While there has long been talk about the need for a fighters union or association it's fair to say that it has never been discussed as much as it now, by both fans and fighters. Still plenty of questions remain, foremost among them is "Why haven't the fighters banded together to form an association yet?"
Well, a group of fighters has made an association - the Mixed Martial Arts Fighters Association (MMAFA) - and are currently working on getting other fighters on board.
How does the MMAFA plan to get others to sign up? How will it improve the working conditions for fighters? Who can become a member? What exactly does being an association mean? These are just a few of the questions that have been asked either in comment sections or personally to me. In an attempt to get a few of them answered, I got in touch with Jon Fitch, Nate Quarry, Ryan Jimmo, and Brandon Vera, members of the MMAFA that have publicly announced their belonging to the association (fighters can keep their membership secret if they wish). I presented them with some of the more common questions I have seen brought up and asked for their responses.
Who is the Mixed Martial Arts Fighters Association open to? Is it only for UFC fighters? Is it open to Bellator or WSOF fighters? Is it open to all professional MMA fighters?
Fitch: The MMAFA is open to all fighters from all organizations.
Quarry: The UFC is a corporation. MMA is the sport. The MMAFA will be open to all fighters in all organizations. We're fighting for all fighters' rights. We're not attacking a particular corporation. United we stand. If we put up artificial barriers that divide us, we will fall.
Vera: We all bleed the same color. It doesn't matter what organization, if you are a professional MMA fighter you're welcome.
Jimmo: A question that's still being debated amongst the group. One thought process is open it to all elite class fighters. Some of the variables that would be included in that process is organizations fought in, ranking and records of those fighters, number of fights, earnings, etc. This number has been estimated at around 800 or so fighters at this point in time.
Once we have a basic framework for the higher-level fighters, that type of treatment will filter down in the culture of MMA and change how all fighters are treated.
How do plan on the MMAFA financing itself? Will members be required to pay dues?
Fitch: There are no dues paid by fighters. This is an association not a union. Unions are non-profits. As an association of professional athletes, and like all the other major sports, our association will provide a brand that can be monetized through the sale of merchandise, and through licensing to third parties. There are many ways that we can collectively come together and raise money, including appearances, seminars and merchandizing.
Quarry: We'll be following the models set before us in the NFLPA, MLBPA, and NBAPA. There's no need for us to reinvent the wheel. They've been successfully representing the player's rights for decades. Claiming there will be crippling fees is one way owners try to dissuade athletes from joining.
Jimmo: if we examine organizations like the NFLPA and model ourselves after such organizations then no fees will be required. There is simply a lot of money that we deserve and never see as MMA fighters. Things like merchandise for instance, we see little to no money from such things as MMA fighters. These are the things that fund associations in other sports.
Vera: What they said.
How does the MMAFA hope to get the Ali Act expanded to include MMA? It's a federal law so it would take an act of congress, so is there a plan for legislation to be introduced?
Quarry: In working with other groups that represent athletes and workers from all walks of life we're confident we'll have our day to present our case to congress.
Vera: In time, in a planned front along with the help of other political organizations, groups, and our own team of lobbyists, it will be changed
Fitch: We will need to gain support from groups that have lobbies and have influence in that arena.
Jimmo: This is a complex question - this whole situation is more complex than it seems on the surface. When I first started this journey of trying to bring some balance back into MMA, I figured we would get together, elect some officers and we would be off and running. This has not been the case. Groups with special interests like Zuffa have lobbyists that push for federal laws to go through and in doing so control the tempo of the game. We have got our own lobbyists now to push back on this front and battle back on a federal level.
What do you expect the Ali Act to do for MMA? How important is having an association to make sure the Ali Act is implemented correctly?
Quarry: Just looking at one small aspect of the Ali Act, that a promoter will not have a financial interest in a fighter, changes the landscape for every fighter. When Zuffa is writing checks to fighters for their camps, and not their opponent, burying positive drug tests without informing the fighter's opponent, or blatantly cutting checks to certain fighters they want to be successful, these things can determine the outcome of fights incredibly. A fight camp costs money. If your opponent has a hard time making weight and the promoter tells him not to worry, they're going to pay for his dietician or personal training for conditioning while his opponent is on his own, that is a promoter investing in a fighter. In boxing, it would be illegal.
Having the MMAFA in place would give a voice to the fighters who are being wronged. And it would give them the strength of hundreds of fighters speaking up. Not just one fighter who can be easily dismissed.
Jimmo: To start, it will change will be the balance of power between fighter and promoter. Currently in MMA the promoter hires the fighters as independent contractors. In this structure the promoter largely decides the pay, fight matchups, title ascension and status and nearly all other details of the arrangement. This level of promoter control is one of the central reasons that fighters currently receive about ten percent of revenue generated, and ninety percent going to the promoter. The Ali Act will change this power imbalance. Under the Ali Act, promoters don't control rank and title.
