I love mixed martial arts and the people involved in it. So what do you do when you love something? You protect it. I’ve had the privilege of being involved in MMA for more than 15 years now, and I, like many, have watched the sport grow from its days of relative obscurity to the global phenomenon that it is today. MMA has been dubbed “the fastest-growing sport in the world.” “Sport” is the word that sticks out in my head. Sports have athletes. Athletes perpetuate their respective sports through hard work, practice and performance. In countless interviews, fighters are quoted as saying that they “want to put on a good show” or “we care about the fans.” Clearly, the fighters are looking out for the fans, but who is looking out for the fighters?
Many professional sports have some type of union or players association to protect their athletes. Why not MMA? MMA fighters arguably train harder, sacrifice more and put more on the line than many other pro athletes, for a fraction of the pay. Very few people are lured to this sport for financial gain. For the vast majority of guys and girls who get into the cage, it’s much deeper than that.
I believe that an MMA union would not only benefit the fighters but would also further the sport. Many organizations dread the idea of a union. They view it as something that would impede the smaller shows, thus creating less upand- coming talent for bigger shows such as the UFC, Strikeforce and Bellator. I completely disagree. If executed correctly, a union could circumvent the headaches that many promotions deal with that arise from the unprofessional conduct of its fighters. Dissapointments such as missing weight, backing out of fights, vulgarity, drug use, etc., could all be monitored by a union. It would, in essence, weed out the fighters who give the sport a bad name. It’s a proven fact that union workers in any field help create a more stable and productive workforce. Why not MMA?
A fighters union could also open the door to a plethora of benefits for the athletes. These could include the creation of a pension plan, the ability to negotiate as a group, standardized contracts and a much-needed health plan.
Why isn’t there an MMA union? The simple answer is this: fear. Fighters fear getting blacklisted from the bigger shows; managers fear they will lose power and, in return, money; and the promoters fear that it will tie their hands.
Let’s imagine a world where there was a fighters union — something akin to SAG (Screen Actors Guild). SAG is a professional actors union. It is something that actors must join if they want to act in television or film. It governs everything from health care and pensions to monitoring the jobs they work. It collects past due payments, ensures a safe work environment (I know, the irony), regulates the number of hours one works and is vigilant of its members’ well-being. Now mind you, one doesn’t have to join SAG to be a “working” actor, but the pros heavily outweigh the cons. If an actor does not join SAG, he or she could very well end up working 20-hour days, for $100, on an independent project that is “non-union” and, hence, does not need to adhere to any set of standards.
I suggest that if a union is formed, we follow a similar path as SAG. We could create a “union” that benefited both the fighters and the promoters. Fighters would pay a small fee to join the union along with quarterly dues predicated on how much income was earned. In return, the union would look out for the interest of its members. Fighters would not have to worry about being asked to fight someone 20 pounds heavier, having to fight when a last-minute rule was changed, or not getting paid for an event. The list could go on and on. Similar to SAG minimums (the least you can get paid for a specific type of job – i.e., commercial, guest star, etc.), there could be fighter minimums, calculated by A-, B-, C- and D-level shows. This would help ensure that professional fighters could actually make a living as such.
Various promotions could qualify based on things such as attendance, television deals and ticket revenue (minus overhead). This way, promoters could count on a professional to act like a professional. I’ve seen and heard countless stories of fighters that have shown up in baggy shorts to fight, thrown a fit when they’ve lost – some have even started fights at their own fights. These actions reflect poorly on not only the individuals, but the sport as a whole. With a union, fines and suspensions could not only be imposed, but mandated.
There are valid arguments on both sides regarding the formation of a union. However, the two primary reasons why I am in favor of a union have little to do with a fighter’s short-term finances. Those reasons are pension and health care. What is nice about a union is that a certain percentage of your pay goes into the pension plan. Much like the 9-to-5 workforce, many fighters are living paycheck -to-paycheck and put very little aside for the future. The difference is that at best, a fighter’s career is usually one-third to a half of the span of what a “normal” career is. This being the case, we need to be cognizant of our futures and save much more aggressively. There is nothing worse than putting 20 years’ worth of blood, sweat and tears into fighting and having nothing to show for it. There needs to be some type of way for fighters to automatically have pay deferred into a 401k, Roth IRA, SEPIRA or the like. I would propose that a fighters union have a board of financial planners in place to guide its members.
The second reason is health care. As fighters, we consistently push our bodies to the limits, and oftentimes that can result in injury. An injury in our sport can take a fighter out of the game and food out of his mouth if he does not have access to affordable health care. We do not have the luxury of being able to work with a broken arm or leg, nor can most fighters even afford to go to a doctor for a common training ailment such as ringworm or staph.
I have been approached by a number of people who support the idea of a union and what it would mean to the fighters, but who are afraid to speak out due to fear. Some of the baddest people I know lack the courage to stand up and speak out. But oftentimes in life, the toughest fight to win is the one within.
Should there be a way to protect the fighters? Should there be a way to show the critics of MMA that we are, in fact, professionals? Will there ever be a union? You tell me.