The UFC Is America’s Sport

Photo of a UFC town hall from now-deleted tweet. Different angle here.

The UFC is America’s sport. America is largely unaware of this distinction and Ultimate Fighting is not strictly a sport, but those are just details. As long as it has ticket receipts and brand loyalty, the UFC has never been overly concerned with those kinds of details. It’s a quintessentially American institution.

The company’s most recent pay-per-view, UFC 210, was a prime example. The New York State Athletic Commission set the tone in early in Buffalo on the day of weigh-ins. After allowing an already gaunt Daniel Cormier to magically drop another 1.2 pounds in minutes with no explanation, they publicly fumbled another fighter’s medical clearance, unsure of their own rules around breast implants.

In the co-main event, Gegard Mousasi landed two questionable but seemingly legal knees to the head of local favorite Chris Weidman. Administrative chaos around badly-written rules ensued. After several minutes of inept confusion, Bruce Buffer announced a TKO win for Mousasi over a chorus of boos. Mousasi became the bad guy for doing nothing wrong, Weidman walked away with a loss and possibly a concussion, and everyone had the usual arguments about instant replay.

Finally in the headliner against Cormier, title challenger and multiple-time unrepentant accused domestic abuser Anthony Johnson ignored his coaches in favor of a strategic meltdown. He was choked out in the second round. During his post-fight interview — after telling the crowd he loved them and then immediately intimidating them for not clapping loud enough — he announced his retirement from the sport. “I gave my commitment to another job, something that I’ve been wanting to do for a while,” he said. “I’m tired of getting punched by guys, and rolling around on the ground with guys, and stuff like that. Ain’t nothing fun about that.”

Cormier, conversely, spent his victory interview taunting the crowd and spitting dad-barbs at his rival Jon Jones. Jones is the greatest light heavyweight ever but was relegated to spectating by a drug test suspension, apparently for tainted “dick pills,” which he “highly recommend[s].” The whole event was was a bottomless fount of sports Americana.

Certainly there are more popular products that can make an argument the top spot. The NFL has wrapped a smarmy bureaucracy around thirty-two money-printing violence fiefdoms to massive success. The nostalgic choice, Major League Baseball clings to an unwritten, sometimes whistled code that makes deviation from tradition, or even just showing joy, punishable by a fastball to the head. The entire sprawl of the NCAA dominates swaths of the country and turns exploitation into vicarious glory and spoils at the expense of whatever happens to be in its path. Still, none of them deliver physical brilliance while capturing the surreal, late-capitalist dread of the United States at this moment quite like the Ultimate Fighting Championship.

The pitch, for the unfamiliar, is two swollen reality show hosts in half-buttoned shirts sweating and shouting into your living room that if you give them cash they will show you blood. That blood is spilled by a diverse cast of prizefighters who offer their bodies as collateral for the slim chance to become a world champion or better, a star. For the most part what they get is an accumulation of blunt trauma and the privilege of generating an inordinate amount of money for mostly white, rich men.

In theory the show is a meritocracy, but it’s openly understood that certain types of fighters tend to curry favor, say, those who don’t make contract talks difficult, or those who brawl entertainingly. Among the things worth noting here: women did not have the opportunity to fight under the banner until 2013, when management who had previously laughed at the idea saw an opportunity for a windfall in Ronda Rousey; the UFC’s Hall of Fame skews heavily White Dude; and the prospects that receive a marketing push often resemble the cast of Starship Troopers. Despite the wide range of people who watch the sport, all of the talent are expected to grab the attention of a male, 18–34, Kid Rock-aficionado demographic that the brand insists on targeting.

The rise of the organization is a triumph of the American dream. Ad-man Art Davie, Lethal Weapon fight choreographer Rorion Gracie, and reactionary director and screenwriter John Milius — of Red Dawn, Apocalypse Now, and Conan the Barbarian fame — came together with pay-per-view promoter SEG, including Campbell McLaren, to create the first one-night tournament in Denver in 1993. The contest was various parts garish carnival attraction, fairly legitimate martial arts competition, and infomercial for the already powerful Gracie family brand. Regardless, it was created to make money and it initially succeeded. Rorion’s younger brother Royce won the tournament as expected and around 86,000 people paid to watch on television.

