In late 2016, five well-known MMA athletes and former Bellator owner Bjorn Rebney launched one of the last major attempts to bring UFC athletes together under a united front. At the time, those five athletes were among the most decorated names in the sport: Georges St-Pierre, Cain Velasquez, Donald Cerrone, T.J. Dillashaw, and Tim Kennedy. They called their efforts the Mixed Martial Arts Athletes Association (MMAAA).
“Every time we fight, we’re afraid,” St-Pierre said in the group’s introductory media call. “This is a different fight. I know a lot of us are afraid. It’s time to step up, do the right thing.”
“It’s time to stand together.”
The group was initially received with both skepticism and excitement by the MMA community, the former of which was largely due to Rebney’s involvement, but the latter of which was because the MMAAA marked the first time UFC fighters of such prominence as St-Pierre, Velasquez, and Cerrone had publicly stated their support for a unionization effort.
However, that early excitement didn’t last. Within a week, Cerrone walked back some of his support for the movement, telling reporters during UFC 206 fight week that he’d spoken to UFC president Dana White and hadn’t exactly understood what he was signing up for. As time moved on, more cracks continued to appear within the organization, with the MMAAA having little action or results to show for its efforts. By May 2017, Dillashaw and others were publicly bemoaning whether they had been led down the wrong path.
Ultimately, the organization and its initial optimism died a quick and unceremonious death.
So what actually happened with the MMAAA? Why did the group’s efforts go nowhere?
Former board member Kennedy addressed the topic Wednesday on The MMA Hour.
“We needed athletes to agree to be part of this association, this union,” Kennedy explained during an in-studio appearance on The MMA Hour. “And Dana White has such control on these athletes, when I said, ‘You have to sign that you’re a part of this organization, and then collectively we’ll all go back together and address healthcare, mental health, TBI [traumatic brain injury], CTE, but we’ll all do it together,’ but as an athlete you had to have the courage to be like, ‘This is my name, and I believe that this is the right thing to do, and I might miss a fight because of this’ — five percent of the athlete roster would do it.
“They all say they want to. We went to the major fight camps and it was like, ‘You have to sign this,’ and there was nothing besides, it’s two paragraphs that, ‘I want to be part of this organization and this organization will collectively go and address fighter issues.’ That’s what this document said, and there was such fear of the repercussions from the organization that nobody would do it. That’s how it died. So the guys that you saw as the face of it, there were those [five], and then there were about another 25 [athletes who signed on with us], and then we had a roster of 500 that didn’t.”
Kennedy, 42, retired from active competition in early 2017 following a 15-year MMA career that saw him fight for virtually every major North American promotion of his era, from the UFC and Strikeforce to the IFL and WEC. His experiences gave him perspective on what life was like both inside the UFC and outside of it, and though he’s now shifted to a different phase of his career — Kennedy is currently promoting his new book Scars and Stripes, which documents his extensive military career as well as his MMA run — he remains a fan of the sport he competed in for nearly two decades.
And he’s disturbed by what he sees.
“Athletes are making less money comparatively [than when I was fighting]. Everything’s bigger, except for the fighter pay,” Kennedy said.
“It is such an insult. It is so disingenuous to ask these guys to put not just their — they’re putting their health on the line for forever. You’ve been in the sport long enough to know athletes, that, they’re broken. There are lots of athletes, their cognitive decline from how they performed in the ring. Physically, orthopedically, I’m sure if you watched Mark [Coleman] or Dan Henderson try to walk around. Even Jake Shields, he gets on the mat, he still moves — right? — but then he comes out and you’re just like, ‘Bro, what was this sport done to you? And at what cost?’ You look at golf, this last golf [news cycle], a guy just signed $120 million one-year contract. He’s getting $2 million every time he plays golf.
“The last-place worst player on the green is making $250,000. This is golf. And these guys [in MMA] are going out and they’re looking like this? It’s such such a tragedy. And I don’t know how to solve that problem besides collective bargaining,” Kennedy continued.
“You had the best fight of the night and you can’t buy an electric car. Like, that’s how insulting it is. An NFL guy goes out there, make a moment, and he gets that NFL little bump — he goes and buys his mom a house. An 18-year-old goes and gets signed, goes to play football for three years, and he goes and plays for insert-any-football-team, and he’s buying his whole entire family houses. And then you have a UFC fighter who is top five in the world — top five, and he can barely make rent. He’s sleeping on the gym floor sometimes, he can’t even do a proper fight camp. Agent takes a percentage, IRS takes a percentage, and no real sponsors because it’s all controlled by the UFC, and that poor guy or girl is just barely scraping by. ... Shame on you fans. Every single one of you should be talking about this.”
Kennedy took particular umbrage with a narrative commonly used online that frames the fighter pay debate as “X fighter made Y amount of money for 15 minutes of work,” using the example of Paddy Pimblett’s recent $24,000 paycheck for his win at UFC London as a case study for what fans are missing when they reduce the conversation into such simple terms.
“Let me kick you in the head for like eight months out of the year for that $80,000, and then give your 20 percent to your agent, and then 40 percent to give to the IRS, and then make sure you pay for gym fees, make sure you pay for your gear, make sure you try and get organic food — there’s nothing left,” Kennedy said. “There’s nothing left.
“It was a lifetime [of preparation]. How long has [Pimblett] been a martial artist? He started when he was like six, didn’t he? He’s been doing this his whole entire life. Like, when you’re trying to learn how to ride a bike, he was out there being a martial artist. So that two minutes was really like 22 [years]. I don’t know how old he is.”
The battle for fighter’s rights in MMA is ultimately one that Kennedy isn’t a part of anymore. He’s busy enough with his own endeavors in his post-MMA retirement. But it’s still a cause he holds near and dear to his heart, and he hopes the goals of the MMAAA are achieved one day in the future, if only for the sake of the athletes who put their lives on the line.
“I pray that it does,” Kennedy said. “They deserve that it does.”