Thus, Jose Aldo and Conor McGregor could ultimately whether they fight, where they fight, choose to self promote, or place promotional services up for bid amongst promoters that compete for the right to promote bouts. In boxing, the promotion companies have to compete against each other for the fighters attention, and this is why boxers make seventy to eighty-five percent or more of the revenue earned in bouts, and why in 2014 over 50 boxers made over a million dollars. With the promoter control in MMA, fighters don't come close to these numbers.
Fitch: I think that the Ali Act to MMA will keep the sport more honest by making the rankings of the fighters done by a third party. It will keep promoters from having too much power.
What do you tell other fighters the MMAFA could do for them?
Quarry: Give them a say in their career. Every other professional athlete has rights. MMA fighters do not.
Jimmo: Allow them to have a voice in how their career and sport evolves. It allows them to be treated like other professional athletes. You all of a sudden have group bargaining instead of individual voices. We're more powerful as a group.
Vera: It will give them somewhere to turn for help or advice without having to fear an ulterior motive. It's gives them security and solidarity.
Fitch: It will give them a seat at the table. A chance to earn their true worth.
How will/does the MMAFA choose its leadership?
Quarry: It will be voted upon by the members.
Jimmo: Through a democratic process.
Fitch: The leaders of the MMAFA will be chosen by the fighters.
Can an association work in MMA if none of the top champs sign on?
Fitch: Absolutely. The association will be able to aid the lower level and mid tier guys just as much as the guys at the top.
Quarry: There is strength in numbers. Having champs join up would be a huge step forward but you can't have a card with one fighter on it.
Jimmo: Yes it can, although the champs and the top paid fighters are missing out the most in our current MMA culture and society.
Vera: It can and will. That being said a lot of champs past and current are already talking about an association and how it's needed yesterday.
How many UFC fighters - or fighters in other major promotions - have expressed interest in the MMAFA? Have any high profile fighters shown any interest in it?
Quarry: Every fighter I've spoken to has shown interest in the MMAFA. Every fighter in the UFC I've spoken to has pledged their support whether publicly or quietly. As we grow in numbers you can expect every fighter that wants to fight in the US to join as they see the benefits they gain from being one with us.
Jimmo: Everyone I have discussed it with has shown interest, from fighters early in their career to world-class competitors.
Fitch: Once you talk to a fighter and give them some basic education on how an association works they are always interested.
So what's your overall sense of the overall support amongst fighters?
Fitch: I think there is a large amount of silent support.
Jimmo: Everyone supports an association that I've spoken to. We're just living in a culture of fear of standing up and asking for change. Fighters are locked into poor contracts and being manipulated severely as it is. Fighters are fearful of being targeted for being a "troublemaker" and not a company person.
Quarry: As I said, I have yet to talk to a fighter that hasn't given their support 100%. They are all fed up with their careers being manipulated. With losing sponsors. With being treated like chaff. They're clamoring for rights. But as with all movements involving monopolies, the workers are scared to lose what little they have.
Vera: Every single fighter I have talked to show support for this and love to talk about it behind closed doors. When I ask if and when they want to join? The number one reason is they can't afford to lose their current job or contract. Fear and starvation are very powerful tactics.
What do you say about the idea that association can't work in MMA because the top guys make too much to sacrifice for the lower guys?
Jimmo: The top guys are losing the most.
Quarry: I would ask what they think the top guys will be sacrificing? Even those that think they are being paid well are getting scraps from the table after the promoters are done feasting. Go to the NBA and ask the highest earners if they think being in an open market has benefited them and their families. This is just uneducated people expressing fears for something they don't understand.
Fitch: Our association would run something like the Screen Actors Guild. In SAG there are a lot of top earners and very low-level earners, but they all get a basic level of standards and protections.
How much do you still have to educate your fellow fighters? For example how well do you think fighters understand the difference between an association and a union?
Quarry: Very little. And it's a tool promoters have used to try and confuse and divide the fighters. "They want a union! You're not employees! That's how stupid they are! They don't even know what they're fighting for!"
No, we don't. We've never said we're fighting for a union. That is blatant misinformation from other sources. We're fighting for an association and rights for the fighters.
Jimmo: In other sports, the NFL for instance, they start off having meetings about how the business side works. Every football player I've ever spoken to is incredibly educated in how the business works. Every MMA fighter - with a few exceptions - I've ever spoken to is incredibly ignorant in how our business works and how to change it and what to expect.
For every team I've ever been on, they would all have team meetings. All they would talk about is training and schedules. There is currently no system in place to educate our brotherhood of fighters. For some reason if a wrestler has bad standup he will work like a maniac to get better at the standup aspect of his game but when we have a huge weakness in how we handle our business everyone seems content with remaining ignorant.
Vera: It's a continuing educational process; with all the garbage propaganda being pumped out it will be a battle until this is finalized. But we won't quit.
Fitch: Education is the biggest problem right now. Guys just aren't aware of the benefits of either and don't know the difference between them. When I speak to other fighters and explain to them what the MMAFA is and what we are trying to do, they get on board quickly.
What do you think the biggest hurdle the MMAFA has to overcome to be successful?
