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Hot Tweets: Discussing the ongoing fighter pay situation and potential unionization

Jorge Masvidal Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

This past week, UFC 250 went down where Amanda Nunes defend her featherweight title in dominant fashion. However, Nunes performance was overshadowed by the biggest fight in the sport right now: the UFC vs. its biggest stars. Jorge Masvidal basically declared war on the UFC, Jon Jones is holding strong as well, and Conor McGregor “retired” yet again, probably for similar reasons as the first few times. So let’s talk about the state of this fighters union.

A Fighter Union

To paraphrase Ben Affleck in The Town, “You ain’t ‘letting’ me do shit.” If somehow a healthy majority of the fighters in the UFC actually get their shit together and unionize, Dana cannot stop them - that’s illegal.

Moreover, if Jon Jones, Conor McGregor, and Jorge Masvidal actually did spearhead the creation of a UFC union, there wouldn’t be much Dana could do anyway. Not to get all Eugene Debs on you but the power of the UFC rests entirely in the workers hands, in a way that’s even more pronounced than other businesses. Think about it this way: most random businesses can replace any low to mid-level employees without too much fuss, and can replace their highest level employees, though it may be difficult or costly. In contrast, the UFC can replace curtain-jerker fighters and even random mid-card talent and be none the worse for wear (in a grand sense) but replacing headlining fighters with lesser talent is much harder, and replacing top stars, is nearly impossible. If the UFC was actually good at promotion and star-building, maybe these things would be easier, but it is actually terrible at that. So yes, the UFC brand is the most effective marketing tool the UFC possesses, but without the top fighters they still make much less money and without the high-end fighters, that tool becomes worthless quick.

As to whether Jones, Masvidal, or McGregor actually care about other fighters, I think going with “nope” is a safe assumption. That’s not to say they want others to stay locked into low-paying purses but just that they are indifferent to the plight of anyone that isn’t them. Fortunately, they don’t need to give a single shit about anyone other than themselves to recognize that unionization is in their best interest.

Conor McGregor is the biggest star in the sport’s history, and easily the most well-paid; he still gets a pittance of what an equal caliber start in boxing would get. The math here is pretty simple: even if you get the lion’s share of 18% of the UFC’s revenue, you’re still not getting nearly as much as if you got the most money from 50% of the UFC’s revenue. Conor can’t leverage the UFC into that much money. Neither can Jon Jones or Jorge Masvidal or Nate Diaz or anyone else, by themselves. But if enough of them start to finally look more than three feet in front of them, all of them can force the issue.

A rising tide lifts all boats. Maybe the fighters are finally starting to realize the tide has been low for decades.

Unions, continued...

First and foremost, because unions are a hard thing to get off the ground in the first place. You have to generate a groundswell of interest and you have to do so in the face of an employer who legally can’t prevent you from doing so, but has a myriad of ways to give you trouble. Look at the real GOAT, Leslie Smith. Smith couldn’t make headway withe a Fighter’s Association and was drummed out of the UFC as a result of trying. Technically, the UFC did nothing wrong, but in reality, Smith was booked against a fighter who missed weight, she refused to fight, and the UFC paid her show and win money and neglected to re-sign her. The UFC, notoriously short-armed with paying win bonuses, paid this one out because they knew if they didn’t Smith would have more grounds for a lawsuit, so they just cut the check and let her go to Bellator where she wouldn’t stir up any more trouble for them.

Beyond that though, a fighter’s union has likely proved elusive because the body of persons who would comprise it, are about as difficult a group to get to agree to such a concept as there are in this world. By nature of their profession, fighters are almost entirely self-interested and, given their short career window, largely looking only at the immediate future. For most, fighting is a passion and as such, they are willing to take any money at all to compete. As a result, many also find themselves in dire financial situations which means a moderate $30K paycheck looks more like a lifeboat than bread crumbs. Not to mention, all fighters are optimists and believe they will be champ one day and then, that’s when they’ll make the big money! On top of that, ideologically, a majority of fighters in the UFC trend towards anti-union sentiment. Basically, getting fighters to unionize is like herding cats, if you were doing so in a field where catnip is spread everywhere, someone else is actively trying to prevent you from doing so, and like half the cats are just straight up saying “f*ck you”.

However, there is reason to believe maybe this time things can be different!

I wrote about this earlier this week but in short, there are two key factors that make now the most likely time in UFC history that fighters might finally figure this shit out. First, fighters are now vastly more informed about what others make and what the UFC makes (hint, it’s a lot more than the fighters make), and second, the UFC’s deal with ESPN.

