As the corporate sponsors spoke, Kajan Johnson felt his blood pressure rise.
It wasn’t the fact that representatives from the UFC’s corporate affiliates, Reebok and Anheuser Busch, were speaking at the UFC Athlete Retreat in Las Vegas last weekend, in and of itself, so much as the tone they used.
“They’ve got a couple guests that are speaking, one’s from Reebok, one’s from Anheuser Busch, that makes like Budweiser and that,” the TriStar lightweight from British Columbia said on Monday’s edition of The MMA Hour. “And, you know, they’re kind of talking at us, not really to us, it’s not like a two-way conversation, they’re just trying to like, saying, yeah, okay, this is what we want from guys that we sponsor.”
Johnson held his tongue while the Reebok rep stated his case.
“The Reebok guy was just like telling us about how good the deal was for him, how good the deal was for UFC, and I’m sitting there like yeah, well, it wasn’t very good for me,” Johnson said. “I’m sure a lot of the fighters were thinking the same thing. And then this Anheuser Busch dude, man. I don’t know what’s wrong with this guy, but he was [allegedly] drunk at like 10:30 in the morning, he comes on stage with a beer.”
And things went from bad to worse.
“This guy’s saying that he only wants winners and don’t be surprised that if we sponsor you and then you lose that we drop you, ‘cause we don’t want the guy whose on the ground, we want the guy with his hand raised,” Johnson said. “Like dude, everybody loses, man, if you’re a company that’s like that, I don’t want to f*ck with you. I’m not about that. That doesn’t rub me the right way and it didn’t rub anybody the right way.”
Johnson finally had enough. And in a rant which went viral, he stood up and let the sponsors have a piece of his mind, and in the process asserted his role as an activist for fighters’ rights.
“I’m sitting there getting more and more pissed off,” Johnson said. “And then eventually I had enough and I stood up and I was just like, I just have a question for the Reebok guy, I want to know, because I understand the deal was good for you, did great things for your company, I understand the deal was great for the UFC because it shows they could get corporate sponsorship, which led to the, was one of the things that led to them selling for such a high price tag, but, the fighters, you guys took 80 percent of my sponsorship dollars, and that’s the lower end, not the higher end, a lot of guys the higher up on the card got a lot more money taken from them. So you took food off our plates, so I want to know how you can justify that, I want to know how you sleep at night?”
Johnson was escorted out of the conference room, and by the time he cooled down, he considered that perhaps he was venting at the wrong targets.
“Maybe it wasn’t the right forum,” Johnson said. “Maybe I wasn’t talking to the right people. Reebok is there to look after Reebok, right? So I realize that I probably shouldn’t have been yelling at Reebok because they just made a deal that was good for their company. They’re not there to look after the fighters. The UFC, on the other hand, they have all our exclusive contracts, right? So it’s their job to look out for us and they’re not doing that. So, they’re the people I should have been speaking to, that I should have been yelling at.”
Still, after talking with UFC officials, things took an unexpected turn: The company added an impromptu session with the majority of the roster and let them vent their grievances with the system.
“Actually, it ended up pretty positive really,” Johnson said. “Because after they sat me down, they took a huge list of every single grievance that I have with the game of MMA to date, which is a lot, I just got back from DC, I was lobbying for the Ali Act, in Congress right before I went to the athlete retreat, so I have a lot of grievances. There’s a lot that’s I see that’s wrong with the way they’re conducting business in this game. And so that happened and then after that, that led to them calling a whole ‘nother meeting with all the fighters, sitting us down in a room, and having an open, honest, back and forth two-way discussion, which I don’t think has ever even happened before. It was amazing, the outcome of that was incredible.”
Several fighters spoke up on a range of issues, the biggest one relating to the company’s Reebok deal, which has significantly altered the fighters’ income streams.
“All these other fighters started speaking up,” Johnson said. “Sara McMann had a whole bunch of different solutions that she was proposing, Joe Lauzon was calling them out and asking for transparency in the numbers of the Reebok deal so we can really believe when they’re saying that all the money is going to the fighters, all these different things were proposed and they seemed actually truly empathetic to our situation, upset that we weren’t happy with the current deal and wanting to work around that deal in whatever capacity they could, to make it better for these next four years that we’re still involved with Reebok so we’re happy so that Reebok will actually want to sign that deal again, because right now I don’t think they’re very happy with the press that they’re getting from this deal, right?”
The big question, of course, is where do things go from here? Johnson noted that among other things, Neil Magny has proposed have the fighters do a better job of promoting each others’ outside promotional appearances on social media. And Johnson and Leslie Smith are looking into forming a committee that, while not a union, would communicate fighter concerns with the UFC and work with them to try to find a middle ground.
Johnson, who expects to have his next fight date soon after a year and a half away from competition, is willing to acknowledge the elephant in the room: Fear that he might be cut from the roster for speaking up. He’s 2-1 in the UFC with decision victories in his past two fights. With a loss, the UFC would be within their contractual rights to release him, and a 33-year-old who has been lobbying to expand boxing’s Ali Act to MMA would seem an easy target.
But Johnson sounds as though he’s at peace with the idea, especially if in doing so, he helps those who come after him enjoy better working conditions.
“I’ve been scared that I was going to get cut for a long time,” Johnson said. “I’m pretty vocal on Twitter with the things I say, I’m in Congress lobbying for the Ali Act. I’ve been scared for a long time that I’m going to get cut, but it’s worth it to me, man. If I can implement some sort of change, even if I have to sacrifice myself to do it, I’ll do it, dude. The game needs to change, everybody knows we don’t make enough money, nobody’s happy, all these fighters are unhappy, everybody’s bitching in interviews, and on Twitter, and being upset, but nobody’s actually going and doing something about it, so even if I have to be the sacrificial lamb, that would in turn spur change and encourage others to step up and to stand up and to get involved.”