Quarry: Getting athletes to believe they have rights and value. To quit believing the promoter who has treated them so badly in the past actually cares about them more than their fellow fighters who have travelled the same road and has the same stories they have.
If you listen to promoters, they want you to believe that they aren't making a dime and they care about you and your future more than profits. Every sport and profession has gone through this. Comedians even went through this. When the owner of the club would pay pennies to the comedians telling them the exposure was more valuable than money for their careers. Then they would quote the success of the 1% who went on to have their own great careers and place the blame on the workers for not being more successful. Sound familiar? Zuffa would surely place the blame on the fighters for being broke. Because they're not more popular. Because they're not champions. Every worker deserves a seat at the table. Not just the champions.
Jimmo: A thermometer measures the temperature, when it's hot, it reacts to that. A thermostat controls the environmental temperature. We are currently serving as thermometers, reacting to what's happening to us. We need to be thermostats and control how our environment is affected. The current climate of thought process that pervades the MMA culture is one of passive aggravation. What I mean by that is every single fighter I've ever spoken to is not happy with their current situation but many of them are not yet willing to stand up and do something about it.
We can make a change, we can make a difference.
Vera: Both answers are perfect.
Fitch: Fear. Fighters can't be afraid to stand up for themselves and for each other.
How would an association help managers? Would it even help them?
Quarry: The managers and agents should be the loudest in supporting the MMAFA. They've lost all bargaining power for their athletes. Can you imagine the commission a manager would get pitting Bellator versus UFC for a title fight? Everyone wins. Except the promoters who then have to pay what the free market demands.
Jimmo: How management is supposed to function is that a manager works for the fighter. The fighter hires and pays the manager for services rendered. In this instance the fighter is the boss so to speak. The management does what is best for the fighter.
What's happening right now is management in MMA is functioning as a broker or a mid level "pimp" for the promotions. Bringing them talent and taking a cut. They are essentially working for what's best for the promotions and taking money from the fighters. And a lot of money compared to other sports. Most managers take between ten to twenty-five percent for their services in our sport of MMA. I believe it's three percent for football players. The association would certainly set them on the straight and narrow.
Fitch: Currently in the state of MMA the manager doesn't serve too great a purpose. There is very little wiggle room with negotiating contracts. Pay scales are set when you first sign to a company. A free agent market escalates purse levels. It enables managers to do their jobs effectively, so everyone is able to make more money.
Does the Culinary Union and Teamsters have any involvement in the MMAFA? What do you tell those that say that can't support an association because of the Culinary Union blocking MMA in New York?
Quarry: The Culinary Union has their own battle with the owners of the UFC. That has nothing to do with us. What does the CU have to do with fighter's rights? In fact, with the MMAFA solidly in place speaking for and representing potentially thousands of fighters, we would have quite the loud voice to help legalize MMA in New York.
Jimmo: Quarry's answer hits it on the head
The NFLPA used to file antitrust suits against the NFL to get them to concede to their demands. Does the current antitrust lawsuit against the UFC have anything to do with the association? Is it a tactic you might use going forward?
Quarry: The lawsuit against Zuffa has nothing to do with the MMAFA. But I think it has shown that even the 800 pound gorilla can be taken to task for its actions. Standing up to the schoolyard bully emboldens (embiggens?) others.
That was a Simpsons' reference.
Jimmo: Everything is interconnected in the essence that the MMA world is a small one and something as substantial as a class action lawsuit will affect such a small community. But no, the MMAFA and the lawsuit are different bodies of work.
Fitch: All these things stand up on their own to try and force change in the industry.
What do you tell fans who are worried that a fighters association could lead to labor stoppages?
Quarry: I would ask if they wouldn't mind a couple of cards being cancelled so fighters can have rights and the ability to direct their own careers? I'd also add that when fighters are confident in their futures and careers and can afford to put on proper training camps as well as being able to afford proper physical therapy, supplements and overall care, they'll put on incredible fights. You can't do that when you can't even afford a massage the week of your televised pay-per-view fight.
Jimmo: I would tell them to look at the product the NFL puts out. How polished it is, how well the players are treated and how consumable the product is for fans. They went through similar things in their earlier years that we are currently going through. Same can be said for baseball.
Have some patience; the best is yet to come due to our current hardships.
Vera: The fans are some of the loudest grumblers of the latest goings-ons in the current MMA world. I think they'd be very supportive especially as long as we keep them well informed the whole time.
Fitch: [An association] can only make the sport stronger and bring them the best fighters matched up.
Correction: In an earlier version of this interview I had included the following response by Ryan Jimmo to the question "Can an association work if the top champs don't sign on?": f
"For instance, if we had group bargaining and we were able to negotiate five times more money than what fighters are making, the top paid athletes in the sport are getting the most benefit. If a fighter is getting paid 10,000 dollars and you times that by 5x you get 50,000, a 40,000 dollar gain. if a fighters purse is 100,000 and you multiply that by 5 you get 500,000. A 400,000 dollar gain."
This response was to an additional question I posed and not referring to the question posed in the article. I have removed it as it may not accurately reflect Mr. Jimmo's actual opinion.