Audiences were shocked, but fascinated, and there were plenty of paying customers. The events continued and thrived until they drew too much attention. In part they fell victim to their own gruesome marketing, and McLaren’s factually incorrect “There Are No Rules” slogan didn’t help. A combination of justified concern over the brutality and dubious political grandstanding from the likes of John McCain eventually drove the broadcasts from cable pay-per-view, cutting off their primary income.

Foundering, the UFC was purchased for 2 million dollars in 2001. The buyer was Zuffa, backed by two brothers who inherited the Fertitta family casino empire and fronted by their high school friend, Dana White, who happened to manage fighters. They poured their considerable resources, not only cash and credit reserves but legal, lobbying, and public relations power, into turning the company around.

They negotiated ruthlessly and signed fighters to one-sided contracts. They suppressed labor organization, bought up most of the competition, and attacked and blacklisted some media while maintaining questionable relationships with others. When later they needed an investor they secured an infusion of money from the U.A.E. president’s brother through a wholly-owned subsidiary of Abu Dhabi, a government notorious for the treatment of its labor force. That kind of hard work paid off beyond all reasonable expectations.

In 2016, the UFC sold for 4 billion dollars. The new owners are a convoluted group led by talent management conglomerate and home of Ari Emanuel, WME-IMG, and somehow marginally including Guy Fieri, Tom Brady, Robert Kraft, Tyler Perry, Maria Sharapova, and Flea. The Fertitta brothers’ net worth is now estimated at a couple billion each. Dana White took home nine digits. The fighters received nothing. They will continue to be underpaid to take beatings, but now their bosses include several enormous corporations, a real life Entourage character, and to a lesser extent, the mayor of Flavortown, and a Red Hot Chili Pepper.

According to documents obtained by MMAJunkie, an analysis of the operation ominously “identified employee compensation as the biggest area of cost savings.” With lofty “earn out” goals in mind, the new leadership quickly made improvements. They laid off “less than 15%” of their employees and culled their list of active fighters, who do not even share the privileges of being categorized as employees. Business would continue as usual, just now more efficiently.

As you might expect from casino owners squeezing their workers, the Zuffa-era UFC was notoriously secretive about financial numbers. With the information that’s surfaced in the wake of the sale, and reporting like Scott Harris’s for Bleacher Report, and John S. Nash’s fighter survey for Bloodyelbow, we can make fairly educated guesses. For reference, the National Hockey League’s league minimum salary is $575,000 a year. If Nash’s numbers are anywhere close to representative, less than 10% of UFC fighters are making more than that annually. Maybe the top one or two percent are making over a million dollars a fight. Over a 3 year period for all respondents, who we are told are the best in the world at their extremely dangerous jobs, the median pay per-fight was $30,000. Many fighters make far less.

Players in sports leagues like the NBA or NFL, for example, have labor organizations like the NBPA and NFLPA respectively that give them the power to negotiate collective bargaining agreements with management. These agreements are invariably still tilted towards ownership, but they at least provide some mitigation. The current deals in both leagues entitle the players to near half the revenue (49–51% for the NBA, 47–48.5% for the NFL). Best estimates are that UFC fighters receive around 15%.

The average fighter — technically an independent contractor in the gig economy — gets punched in the face for a living, does not live a glamorous life, and will not get rich fighting. Names like Ronda Rousey and Conor McGregor are rare outliers, and not at all representative of the market. Fighters pay for their own training, nutrition, and the bulk of their own medical care. The limited health insurance they are provided covers only injuries sustained while training for a fight or fighting. There is no retirement plan. Two former champions, Chuck Liddell and Matt Hughes, were the token exceptions, given cushy ceremonial appointments by the previous administration. They were sacked as part of WME-IMG’s cost cutting. There is currently no collective bargaining. While it’s heartening that a number of different groups are making attempts to organize MMA fighters, the obstacles are considerable and so far the results have not been promising. For the foreseeable future decisions like the uniform deal to mandate the wearing of Reebok gear and the terms of the USADA drug testing program are not negotiated, and are made solely on UFC management’s whims.

