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Ryan Jimmo: UFC and fighters in 'abusive relationship'

UFC fighter Ryan Jimmo thinks his next fight is less important than speaking up for his fellow fighters about the Reebok deal and the need for a fighters association.

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When there's big news in MMA and I want to gauge the general mood amongst the rank and file fighters, I will pull out my rolodex and call, text, and email every fighter in it to get their take. My questions for such polls will always include the notification that their answers will be strictly "off the record" because if I've learned anything it's that fighters rarely publicly voice their true opinions on controversial subjects.

One fighter I spoke to though made it very clear he wanted it on the record. That was Ryan Jimmo. The UFC veteran hasn't competed in almost a year after breaking his arm in his 2014 bout with Ovince Saint Preux, but now has a fight scheduled for May 30 against Francimar Barroso. He didn't want to talk about his upcoming fight at all though. Instead he very much wanted to discuss the new Reebok deal and the state of fighters in the UFC.

You made some comments recently on your show, MMA Fight Radio, where you had some choice words about the Reebok deal. Now usually when you see a fighter taking a strong position like that you see a day or two later them taking it back. Is this something you want to backtrack from?

I don't want to backtrack from my comments. I stand behind my comments.

So how would you describe the current relationship between the UFC and its fighters?

One thing with the UFC, this is almost like an abusive relationship. You know if we look at Johnny and Suzy and we think they're a happy couple but then Suzy shows up one day for work with a black eye, and she says, "Oh, I walked into a door." Well everyone thinks it's nothing, she walked into a door. A couple of weeks later she shows up with a bruise on her arm and she's like "I tripped over the lawnmower" and everyone is oh, she tripped over the lawnmower. Then before you know it Suzy is in the hospital with a broken nose and the police are involved and it turns out that Johnny got mad at her for burning dinner and he put her in the hospital, and all those things people ignored before, now they turn out to be obvious indicators that she was in an abusive relationship.

And that's what we're seeing now. The broken nose is the Reebok deal coming out. Everyone went "oh my god, this is a horribly abusive relationship between the fighters and the UFC." And all the little things people heard about fighters complaining about before, about pay, or a bout agreement, or fighters angry about this or that, it became obvious that those were symptoms of an abusive relationship the whole time. People were dismissing it before because they like the UFC. Now that these Reebok numbers have come out, well it's kind of obvious that this is a horribly unbalanced relationship that needs to be changed so it can be a little more fair and equal.

So what exactly is your biggest complaint about the Reebok deal? Is it the money they're paying? The fact that no one seemed to include the fighters in the negotiations?

I think you named them both. One is we never got asked about it. We don't have group bargaining available to us like other sports do. In other sports a higher percentage of their revenue goes into the athletes pockets. In the NHL, MLB, the NFL, 45 to 55 percent of their revenue goes to the athletes. In the UFC it's like 10%. The reason it happens like that is because we don't have a group bargaining system, we don't have an association. We don't have the ability to all stand up together and say this isn't right, we want a better deal.

And on the other side with the Reebok numbers: they are quite poor. Anyone who doesn't even know anything about the sport can look at that and go "those guys are only making that much? I watch them on TV, I watch them on Saturday nights. I buy their pay-per-views for 50 or 60 bucks and that's how much they're making?"

So even the average person who watches the sport is dumbfounded by it.

But some fighters have said they'll do better with it, right? For what percentage of the fighters do you think this is a pay cut and what percentage do you think this is a pay bump?

That's a pretty restricting question. If we look at all the variables for each individual fighter, for example how much were guys making just before this went in and now? I don't know how many guys are losing money and how many guy are gaining money. The thing is because of the sponsor taxes and the environment the UFC set up it cripples the sponsorship game. Guys were being starved because a big percentage of the money was going to the UFC and the guys were getting breadcrumbs.

Maybe guys are making more, the low-end guys just starting in the UFC, but I've talked to guys on the regional circuit that get more than $2500. Guys that are at the top end of the scale are certainly losing money.

They announced this long in advance so you have sponsors pulling out creating another environment. Ever since they announced it the amount you can make from sponsors has been going down. My training partner lost half his sponsorship after they announced the Reebok deal. That's how many sponsors quit. And when the deal goes into affect in July he'll make even less, only one-third what he did his last fight. So one-sixth what he did a year ago.

Whether the occasional guy could make a little bit more on this, you'd have to understand that the system, because of the [sponsor] taxes and the restrictions, has crippled the market. So you starve the fighters then offer them bread scraps and they'll eat it up. And these guys are starving right now.

If they went back to no sponsor tax like it was in the past how much do you think you and other fighters would be making?

I suspect a lot more. You think about it, companies have a bottom line too like a clothing company. A UFC or MMA event was their primary avenue to advertise and if they only have in their budget $200,000 a year to sponsor fighters and $100,000 of that goes to the UFC, that's a big chunk out of what can go to the fighters pockets who are already underpaid.

What is your current sponsorship state? You have a fight coming up, what do you think you'll make on sponsors?

We have an environment of fear. Guys in the past have been punished for standing up and saying, "hey, this isn't right. Can we have a better situation?"

