There's a lot to be excited about as the MMA landscape changes once again, recent events forcing all of us to rethink what is possible. There are no more impediments to making any and every fight you can dream of. After initial denials that fighters in Strikeforce and the UFC would intermingle, Lorenzo Fertitta and Dana White opened the door yesterday during a media conference call for potential super fights coming to pass.
There are already persistent rumors of UFC heavyweight star Shane Carwin competing in the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix in place of Josh Barnett. Lots of interesting things might come to pass in the next year. That's all good stuff. But with the good, comes the bad. And for fighters, things have never looked bleaker long term when it comes to negotiating power, leverage, or security.
Currently, the business of mixed martial arts is akin to the old "studio system" that dominated Hollywood, where the fates of actors were left entirely to the mercy of idiosyncratic studio executives and owners," Rob Maysey said. Maysey, a long time advocate for fighter's rights, runs the Mixed Martial Arts Fighter's Association. He says the lack of a viable competitor makes an organization like his more necessary than ever. "In MMA, the athletes may be at an even greater disadvantage as only one major "producer" (the UFC) remains. Monopolies in the existing team sports arguably serve to maximize the earnings potential, level of competition, and brand power of existing leagues. The monopolistic power enjoyed by these leagues, however, is necessarily offset with a counter balance in the form a strong association representing the interests of the athletes. Without such protection, the athletes face a future that may resemble the studio actors prior to the emergence of the Screen Actors Guild and other protections afforded by law."
Others in the industry disagree. The UFC already pays fighters more than anyone else - and they don't expect that to change. Consolidating power, in their minds, only helps the UFC grow - and with that growth comes increasing fighter revenue.
"To have a real strong group in a sport is way better than having a multitude of weak groups," one veteran agent said. "Think about the NFL now compared to the NFL when they were competing with the AFL. Things got better after the merger but it took time. The UFC is a league, not a traditional fight promoter. You want a strong league as a fighter and manager. That makes up for a ton."
There's truth to the idea that the UFC has done a lot to benefit fighters of their own volition. No one in the combat sports arena treats undercard fighters better than the UFC. Under the leadership of Joe Silva and the entire organization, fighters who once made $3000 to show and $3000 to win now typically make $8000 to show and to win. These are fighters with no particular market value or drawing power. The pay raises, instead, make it possible for more fighters to train and fight full time. That makes the sport better as an overall product.
In the end, like most things in life, this is a gray area. For undercard and fighters in the middle of the card, a move to the UFC increases pay and offers new opportunities for sponsorship and publicity. It also comes with an increased risk of being cut after a loss and having no steady promotion to fall back to and regroup.
For main event fighters, the UFC pays better than anyone with few exceptions. But the pay doesn't yet match up in a reasonable way to the revenue produced. As we've seen, the story of 2011 has been fans differentiating between fights and fighters. Just slapping the UFC brand on an event isn't going to sell it to the MMA masses. Individual fighters are more valuable than ever. But with no competition and few options, will they be able to leverage and monetize that value? That answer, in a midst of confusion and chaos, clearly seems to be 'no.'