What this looks like in practice can be demoralizing. Carla Esparza became the promotion’s first ever Women’s Strawweight Champion in December of 2014. She lost her title to Joanna Jędrzejczyk and underwent shoulder surgery that kept her out for over a year. By December of 2016 she was on social media selling the motorcycle she won on The Ultimate Fighter reality show to “make ends meet.” Michael McDonald, 135 pound contender and sadly not “Ride Like the Wind” vocalist, once fought for an interim-championship belt. Earlier this year, he gave an interview to Brett Okamoto explaining that at only 26-years-old, he still dreamt of becoming a champion, but couldn’t afford to take another fight until he could save enough money from his second job to pay for a training camp. On March 16th, ESPN reported that McDonald requested and — in what may be a one promising change in tactics for the new management — was granted a release from the UFC. His parting comments were candid but not unfamiliar sentiments.

“The UFC was dishonest in the way they tried to do business with me and it’s resulted in a complete waste of my time,” McDonald said. “I want to feel like my employer isn’t out trying to cut my head off. I’m looking to enter a mutually respectful business contract with another fight organization.”

Consider that most MMA fighters will never get signed by the UFC and the majority of those that do will never have the success of Esparza or McDonald. Consider that the picture doesn’t get any brighter for many once their bodies are no longer capable of absorbing the damage.

The market says talented people giving each other other concussions for rent money so megalomaniacal bosses can get rich is fine as long as the crowds are cheering. The Dick Tracy villain in charge can shrug at the risk of head injuries and exact petty vengeances against his own stars if it seems like good business. He can insist it’s never been about the money. Of course he’d be honored to speak at the Republican National Convention in enthusiastic support of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign; Trump is a fellow really rich guy, reality show fixture, and fight promoter, who apparently was nice to him when they did a deal to hold a UFC event at his venue. That they share a penchant for spouting revisionist history, berating the press, and publicly trashing the people they are supposed to be promoting may or may not be a coincidence. I don’t know what it is if not American.

The most damning evidence though may be that a sizable contingent of fans jeering those same fighters when they get injured or go into kidney failure during a weight cut, or especially when they refuse to accept last minute contract terms. Anything that might interrupt the scheduled entertainment, or any sign of entitled boat rocking — and in the American tradition that judgement is applied selectively — is met with Randian bootstrap pronouncements. “Fighters choose to sign the contract and they know the risks.” “They can go get a real job if they don’t like it.” “If they were true fighters they’d fight anyone, anywhere, anytime, for free.” “If they just shut up and do their jobs well, they’ll get paid eventually.”

This is not unique among U.S. sports, but it feels more common among UFC fans, and given the stakes for these athletes, more heartless. David Roth wrote the following about the heavily loaded hand-wringing that accompanies everything Cam Newton does, but it also applies here: “The great American worry has a thousand different angles and anxieties, but amounts to this — the fear that someone, somewhere, is getting something he doesn’t deserve at a price below retail.” As is often the case, these anxieties are turned on the people scrapping at the bottom of the food chain, not the system itself or kleptocrats installed at the top, because they’re such a natural part of the arrangement that they’re taken for granted.

The entire sport of mixed martial arts is destructive and the UFC in particular is deeply flawed and dysfunctional. It’s a cartoonishly exaggerated metaphor for a malevolent system, and at this moment the prognosis for radical change is not good. Despite all that doom and not unlike America itself, it’s far from all bad. There’s a surprising amount of beauty to be found in the whole thing, especially in the people. (e.g. Demetrious Johnson is a gift, Amanda Nunes has turned the script on its head, and Chan Sung Jung has returned to land enormous uppercuts.) There’s also hope — from fighters speaking out about the conditions, to politicians lining up behind the imperfect but maybe-a-step-in-the-right-direction Ali Act — and to be fair, hope is a pretty American thing, too. As cynical as it is, in theory this country is also saturated with the optimism that something better is possible. The future of America’s sport, or at least of its athletes, hinges on that faith.