On one hand, UFC Hall of Famer Randy Couture sees how easy it would be to get fighters to speak with a collective voice. Then he remembers the fighter’s mindset, and his optimism is tempered.
Couture has been an advocate for fighters’ rights since he resigned from the UFC in 2007 in protest of his treatment. He’s lobbied for the amendment of the Ali Act to include MMA fighters – giving them the legal protections of boxers against unfair or onerous contracts – and spoken in favor of the MMA Fighters Association, the longest-tenured effort to unite fighters for better working conditions.
And yet, 15 years later, the sport is no closer to seeing any sort of collective bargaining. Efforts to change that have been knee-capped by a variety of factors, but the way Couture sees it, they’ve been driven mostly by one thing.
“The fighters are very egocentric,” he said recently on The MMA Hour. ”They don’t look at the big picture sometimes. They don’t see themselves that way. A lot of times we’re arrogant, honestly.
“We think, ‘Oh, it will never happen to me,’ and unfortunately, it is going to happen to a lot of us if we don’t take care of this window and opportunity we have.”
Couture can understand why fighters miss that window. He fought his way to the top and was privileged to be one of the promotion’s biggest stars. That didn’t shield him from mistreatment, in his view. But he didn’t immediately realize the best way to win better working conditions from promoters was to band together.
Like everyone else plying their trade in the cage, Couture’s mission was a selfish one. And the UFC, ultimately, rewards those who reach the top the the lion’s share of the resources. Many times, they invest beyond what a fighter takes home on fight night, fostering a deep sense of loyalty.
Time was the best teacher when Couture eventually came to the conclusion that he needed to stand up for himself when it came to getting a better deal.
“I had to take care of that money and make sure I could propagate this brand that I’m building while I’m able, physically, to walk up in that cage and do what we do, that’s going to carry me down the road and allow me some existence not getting punched in the face after I retire,” he said.
Punches to the face are still a job requirement for Couture, though they’re all for show. An actor and entertainer, he’s segued to performing on camera. But in light of Francis Ngannou’s potential standoff with the UFC, he’s been asked to give perspective on what the heavyweight champion is facing.
It’s deja vu, plain and simple. Although Couture’s situation doesn’t completely mirror Ngannou’s in that he still had two fights remaining on his contract when he resigned, the same themes are all there: respect, freedom and fairness.
Eventually, Couture tired of the fight and re-signed with the promotion, $500,000 poorer after grappling the UFC in court.
“I was trying to do what was best for me,” he said. “I didn’t get any support from any of the other fighters. I think if we had united then, we may not be in the situation we’re in now. We may have been able to create a fighter’s association, create some minimum standards and minimums for us as fighters: health care, retirement packages, a lot of the things professional athletes in a lot of other professional athletes in a lot of other sports enjoy. But that didn’t happen, so here we are, 14 years later, still talking about the same issues.”
Many of the lessons Couture learned were painful, but he doesn’t regret learning them. They give him the perspective that he can share now. The way he sees it, in a fair marketplace, fighters know exactly what they’re worth because of the transparency mandated by the Ali Act, and “a guy like Jake Paul can make more money in one of those crossover boxing matches than any mixed martial artist has ever made.”
“That’s not fair,” he said. “Now, let’s be honest – the world isn’t fair. So it’s up to us as fighters to come together and unite.”
Ngannou could be a free agent at the end of this year, or as Couture anticipates, the champ could be in for a court fight that will test his resources. The former champ isn’t sure what will happen, but he’s confident that eventually, more fighters will start to band together.
“It takes guys like Francis, those top-tier guys that have the potential to make those six-figure contracts in fighting.” Couture said. “There aren’t very many of them. But if those guys are willing to put that on the line to change the sport, and we unite as a group of fighters, and develop and demand these minimum criteria, then I think the sport changes and for the better for the athletes.”