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Tim Sylvia thanks fans, blasts UFC snub on arm surgery: ‘If this was Chuck Liddell, there’d be no problem’

UFC 81 Photo by: Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Former UFC heavyweight champ Tim Sylvia said it was his fiancee’s idea to start a GoFundMe drive to help pay for his arm surgery. But he also hoped his former promoter would step in and step up.

“At least help,” Sylvia told MMA Fighting on Friday. “Pay half of it. I don’t care. Just give me $10,000, and I’ll pay the first $10,000 and I’ll put it back in the bank and pay my bills and stuff.”

According to Sylvia, the estimate to repair his arm 16 years after Frank Mir broke it at UFC 48 is around $16,000, provided he doesn’t suffer any complications and his post-surgery rehab proceeds without issue. Sylvia’s doctor recommended a second corrective surgery after a checkup revealed an infection in the arm that could go to the bone, requiring more serious medical intervention.

“It’s tough doing a GoFundMe, because I have probably $14,000, $15,000 in the bank,” Sylvia said. “But once this surgery happens, my bank account is empty, and I have bills and mortgages and car payments, and I have a son. That’s the situation we’re at.”

Sylvia, who doesn’t have medical insurance, said his doctor contacted the UFC to inquire about covering the surgery as part of a workman’s comp claim, but the promotion said he’s no longer under contract and denied the request.

On Tuesday, June 9, Sylvia goes under the knife to repair the plate and screws he said began to back out of his arm, creating the grisly wound his fiancee shared with the world when posting the GoFundMe drive. As of this writing, it had raised $13,170, an amount he attributed to “amazing” fans.

“I can’t even thank those guys enough,” Sylvia said.

The ex-champ’s plight also hit a nerve with some longtime UFC observers, who were alternately critical of the fighter’s financial request given its timing and the promotion’s treatment of talent. It also raised questions about the promotion’s obligation to the fighter, now 44, and by extension others whose fight-night injuries may need long-term care.

The UFC did not respond to a request for comment on Sylvia. But on Friday during a media scrum in support of UFC 250, UFC President Dana White said he wasn’t aware of the ex-champ’s situation, but seemed skeptical of a request coming so long after the initial injury.

“When was the last time Tim Sylvia fought here? 15 years ago? And how many fights has he had in between that with a million other organizations? No, I didn’t see that,” White said.

When it promotes events, the UFC purchases an insurance policy that, among other things, covers injuries suffered in the cage. According to one industry source, the term of that coverage is one year, and claims must be made no less than 30 days after an event. Even after the implementation of accident insurance designed to cover training injuries, the event insurance is a much more attractive option to many fighters, who often wait until fight night to use it for medical care.

Workman’s compensation claims are common on the regional MMA circuit, according to another industry source, but they are not available to UFC fighters, who are currently classified as independent contractors. Karen Lewis, a Nevada-based employment attorney, said the classification narrows the timeframe for which an employer is responsible for claims. For workers eligible for workman’s comp in Nevada, they can be reopened at any time.

“They have every reason in the world to not want to give this to them, because it involves a lot of money for them, and very high insurance premiums,” she said. “Very high. I see why they’re not doing it, but really, that profession, you want to have lifetime reopening rights because if you do that to your body, you’re going to have problems later on, even if you rectify your immediate problem. The reopening rights are important, and to be retrained if you can’t do it any more, because every fighter comes to a point where you can’t do it any more.”

Lewis said Sylvia faces an uphill battle given the length of time that’s elapsed since the original injury and his status as an independent contractor. She said the potential misclassification of UFC fighters as independent contractors could be a far bigger issue that needs to be addressed.

“I see a reason to get it changed,” she said. “They’re getting around it, my guess, through heavy lobbying and because they are covering the initial injury. This guy’s plight is probably not going to be good.”

Despite coverage limits on paper, the UFC has frequently gone above and beyond its contractual obligations to care for fighters that have suffered serious injuries as the result of fighting, or, if they are essential to the marketability of an event, to make sure they’re able to fight.

Sylvia said the promotion once promised to take care of him after he suffered two bulged discs in training and indicated he might not be able to defend his title against Randy Couture at UFC 68.

“[My team] was like, ‘Tim’s got a back problem – we don’t know if we’re going to take this,’” Sylvia said. “They were like, ‘We need him to take this fight. We’re going to take care of him after this fight, no matter what. He’s the main event, we can’t have him pull out of this fight.’ So I took the fight, and they paid for my surgeries. If I didn’t take the fight, they wouldn’t have paid for my surgeries.”

Since his UFC exit in 2008, Sylvia said he’s had no direct contact with White or the promotion. After several public feuds with the executive, he said he has no desire to reach out again. But he believes the promotion would help if he had a better relationship with the boss.

“If this was Chuck Liddell, there would be no problem,” he said. “And even what they did for Matt Hughes. Matt Hughes’ case was a lot more serious than mine. They took Matt Hughes and put him back on the UFC payroll so he could be covered under their insurance for all his brain injury medical bills, which is amazing. That’s so awesome that they did that for him, because he needed it. He deserves it. But at the end of the day, I don’t see why they couldn’t do it for me. My situation is peanuts compared to what Matt’s going through.”

Sylvia said he’ll make a down payment of $10,000 to cover the initial cost of his surgery, and after that, he’ll make payments for the remaining balance. Currently working as a project manager in roofing and siding company, he hopes a required layoff will be short.

An attorney Sylvia initially hired to look into a potential claim against the UFC wound up turning down the case, and he doesn’t expect to hire another one. He’d rather his promoter’s conscience prevail.

“What’s $10,000, $15,000 to the UFC right now? It’s worth $4 billion,” he said. “Dana spends $10,000 on the craps table and tips the dealer $10,000. I can’t even tell you how much money they spend at strip clubs.”

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