MMAAA: Problems With Having Yet Another Fighter Association
So last week, we saw the formation of the latest attempt at a fighter association for mixed martial arts in the Mixed Martial Arts Athletes Association. This just the third in a recent group of current of former MMA fighters attempting to organize together to have a greater say in things such as collective bargaining and a bigger share of the MMA profits (hint: bigger share of UFC’s profits). However, where MMAAA differed from the recently formed Mixed Martial Arts Fighters Association (MMAFA) and the Professional Fighters Association (PFA) is that it has the weight of some big-name and active talent behind it. Georges St-Pierre, who has been talking about a comeback to the sport for quite some time, is one of the faces of the organization. Not to mention, former UFC champions Cain Velasquez and TJ Dillashaw are also part of this group along with top fighters of their weight classes in Tim Kennedy and Donald Cerrone. These are some big names. At the risk of sounding like a promotional shill (I’ve been called worse), I’m going to examine the problem with some of these recent fighter associations and why they are failing to garner more support, or why I simply think they aren’t going to get very far.
So, I will start right off the bat and address the elephant in the room, which is the so-called MMAAA “advisor” Bjorn Rebney. Whether he’s just serving in an advisory role or not is irrelevant. Bjorn Rebney was out there front and center and acting as a spokesperson for this organization. I’ve read comments that he’s just serving in an advisory capacity, but it doesn’t come off that way. The problem with Bjorn Rebney’s involvement is that he’s a former MMA promoter with Bellator. He founded that organization, and his record of being a fighter-friendly guy is less than sterling. Others have tried to come to Rebney’s defense that his actions are to make up for his past transgressions against fighters. How does that scan? Has he come out and actually said, “I know I’ve made mistakes in the past. I’ve done things in the name of doing business I’m not proud of, and to the fighters I might have wronged, I apologize. This is what I am doing to make up for it.” He’s never done this. He’s never owned up to his perceived wrongdoings. So, why should Eddie Alvarez align himself with the MMAAA and let bygones be bygones with Bjorn Rebney? Rebney was the guy that sued him and prevented him from leaving Bellator and pursuing a career in the UFC when he became a free agent. Rebney claimed he matched Alvarez’s UFC offer because Bellator was going to promote PPV events and give him PPV points. Look at how amazing those Bellator MMA PPVs turned out. Malki Kawa, who manages such fighters as Jon Jones, also declared he is never going to get involved with the MMAAA due to Rebney’s involvement. So, that means you can count Jon Jones of this organization as well.
In short, no matter what Rebney’s role is, putting him out there front and center as one of the faces of this movement was a huge mistake. Rebney should’ve been nowhere to be found at the press conference. Maybe there is a sense of having him there is that Rebney has been in a similar role of Dana White, so you need to fight fire with fire. Or, maybe Rebney has valuable information that will help that get ahead. Even then, he should’ve just been a silent partner. Having Rebney as a public part of this organization raises too many questions and causes problems the MMAAA doesn’t need as its just getting off the ground. Not to mention, Rebney saying he always paid out 53 percent of revenue to fighters from Bellator MMA compared to UFC’s alleged 8 percent means nothing. That’s hardly some earth-shattering number considering A) no one knows Bellator’s annual revenue under Rebney’s tenure and B) some of Bellator’s disclosed payouts while he was in charge were lower than the lowest Reebok Athlete Outfitting policy payouts in the UFC. Rebney’s very presence with the MMAAA implies there are ulterior motives. Not to mention, the new owners of the UFC are WME-IMG. WME is a rival talent agency to the CAA. The CAA is the talent agency for a number of fighters in the MMAAA, including Georges St-Pierre. So, this is coming off of more like a corporate pissing contest than a philanthropic movement to truly benefit the fighters and their lifestyle overall. Also, if Rebney is merely an advisor, which right now he seems anything but, then he shouldn’t be in front of the cameras as the leader of the organization and getting into it with Dana White. He should be advising them from behind-the-scenes.
