive that business and they're entitled to be compensated for their efforts."

On the PFA website, there are pie charts showing the percentage revenue athletes in other major sports are getting, compared to what UFC fighters are believed to be getting. In other sports, the share is more than 40 percent for the most part. For fighters, the number is estimated to be at 15 percent, though it's impossible to know for sure, because the UFC is a private company.

Borris said a union would also wish to collectively bargain for things like medical insurance, a pension, pay minimums, a drug policy, licensing deals and uniform contracts. Borris pointed to the UFC's apparel partnership with Reebok as a major issue, because fighters are only able to wear that brand and not any of their individual sponsors.

"That's something that I look at as an agent and I laugh at," Borris said. "That would never fly in baseball or any of the other major sports. And yet it flies in the UFC? That must change."

One of the biggest issues facing a union is the fact that UFC fighters are currently considered independent contractors. A court would need to consider them employees before a union certified under the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) would be a possibility. Borris thinks that would be a slam dunk.

"They already are employees and I'll tell you why," Borris said. "The UFC is the boss. They tell them where to fight, when to fight, what to wear then they fight. They're employees and they're full-time employees. You know what it takes to train for a fight?"

Borris said he has spoken to many fighters already and every single one of them is at least interested. He even put his personal phone number on the PFA website so he can speak with fighters directly. The typical response when speaking to fighters, Borris said, was that they don't want to upset the UFC and face retaliation if they support a union.

"My batting average is 1.000," Borris said. "Every single one of them that I talked to wants this. There is one common theme, though, and that common theme is a lot of them are fearful of the UFC, that they're going to retaliate against them. What's funny is inside the Octagon, they're courageous, they show no fear. But outside the Octagon, in the business arena, they're scared. I'm trying to tell them, ‘Listen, there are rules in this country preventing employers from preventing employees from organization. Don't worry, they're not going to retaliate.'

"I don't know what the UFC has done to bully or instill this fear in fighters, but they've done a good job."

Borris said he is not looking to denigrate the UFC, but he hopes that from a business standpoint they understand and appreciate what he's trying to do.

"I don't begrudge the UFC," he said. "I'm a fan of the UFC's business model. I think they've done tremendous. I think their $4 billion sale is well deserved and they are to be applauded for what they've done. And they should be concerned with their bottom line. These fighters do also. They're the ones that drive their business. I would like for them to respect that in a professional atmosphere and just compensate the fighters appropriately."

The UFC did not respond to a request for comment on Borris' remarks.

It's going to take time, Borris said. He will be in Las Vegas this week before UFC 202 in order to speak with fighters and hold a press conference. If it comes together, fighters will need to sign authorization cards and 30 percent need to come back interested for an election of a union to be held with the recognition of the NLRB. Then, a majority vote would be needed to install the PFA to collectively bargain for UFC fighters.

Lucas Middlebrook, counsel for Nick Diaz and the attorney for many unions like the MLS referees and NBA referees, will be handling that aspect, Borris said. Of course, fighters would have to be designated as employees rather than independent contractors before that could happen.

There are many moving parts, but Borris believes this needs to happen and soon. The motto on the front page of PFA's website is "The time is now for a change."

Borris doesn't just want a majority vote. He's hoping to get a much greater percentage of the more than 500 fighters under UFC contract.

"I want to get them all," Borris said. "Because that's going to send a message to the UFC and it's going to say, look they stand together. they're the ones that drive your business. They aren't divided. There aren't multiple factions within that group of 600. They stay unified and then it's a fair fight.

"If they're divided, the UFC wins. The fighters' rights are gonna continue to be trampled upon for many, many years to come."