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UFC 202 fighters skeptical about the possible formation of a union

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

LAS VEGAS — Jeff Borris, the man attempting to organize UFC fighters to start a union, was at UFC 202 media day Thursday at Red Rock Resort. Wearing a Professional Fighters Association polo shirt, he wanted to come in, talk to a few fighters and maybe pass out some business cards.

Soon after, Borris was asked to leave by UFC security and he did so. Later Thursday night, the PFA held its first-ever press conference at MGM Signature.

That group and multiple others are reaching out to fighters in an attempt to galvanize them. New York-based law firm Lichten & Bright have sent out mailers to hundreds of UFC athletes.

This is a hot topic in mixed martial arts, especially since the Fertitta brothers sold the UFC to WME-IMG for $4 billion last month, a sale that officially closed this week. The PFA has gotten decent media exposure. The MMA Fighters Association, a group focused on bringing boxing's Ali Act to MMA without a certified union, has also been very visible.

But how do fighters feel about this? Many are unsure about what it would entail and others are afraid to speak out, Borris said at the PFA press conference. Some are downright skeptical of the whole process.

"A lot of these guys, it looks like they're looking for something in their best interest that's not really gonna help me," said Tim Means, who fights Sabah Homasi at UFC 202. "We all think differently."

Means said he has received letters in the mail from different attorneys about a union. Cortney Casey, who faces Randa Markos on Saturday, said she has also received mailers.

"They stay on my counter," Casey said. "Haven't even opened them. ... I'm happy with my job right now. If it happens, it happens. We can't change what other fighters are doing. As long as my family is taken care of and I'm taken care of, I'm happy."

Borris spoke about minimum fight purses and medical insurance being top priority for a UFC fighters union Thursday. He also mentioned things like collectively bargaining a pension, grievance process, drug-testing policy and an apparel deal.

For the most part, those are things that would catch a fighter's ear. Donald Cerrone said it can't just be about how much money fighters are getting.

"It's like, if guys are getting fined or guys are acting up, we work as a team of fighters to decide should he get fined, how much should he get fined, so it's kind of another family to fall back on and approach a situation that we have problems with," said Cerrone, who meets Rick Story at UFC 202. "Right now we have no say."

"Cowboy" had that issue last December when he was fined by the UFC for violating its outfitting policy with Reebok. Cerrone wore a sliver of his old Muay Thai shorts, with an American flag on them, in honor of his grandmother on his Reebok fight shorts at UFC on FOX 17 when he fought Rafael dos Anjos.

Elizabeth Phillips just wishes she could fight more. She said she was offered a bout early this year and turned it down due to injury and had not gotten another one offered to her until the one with Raquel Pennington for this weekend's card.

"We don't have any control over that, because we're independent contractors," Phillips said. "Technically, they don't have to give us a certain amount of fights every time. Being able to pay my bills and survive shouldn't be an issue. I think that's my biggest issue. I'm willing to fight. I'm wiling to be a face for the company. We just need to make sure we're being taken care of."

The independent contractor vs. employee debate is a complicated one. The PFA says the burden of proof would be on the UFC to show that fighters are indeed independent contractors. Borris does not think they are since the UFC tells them things like who to fight, when to fight, where to fight and what to wear while fighting.

The logistics are not easy to understand. Fighters, in most cases, only think about training and competing. It's difficult to be an elite athlete in this profession without that kind of one-track mind. They leave that outside-the-cage stuff to others.

"I'm just so focused on fighting," said Colby Covington, who fights Max Griffin on Saturday. "If something comes about it, I'll look into it down the line. It's all just speculation. There's nothing really set in stone, so I'm just going to worry about my fighting career."

It's also worth noting that many fighters are not contentious with the UFC and many have had good experiences. Means really likes the way UFC vice president of athlete health and performance Jeff Novitzky helped him with his recent USADA drug case. Markos said she's never had anything but positive encounters with UFC brass and believes they want what is best for fighters.

"I don't have any complaints with the UFC," Means said. "They've done nothing but treat me right. If I got offered a contract and I didn't like it, I'd renegotiate it. They'd send me some different numbers. I've been cut, brought back and [matchmaker] Joe Silva always stepped up and did what he said he was gonna do."

There is also an understandable fear fighters have of criticizing and coming out against in any way against people that sign their checks. It's a very natural thing to feel.

"I think that they're scared to say something, because they don't want to get in trouble," said Phillips, who was cut in 2014 after criticizing the UFC for a disputed judges decision. "And I'm definitely one of those people. ... You definitely gotta watch what you say. Certain fighters can get away with certain things and some fighters can't. I think that's why fighters are scared to say something. I don't think there's anything wrong unless we're talking bad about the company."

The principles of a union, though, would be attractive to many fighters if it would all come together. Fighters do want full-scale medical insurance and not just fight-related insurance like they have now. They'd like something similar to a pension.

"I would love to have some kind of insurance like if something happens to me when I'm older and I have children and I'm going crazy because I got hit in the head too much, obviously I would like some kind of security for that," Markos said. "Hopefully they look for our best interests and get us something for that."

Cerrone summed it up well. There are conditions that fighters would like to address, but many — himself included — don't want to be the ones spearheading a movement.

"So do I think that a union overall would be good? Sure," Cerrone said. "Am I going to be the guy to stand up and run it? F*ck, I don't know if I want to put my neck out like that, but you never know because it's something that we need for sure. I mean, you look at acting, you look at any other sport, retirement is all there for a union. So I think it's something probably that's going to need to happen."