I think the other problem is that there are three of these associations that popped up, and there’s no real unity. The MMAAA is mainly targeting the UFC. The MMAFA is trying to lobby for extending the Muhammed Ali act to MMA as well as boxing (another combat sport that has no union or fighter association). MMAjunkie reported this week that the attorneys representing fighters in a class-action lawsuit against the UFC are trying to issue cease-and-desist orders on the MMAAA. Those attorneys are claiming that the MMAAA is trying to get the profits from a possible settlement. If a fighter association is really going to happen, or a union for that matter, they all need to be united on that front. But here, it seems more like lawyers and agents and managers are fighting for bigger paydays rather than truly looking out for the best interests of the fighters. This could exactly be why a union in MMA might not work. If a union is going to happen, then fighters are going to have to come together, unite and make that happen. They are going to have to cease infighting like this. Now it seems all these fighter union or class-action lawsuit efforts are competing with each other. What they should be doing is pooling their resources and fighting this fight together in order to get things done. Otherwise, it comes off like they are just looking for a quick fix that will fill the pockets of lawyers and not the fighters they claim they are trying to benefit. All these parties should be coming together and getting on the same page rather than fighting one another.
Just to be clear, I’m not against ideas that a union or fighter association could bring to MMA, such as potential collective bargaining with the UFC, some type of retirement plan, or just something that will help battered fighters when they leave the sport and they don’t have anything else to fall back on. Something else that would be good is giving them a say in deals like Reebok outfitting policy, or video game and endorsement deals. So, when such major, company-wide deals are made, the fighters are represented and they get to have a say or sign-off on such deals. On paper, all those are good things. In the past, I’ve also advocated for making all the fighters get classified as actual employees of the UFC rather than just part-time independent contractors. If that means giving them company healthcare, 4O1K, or what employees of a corporation would normally receive, so be it. Is that unfeasible? Maybe not. But for years, Dana White was also resistant and said a program like the the Athlete Marketing and Development program (involving USADA) that would have fighters get tested out-of-competition year round would be impossible. But, it happened, and for better or worse, it is cleaning up the sport. It’s not ruining the sport because Jon Jones is ordering fake Cialis from shady websites and not asking questions about where the male enhancement pills he’s getting come from.
The other problem I foresee is the demands of the MMAAA. The MMAAA is asking for 50 percent revenue sharing with the fighters (above their claimed 8 percent figure the UFC currently provided), a collective bargaining agreement with a benefits package, and a “settlement” with current and former UFC fighters to make up for perceived lost income. I think right off the bat, if they are serious about negotiating with the UFC, they are going to have to let go of the last demand, which sounds ridiculous. But, I guess you can imagine in a legal conflict such as this, you have to over-demand when you start before items get taken off the table. Second of all, another major problem I see here is that the UFC has no incentive to really come to the table and negotiate with the MMAAA at all, whether GSP is a part of this group or not. Now, maybe that means other fighters joining and going on a worker strike or threatening one could certainly get this done. However, at the same time, the people behind this deal such as Bjorn Rebney and CAA make the intentions come off as less than genuine.
I think the key is the fighter associations need to come together and unite instead of competing against each other. They have to be willing to make compromises as well. That means maybe letting go of certain things. Donald Cerrone may want a pension plan, but he might have to let go of that in order to get collective bargaining and health insurance. Also, if Donald Cerrone is worried about retirement, maybe he shouldn’t keep blowing all his money on so many toys, which he clearly likes. Cerrone constantly talks about going broke and spending his money. He has a ranch, animals, boats, cars, etc. So, if he’s concerned about pension and retirement money now, maybe he should start thinking about saving some of it instead of hoping the UFC will take care of him for life once he’s done fighting.
In the long run, I can see a lot of these movements benefitting the sport and the lifestyle of the fighters overall. In some ways, this can be seen as growing pains for the sport. However, WME-IMG is now in a belt-tightening phase after shelling out four billion dollars to buy the company. That means they will be looking to make more cost-cutting efforts throughout the next year. I’m not going to cry for Matt Hughes and Chuck Liddell. They are legends in the sport, but they were also well taken care of and got free rides by the UFC for several years. I doubt they are going to go broke or homeless, unless they’ve been poorly mis-managing or spending their money. Ultimately, if a fighter association or union is going to work out, the splintered groups will have to come together and make it happen without all the in-fighting. Also, maybe it means they should take the years that would require putting a union together, rather than just threatening the UFC and demanding a settlement, which could take years to pay off as well. And, if the associations are in it for the long haul, that means letting go of people such as Bjorn Rebney as the public face of negotiations.
Jeffrey Harris is 411mania’s resident Jack of All Trades and has covered MMA for the site since 2008. You can shoot him an e-mail at [email protected] or hit him up on Facebook. He also co-hosts the 411 Ground & Pound Radio podcast along with Robert Winfree. You can listen to the latest episode of the podcast in the player below.