Mixed martial arts isn’t a team sport, and the fighters’ actions as it pertains to pay and unionization reflect as much. Without a sense of unity, where the good of the whole is held in higher regard than that of the individual, the athletes who compete in the sport will never get their due, nor will they ever be properly compensated. The reason MMA hasn’t benefited the fighters is because of the fighters.
It’s easy to blame the promotion, to tell them what they could or should do with their money to take care of the fighters, help improve fighter morale and positively impact fighter performance. Yet, even if the many organizations don’t do much different, they will still have fighters to fill slots on their cards, because guys have dreams, competitive desire and the need to provide a life for themselves or their families. The promoter has no reason to do anything more, because they don’t have any real consequences to face for keeping the pay scale low. They would essentially be doing the right thing for the sake of doing the right thing, and that isn’t how businesses work.
Most people only take the righteous path when they don’t have anything or when they are at risk of losing everything if changes aren’t made. Since organizations like the UFC, ONE Championship and Bellator MMA don’t have those concerns, their motivation to do anything except make the most money they can for themselves isn’t really all that strong. These promotions will look out for their stars, needle movers, names and legends, but not all that much for the rank and file.
If a fighter wants to be looked after or heard, then they better be a champion or a draw. Then, you get paid. The promotion has to take those guys into consideration, because the division is directly impacted by their presence. A champion may not get headlines, in which case they may not get the push. The guy getting the headlines and the heat also gets the push.
Don’t believe me? Then look at Amanda Nunes.
Nunes, the UFC women’s bantamweight champion, was completely overlooked by the fans, the organization and the media in her title defense against Ronda Rousey. Most fighters had been overlooked during Rousey’s time with the promotion. The difference in Nunes’ case is that she got paid because she was the champion. Rousey couldn’t avoid her and couldn’t sidestep her, but Nunes was able to reap the full benefits of Rousey being the focus of the pre-fight build-up. She got to be adjacent to the star, which in one way or another improved her Q rating, and after defending her title she got all the focus squarely put on her, allowing her to speak openly about the disrespect she experienced, her goals and her place in the lexicon of women’s MMA.
Tyron Woodley is another example.
Woodley fought on two of the biggest cards of two separate years because he is a champion. He got paid more than he is worth in regards to pay-per-view and ticket sales, and that’s because he has the belt. He gets to say he was on two of the highest-selling cards, even though he had little to do with the popularity of either event. Even though many fans don’t like Woodley’s style or his attitude toward them, he still gets a platform because of that championship. The belt multiplies opportunity for those who can maximize those opportunities, and the belt multiplies pay for those who can hold onto it. Whether or not they are in the organization’s good graces, a champion has to be acknowledged and paid.
The other group of people who get looked after are the stars. These fighters are more valuable than the champions due to the fact that they don’t need a belt to define their impact. They don’t really need wins or compelling opposition. These fighters get their way. They get exceptions made, and these fighters get paid and promoted, because they give the organization a return on their investment.
Ronda Rousey gets to have a media blackout. She is free to make movies at her desire, and she is allowed to comment freely and disrespectfully about other fighters or people.
Conor McGregor is allowed to box, not defend his title, challenge for another belt without defending his first championship, and jump the line at any weight. Wherever McGregor goes, the money follows.
MMA organizations are in the business of making money. Great fights, great fighters and legacies are secondary to the money they can generate. The fighters who generate that kind of money are always going to be looked after, but only until they don’t draw anymore. With so many platforms, though, a fighter’s ability to draw enough to impact an event lasts way longer than an unimportant or, worse yet, unpopular fighter’s ability to do so.
Don’t think so? Then tell me how Nick Diaz got a title shot against Georges St-Pierre after suffering a loss. How did Chael Sonnen get an invite into Bellator’s heavyweight grand prix? Why did Tito Ortiz and Ken Shamrock fight three times? Why is B.J. Penn still getting slots on main cards? Why has the aforementioned Ortiz been headlining Bellator cards? Why is Urijah Faber still answering questions about a title fight?
The answer is simple: all of these fighters are popular regardless of how inconsistent or downright bad they have been. They still get opportunities, pay and platforms because people still care about them.
Unfortunately, most fighters don’t fall into either of those categories. There are very few legitimate champions and even fewer draws or stars. There’s a miniscule amount of superstar fighters. This means the rest of the fighters are just hardworking regular folk, much like the people who pay to see them perform. These are the competitors who need the help and assistance of a union, because most won’t ever accomplish enough or become popular enough to get paid in a manner fitting the job they do and the costs they endure to train for that job.
Individually, these fighters don’t have the power, importance or interest to create change or to make the organizations take notice. As a group, though, they can make a difference. They can draw attention. They can create change. They don’t need the stars or the champions to do this, either. They just need everyone to agree to put their foot down.
Therein lies the problem. No one is willing to risk their spot, their opportunity, or the money they do get so that the group as a whole can eat. It’s not that important to them, because they realize they are the most expendable members of the organization’s roster.
The champions and stars have been there before, though. They weren’t always stars. At one point, they were all overlooked. They had to struggle to make ends meet. They had to work two jobs. Fighters like Rousey, McGregor, Nunes, Stipe Miocic, Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson, Holly Holm and Donald Cerrone have all had to scrape by. They have all had to suffer the barbs of a promoter. They have all had to take chances to even have the chance to achieve the things they have gone on to achieve. Shouldn’t they speak up on behalf of the fighters? Shouldn’t the guys with the most leverage be the guys who lead the charge? In a perfect world, sure. In the real world, no way.
If a fighter has power or leverage, and if they’re being taken care of, then they are not going to risk it for the benefit of others. They might talk about others. They may involve others to bring more attention to their situation. But their concern isn’t for their fellow fighters. These fighters know the organization doesn’t want them holding up a division or taking fans away from the product, and they know the organization will talk money. As soon as they get paid, their issues with the organization and concern for the masses go away.
How many times did Rousey talk about helping women’s MMA? How many times did she directly help women’s MMA? In fact, what exactly has she done for female fighters since she stopped fighting? About as much as she did when she was fighting. That’s far different than someone like Miesha Tate, whose fingerprints are all over the sport.
José Aldo had beef with the organization. He spoke about unfair pay and treatment, and he talked about struggling fighters. Yet, once he got paid, all that went away.
The biggest obstacle to fighter pay, fighter benefits and a fighter’s slice of the pie are the fighters themselves. No matter how much media or fans clamor for better things for the fighters, it won’t make a difference until the fighters decide that the betterment of their fellow fighters and future fighters is more important than the betterment of themselves and their futures.
Someone has to bite the bullet. Someone has to be willing to shorten, if not completely abandon, their position as a fighter. If no one is willing to say that the betterment of others is more important than their own success, then they can’t win. The fighters have to have a united front, but that means putting individual goals and agendas aside so that the masses can benefit. Most fighters are unwilling to do this. Their main concern isn’t the sport or its athletes, it’s themselves. Until this changes, the promotion will always have the upper hand.