The clear, objective truth is that the UFC is ripping off the fighters. If you don’t believe that, you’re either completely uninformed or a bootlicker of the highest order (Dana is never going to love you like you want him to, move on). Making 18-20% of revenue is, on its face, absurdly low, ESPECIALLY given the harm they risk by fighting. Knowledge is power and the fighters are more informed than ever.

And the ESPN deal gives the fighters an even bigger platform and sways things further in their favor. ESPN pays the UFC for content and to be the home of their PPVs. They do not give two farts in the wind about the UFC’s bottom line. ESPN makes more money the better the content they receive, because more people will want to watch, and thus they are incentivized to push the UFC to make the best fights, which in turn means to pay fighters more money to make them happen. ESPN can push this both directly, by telling Dana to do so, and indirectly, by giving Jorge Masvidal a major platform to lambast the UFC’s draconian pay structure. Public opinion is a powerful tool, and the fighters have an opportunity to leverage that right now.

Will it happen? Odds are still not at this point. Instead of just tacitly sitting out and Tweeting, you’d need a real leader to emerge who can get the fighters engaged and create a real movement. But maybe one day.

Nunes vs. Spencer

Amanda Nunes vs. Felicia Spencer should have absolutely been stopped, but not by the referee. Ever the professional, Herb Dean did a good job in the main event of UFC 250. Nunes beat Spencer pillar to post (I scored the bout 50-42 Nunes for reference) but aside from the end of the fourth round when Nunes had that choke in, Spencer was at least trying to fight back for all of it. If Herb Dean had stopped it, no one would’ve complained, given the one-sided nature of that particular thumping, but it wouldn’t have been the right call. Dean’s job is to save the fighter when they can no longer intelligently defend themself, not mitigate an ass-kicking.

That job falls squarely on the corner, and boy did it fail. It’s been discussed ad nauseum at this point but MMA corners are terrible at saving their own fighters. Spencer doesn’t appear to be majorly worse for wear because of it but sending her out for the fifth round was pure negligence. She had a zero percent chance to win the fight and a high likelihood of absorbing substantially more damage. What is the gain? A moral victory? Fighters may want that but it is the corners job to know that moral victories aren’t worth half as much as lost brain cells. We’re not just talking about shortening careers, we’re talking about shortening lifespans and it’s high time something changed in MMA.

Sean O’Malley

No one is going to be “the next Conor McGregor” in terms of star power. Regardless of your feelings about him personally, the man is unique in his ability to draw interest to MMA. Alongside that, the early stages of Conor’s UFC career were note perfect. If you had a time machine and did it over, Conor would still become a star and a champion, but it’s unlikely things would go quite as perfectly for him.

So it’s both statistically and just logically unlikely O’Malley can replicate that success. However, this kid certainly has the potential to be a big star for the UFC. People gravitate towards him and he has tremendous talent. He’s also fighting in one of the most exciting divisions in the sport so if he keeps progressing, the UFC could have a serious star on their hands.

(Sidenote, I find O’Malley fascinating because though he’s his own man, it’s obvious his style is heavily influenced by McGregor. I always enjoy watching how new generations of fighters adopt hallmarks of famous fighters before them. I guarantee you O’Malley has watched hours and hours of McGregor footage.)

Colby Covington

Tyron Woodley.

Pay-Per-Views during the time of coronavirus

Firstly, the UFC has owed its audience a discount for well over a decade. PPV is an outdated model in the first place and charging $60+ for every event is highway robbery. If you are a hardcore MMA fan who lives in the States, and who doesn’t indulge in any illegal streaming services, you are paying the UFC is costing you roughly $800 a year. That’s insane.

But, particularly during this time, yes, the UFC should be scaling back the PPV price and them not doing so is a sign of both their total lack of creativity, and their abject desperation for revenue to pay off their debt.

This is PR/Promotion 101. The UFC made a big fuss about being the first ones back with live sports and “we’re doing this for the fans”. Great. But many of their fans have been laid off due to the coronavirus and $70 is somewhat burdensome. Will they do it anyway? Sure, many will because they have nothing else to do and it’s an oasis in a sports desert. But instead wouldn’t it be better to lower the price to $20, get even more buy in from casual sports fans, and engender goodwill among your hardcore group by showing solidarity with them during these difficult times? Honestly, this is a goddamn layup and the UFC cannot see the longterm payoffs because they’re too busy focused on what’s right in front of them. I guess the fighters and the organization are a lot alike after all.

Thanks for reading this week, and thank you for everyone who sent in Tweets! Do you have any burning questions about at least tangentially related to combat sports? Then you’re in luck, because you can send your Hot Tweets to me, @JedKMeshew and I will answer them! Doesn’t matter if they’re topical or insane. Get weird with it. Let’s have fun.

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