The landscape of MMA today looks much different than it did during the years when Chuck Liddell was in his prime as UFC light heavyweight champion.
In Liddell’s heyday during the early-to-mid aughts, the MMA world was fractured and the best talent was spread out across a myriad of promotions, with Pride Fighting Championships and the UFC standing as the two biggest players. That parity slowly evaporated over time, kickstarted by the downfall of Pride, and eventually led to where the sport stands now, with the UFC owning an overwhelming percentage of the world’s top talent and Bellator MMA operating merely as a distant second.
In Liddell’s eyes, that setup is a dream come true for fight fans. After all, with a majority of the best talent signed under one banner, the likelihood of seeing world-class matchups on a recurrent basis increases.
But Liddell isn’t just a fight fan, he’s also a former UFC executive and athlete — a legendary ex-titleholder and UFC Hall of Famer who announced his return to MMA recently on The MMA Hour. So given his wealth of experience, “The Iceman” has a unique perspective on what can happen when the power dynamic in MMA shifts too far in one promotion’s favor.
It’s why he supports the push for a UFC fighter’s union.
“As a fan, you really want one big organization, and all the fighters to be in it,” Liddell said recently on The MMA Hour. “Remember back in the day when it was UFC and Pride, and now it’s just the best guys are here and we’re not having to guess who’s the best? It was almost like a pound-for-pound ranking, where you’re just randomly picking who would fit as best in the world. So for fans, I think it’s best to have one big league. A big league and then you’ve got the best guys in the world all in the one league.
“But I think with that, if you’re going to have that, you really need a union, because [fighters] need to be getting a higher percentage of what’s brought in.”
There have been numerous efforts to bring fighters together under one collective banner over the last few years, from the PFA to the MMAAA to the MMAFA. The most recent of those efforts is Project Spearhead, the unionization charge led by Leslie Smith, Al Iaquinta, and Kajan Johnson. Iaquinta and Johnson are currently under UFC contract, while Smith is pursuing legal action against the UFC after being released by the promotion prior to her scheduled fight at UFC Atlantic City.
Speaking on The MMA Hour, asked if he specifically supports the formation of a fighter’s union, Liddell reiterated that he does as long as the MMA landscape looks as it currently does, with one promotion — the UFC — dominating the market.
“Right,” Liddell said. “I think so. That’s as a fighter. Now as a fan, I really want all my fighters in the same place and I want the best guys fighting the best guys. And I don’t want two 0-1 guys fighting on my card [like CM Punk and Mike Jackson at UFC 225], wasting space on my card. That’s a fight fan. I understand the business side of that too, but it is what it is.”
Liddell also weighed in on an argument that has been hotly debated in the MMA space: Is a more wide-open boxing model — similar to the financial model the MMAFA is campaigning towards — the best way for fighters to maximize their earnings in the sport?
“For fighters, it’d be more of like the boxing model — that’d be the better model,” Liddell said. “But again, remember for that, that’s better for the top-end guys. That’s better for your main events and for having that home run at the end of your career. I don’t know that the boxing model is better across the board for fighters, because I remember back in the day — I’m not a big boxing [expert], I don’t know a bunch about their money, how they spread it out, but from what I understood, the undercard was making almost nothing.
“I get it, but because there’s that home run [of a big payday], you’ve got a lot of guys willing to put money into you [in the boxing model and properly build your career],” Liddell added.
It remains to be seen whether any of the current unionization efforts in the MMA world will pan out. Considering the fact that the UFC just signed a new broadcast deal with ESPN+ worth a reported $1.5 billion, and that broadcast revenue in similar deals is generally split between players and owners in most major leagues with strong player’s unions — such as the NBA and NFL — the conversation is certainly one worth having.
But will a UFC fighter’s union ever actually come together? Liddell isn’t sure.
Still, he believes it’s only a matter a time until change arrives in one form or another.
“I don’t know,” Liddell said. “I haven’t done enough homework on that to tell you. I don’t know if there will be, but something is going to change eventually, I’m sure. It will be inevitable. It’s like everything else in this sport, it’ll keep evolving.”