The UFC fighter retreat was a chance for the new ownership WME-IMG group to connect with its roster over the course of an action-packed weekend in Las Vegas. In the end, the experience — which was attended by some 300 fighters, featured speaking arrangements by Kobe Bryant and Michael Strahan, and culminated with a private concert by Snoop Dogg — got mixed reviews.
One person who understood why the retreat was happening but saw it largely as a backfire was Cat Zingano, who couldn’t help but see the lapses in logic.
“I could see the effort, right, the effort in trying to get us to bond,” she told MMA Fighting. “In one way, it was super-awkward getting everybody to be in one place at the same time.
“The one thing that I worried about was the content of the seminar. It was hard to watch because I was like, do these people believe what they’re saying, and they just don’t know? Or are they aware, and it’s a show? I want to say that every single one of us at least, I don’t know how many times that weekend, were looking at each other rolling our eyes. But also all of us in the fear of, we don’t even get to do anything about this. Part of me felt like there was a highlight video being created, Ultimate Fighter style, where they’re saying the stuff they’re saying on stage and then they edit in us laughing and smiling.”
Such was the vibe in play last weekend in Las Vegas. The retreat featured speaking engagements by the five-time NBA champion Bryant, who talked about investing money, as well as the NFL’s Strahan. There were talks about the UFC sponsor Reebok, and a Budweiser representative also gave a pep talk of sorts.
Many of the fighters in attendance were in the mid-to-lower-tier pay range, with only three total UFC champions having flown in — Amanda Nunes, Demetrious Johnson and Tyron Woodley. And one of the complaints coming out of the weekend was that there was a feeling of disconnect between the fighter reality and the one being presented to them.
Zingano said that many of the fighters felt at times invaded and “a little insulted.”
“If this retreat was meant to tell us about all the newness that is happening, not only the millions of dollars that they probably spent on this event, and the carpets at the event that will be used once, and wall fixture that will be used once, and how much money went into bringing Snoop in and Michael Strahan in, and Kobe Bryant — what did these guys get paid to come do this?” she said. “When we’re sitting here broke, or struggling. Or the people that are still on top in the world are wondering what they’re going to do next in their career.
“It was really hard for me personally seeing how they’re throwing out all these companies making all this money, and we should be honored to be considered on the same level of popularity of these companies.”
It’s this last part that piqued Zingano, and she said many of her fellow fighters.
“That was more insulting than anything, and I don’t know if they considered that when they were creating the content, when they were like look, we get this many viewers, we sell this many fights to this many homes a year, blah blah blah, and all of us are still sitting there knowing exactly what we get f*cking paid,” Zingano said.
“How much is Kobe getting to be there? And I love the man. Don’t get me wrong, I love Michael Strahan. Michael Strahan is actually one of the producers that did my documentary [Religion of Sports], so I have an invested emotion in actually liking this guy because he was delicate with my situation and my story. I do care about these guys, but it’s like, how much did it cost to get them there? How much did it cost for Snoop to be there for a private concert? And every carpet in this hotel saying ‘Fighter Retreat?’ Why not spread that money out over us? Or get us health insurance? We’re getting welcomed to a family, this professional athlete family, a world family. Kobe’s telling us how to invest our money. Tell me how do I invest and intelligently get a return on f*cking five thousand dollars?
“I don’t feel they were considering at all our positions.”
Zingano said that there was also an element of staging going on, in which she felt like the UFC would gather footage of the merrier times during the retreat — such as when people were drinking and socializing — then splice that footage into the seminar footage, creating an illusion.
“I saw the highlight video that they made, and it’s exactly what I told everyone it would be,” she said. “I said, look, they’re getting us all drunk. They’re feeding us, and they’re taking video and taking pictures of all of us laughing and having a great time and enjoying ourselves, and they’re taking footage of the seminars, and they’re going to edit it all together and make it look like that’s why we’re laughing, and that we’re smiling, and we’re so happy and so satisfied.”
“If I can put it on a personal note, I’m trying to negotiate a fight right now, and I realize the things that I’m saying directly affect that decision with how I’m going to be treated. And I know everybody is thinking the way I’m thinking.”
One of the more talked about offenders was the Anheuser Busch executive who showed up with a bottle of beer to the morning seminar.
“There was a guy on stage, being extremely condescending to us, and I thought that was product placement,” Zingano said. “I thought it was. And no, he’s out there representing us, promoting ourselves and our brand, telling us if we lose we aren’t sh*t and they don’t care about us, and to be ourselves.
“That was the best quote of the whole seminar, was ‘be yourself, be Conor McGregor.’ I was like, done.”
Perhaps nothing embodied Zingano’s frustration with the proceedings quite like the 50 percent off coupon from Reebok fighters were given, as part of an attendee gift pack. She posted a picture of the coupon on her social media, which drew in a lot of comments from people, ranging from derision to comic relief.
Zingano said she posted the coupon on her Twitter because she saw, for a brief moment, a sad reality in it.
“They gave us these boxes, these UFC boxes, which had shoes and sweatpants or something in it,” she said. “On the bottom of the box, it had this coupon, and I pick up the coupon when I got home. Someone had said while we were there, dude, f*ck all of this, how are they sitting here educating us about Reebok when Reebok is already taking all of our money? Everyone’s upset about it, that we lost so much money, lost any credit with any sponsors ever.
“So I get home and I find that thing on the bottom of the box, and I was like — so, this is really what I’ve worked this hard for? This is me, I’ve made it, I’m one of the best in the world at something, I’ve f*cking made it — and this is what I get from the company that took all my money, is they want more?”
Zingano felt it was a slap in the face.
“But I also realized, like I said, we’re all scared,” she said. “We’re all kept in this place, where we have to be controlled, we’re being controlled, and we have to control ourselves if we want to continue to be successful in our position where we’re at. So I don’t get to get on there and say, ‘F*ck Reebok.’ I get to get on there and let Reebok f*ck itself.”