Recently, one of the greatest boxers of all time, Muhammad Ali, died at the age of 74 after a long struggle with Parkinson’s Disease.
Ali is widely seen as an athlete who did so much for the sport of boxing and combat to make it more fighter-friendly. Unfortunately, the biggest combat organization in the world is trying to tarnish Ali’s legacy by preventing fighters from having the rights Ali believed they deserved.
The UFC is making its feelings regarding the possible extension of the Ali Act to MMA very clear.
This week, the world’s leading mixed martial arts promotion hired Washington, D.C. firm Farragut Partners to lobby against the new proposed bill that would bring the Ali Act to the sport, according to a release by O’Dwyers PR.
The legislation is being authored by a Republican Congressman, who’s also a former MMA fighter:
The Muhammad Ali Expansion Act was recently introduced to Congress by Con. Markwayne Mullin of Oklahoma. Mullin, a former MMA fighter himself, believes the balance of power in the sport leans much more toward promoters than the fighters and it’s his desire to even the playing field.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Ali Act, the following paragraph from Raimondi’s piece gives a brief history:
The Ali Act, passed in boxing 16 years ago, is designed to protect fighters from unfair practices by promoters. Under the federal law, promoters can’t bind fighters with contract provisions that last more than a year; no manager of fighters can act as a promoter; rankings and championship belts are regulated by third-party sanctioning bodies; and promoters must divulge full revenues to fighters.
Wikipedia also has an article giving a long-form breakdown of the Boxing Reform Act of 2000, for those who are interested to look into it in more depth.
Congressman Mullin’s point of view on this subject was made much clearer when he spoke to Josh Gross of The Guardian, who allows the fighter-turned-politician from Oklahoma to explain his intentions and any perceived misconceptions critics may have:
Five years from now, Mullin envisions all combat sports athletes fighting while enjoying far greater prospects of financial stability.
“It’s not to focus on bringing down the UFC,” said Mullin, a conservative Republican from rural Oklahoma. “I just want to make sure the athletes are valued the same as the league or promotion, or whatever you want to call the UFC at this point. Right now I feel the UFC treats their fighters not as an asset, but as a commodity. That mindset has to be changed. It’s a professional sport with professional athletes in it. It takes both to be successful.”
Mullin’s office has the majority of the legislation written, and remains focused on crafting final details that will be released in the coming weeks. The language could be made into law by amending the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act or as standalone legislation.
Congressman Mullin goes on to explain what he claims is the position of the UFC when he met with them privately, giving details on the disagreements they have with his piece of legislation:
The UFC, according to Mullin, explained that their fighters are hired as subcontractors and treated as such. The congressman countered that if that was the case, UFC should have no problem with the potential legislation. Zuffa did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
“If they’re really subcontractors then the Ali Act is a framework to protect fighters if we want the sport to be successful,” Mullin said. “If we want it to be sustainable and respectable we need to make sure and understand that we need to take care of the fighters and the organization. I want the organization to be successful too, but the fighters need to be taken care of.
“They make the decision who fights and who doesn’t fight. There’s nobody that’s controlling the ranking system except the inner workings of the UFC. I think a third body needs to be looking at that. Needs to control that.”
Overall, the core argument of supporters for the Ali Act is centered around the idea that MMA promoters wield more power than they should, and the fighters ought to have more bargaining power for what their salary should be, ranking every fighter rightfully based on performance and record, not at the discretion of the promoter and, most importantly, putting the safety of the fighter into much stronger consideration.
Former UFC fighters, including Wanderlei Silva and former welterweight title contender Jon Fitch, have been the most vocal supporters of the Ali Act, pushing for a fighters’ union, which opens the door to allow the right to collectively bargain. In fact, the former UFC vets recently filmed a video (shown on Silva’s own YouTube page), as they stand together declaring their support for the expansion of the Ali Act to mixed martial arts:
This video was taken in August 2015, months after the UFC signed a new long-term deal with Reebok, which first went into effect just a month earlier at UFC 189 on July 11, 2015. The agreement made by the UFC with the well-known clothing retailer — a deal which had very little input from fighters themselves — requires every competitor fighting for the organization to wear only gear from Reebok with no other logos or sponsors anywhere on their apparel during any kind of UFC event. Those events include weigh-ins, press conferences, Q&A sessions, photo shoots and any kind of appearance where the UFC is hosting.
Obviously, this also includes the night of the fight, where every fighter has to come out to the Octagon pre-fight (including in the locker room) wearing only Reebok gear and nothing else. Even additional costumes that fighters like to come out in are strictly prohibited. Flags representing their country are the lone exception. Not only are fighters taking an issue with all of these restrictions being placed upon them, but they also don’t approve of the pay they are being allocated by Reebok, which many fighters claim is much less than what they received from their own hand-picked sponsors.
As for the UFC’s position on the possible expansion of the Ali Act, the company thinks everything it has been doing up to this point has worked out well:
There are some who believe the Ali Act would not translate in a logical way to MMA, a wholly different sport than boxing. Those in the UFC surely feel that way.
“We continue to believe the federal government would have no productive role in regulating MMA promotions or competitions,” UFC COO Lawrence Epstein told ESPN.com. “Already, states regulate each bout and MMA athletes are well compensated and treated fairly, which is one of the reasons the sport is the fastest growing in the world.”
Of course, the UFC would feel that way about any piece of government legislation that wouldn’t allow the company to have as much power. The UFC has been operating with the power all this time and the organization doesn’t want it to change.
However, that’s not the surprising part. What’s surprising is that any sports organization would allow themselves to be so blatant in opposing something that every other sports league currently does for its players: allow the formation of a union.
As far as MMA goes, the fear some might have is that fighters could decide not to fight because they don’t like how little they are being paid. And they could make this choice whenever they want.
Other times, it may be for erroneous reasons, like they want to take time off or demand a certain opponent. Of course, there haven’t been too many well-documented instances (as far as the public knows) where a fighter was forced to fight. It’s possible that it’s happened — it certainly has been alleged — but the evidence is fairly thin. On the flip side, there have definitely been times where fighters didn’t want to fight a friend of theirs, or they feel they deserve a better opponent. Those matters can be very arbitrary, which is why a separate outside entity deciding a fighter’s next opponent could be fair for both sides.
As an objective outside observer, it’s very easy to see both sides of this matter. One side wants to have more power to make decisions than the other. It’s very simple and straightforward. However, the fighters of the UFC, and MMA overall, are what makes the sport money and brings out the fans. Without the fighters, the sport wouldn’t exist. That’s why they deserve to be treated the way they want to be treated. If they want to create a fighters’ union and voice their opinions, they should have that opportunity. While team sports have different circumstances, the concept of bargaining for salaries and being ranked based purely on your performance and your record is a very simple precedent that can translate into any sport. It’s hard to argue against that precedent. It’s not complex.
Finally, it should be noted that the attempt by the UFC to hire a lobbying firm to pressure other politicians and groups to be on its side is dirty politics at its finest. It’s one of the worst injustices currently happening in our political system. Basically, an entity can pay off certain politicians to do their bidding, and if the politicians don’t give in, their political career gets threatened by whatever private entity whose profit motive is at stake. Isn’t this the same kind of corrupt lobbying practices that took place against the UFC when the organization spent years trying to legalize MMA in New York? Only this time the shoe is on the other foot, and that foot belongs to the UFC.
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