I don't know, it's hard to say because the market has been crippled. I'll know by tomorrow.

But I've had fights before in the UFC where I've made fifteen grand, twenty grand. When I fought for MFC where there was no [sponsor] tax involved I was making 25 grand. And MFC wasn't the biggest show in the world. It was a pretty big deal but not the biggest in the world, and I was making 25 grand.

For most fighters how important is sponsorship money?

I saw something a couple of years ago that the average UFC fighters makes $32,000 a year. And that's with someone starting at the bottom that takes a couple of fights and wins one or two. So $32,000 a year and then he has to pay taxes and trainers and all that kind of stuff. So sponsorship is pretty important. If the UFC was paying like the NFL, if we were making that kind of money, then sponsorship doesn't really matter as much. But we aren't looking at those kind of numbers. We are looking at very low numbers. Guys are fighting for 8 and 8. This isn't good money.

That's where group bargaining comes in and it's so important. It's something we just simply do not have. It's hard to get that going because we have an environment of fear. Guys in the past have been punished for standing up and saying, "hey, this isn't right. Can we have a better situation?" So guys have been overtly punished in public.

I don't know if you've seen the movie "Gangs of New York" but Bill the Butcher says anytime you want to send a message make sure you have a big spectacle in public so you can let everyone know you're the boss. And the UFC has done that on a few occasions with guys.

Do you think Dana White's recent comments about Brendan Schaub was sending a message?

We are world-class athletes and for most the guys making 8 and 8 with the Reebok money, they could probably make just as much working at Subway or Starbucks.

Absolutely. He was hanging guys out to send a message "you don't want to be like this. Don't be that guy." And people are scared.

I think during the recent card in Australia they asked a bunch of fighters what they thought of the Reebok deal and you could see they were all scared stiff. They were scared to death. It's very obvious this is an environment of fear. People are afraid to stand up and say. "I don't think this is right. I don't think we are getting paid enough. We are world-class athletes and for most the guys making 8 and 8 with the Reebok money they could probably make just as much working at Subway or Starbucks.

If someone makes 350 thousand a year and you tell them he's a doctor they say of course he makes that much he's a doctor, he had to go to university for all those years. They look at fighters and ask why do you think you should make that kind of money? Well it's because I have been working on my craft since I was ten years old. I'm 33 now, I've been working on this for 23 years now.

Luke Thomas made a comment last year about a fighter falling on his sword if fighters wanted to see change. Is that comment what inspired you to start speaking out?

Absolutely it did. He said a couple of these fighters are going to have to fall on their swords. They have to be the first ones out in front taking the shots. And he was 100% right. I don't know if I'm very smart or very foolish but I said yeah I'd be one of those guys. And one of the reasons I decided to do that is that I looked at the sport right now and thought that when I have children I would not want my child to be in this the way it is.

If I want the next generation to come in this I want them to have the opportunity to make something of themselves in it. I don't want them struggling like we are. I know my father worked very hard to give us a better situation than he had and that's what I want to do. For my children and also for the next generation of fighters.

So what do you think the solution is? We see there is a lawsuit against the UFC. There's always talk of a fighters union, or an association to be more accurate. Are those the answers? Is it something else?

In an idealistic world I would just like to see Dana and the Fertittas and the owners of this literally be the greatest Santa Clauses in the world and just double everyone's pay. But I doubt they do that. Big corporations don't tend to do that.

 What's the solution? I would say a fighter's association first and foremost has to happen.

The company I work for, I hope it doesn't become crippled and go bankrupt and out of business because of the lawsuit. But because of that lawsuit and the resistance shown by fighters pushing back I'm hoping it leads to a fighters association. That would be a great first step.

And it's not something that is going to be solved overnight. This is a long going problem. The things I want to see changed, if I can make that happen, I probably won't see the benefits. It's for the next generation. Making an association is a risky endeavor but it's going to pay off for the next generation.

So are you announcing you're making a fighters association?

I'm in the process of educating myself about what an association is and how it can better the plight of fighters.

Is your job to get people just talking about it. To get fighters to discuss this subjects?

That's part of it. I want to keep getting fights and winning them but it's also about making an environment where people can speak up without fear of reprisals.

Do you sense a change in people's attitude towards something like an association?

Absolutely. There is more and more rumblings underground about it and I think it's a difficult thing to get going but I also think we are right on the cusp of seeing it happening. I think we are seeing a paradigm shift, where people were afraid but now we are seeing a tipping point and the Reebok numbers were a large tipping point. And we're thinking we do not want to take this anymore and it's time to stand up as a group and fight for our future opposed to getting bread scraps. To not end our careers as a broken fighter with nothing to show for yourself. Not even our own image rights. I think it's time to change the environment.

Now what do you think the views of most the other fighters? Do you think they're the same as yours or do you think you're an outlier?

I think a lot of fighters feel the same way. There's just afraid. I don't think I'm an outlier. I'm an outlier in that I'm so vocal. A lot of fighters sit around and talk about it but don't want to do anything about it. I guess I'm just knucklehead enough to stand up and say something regardless of the outcome. And I think that's something a lot of other fighters should do.

Now you have a fight coming up, are you worried about your future after that fight?

I'm just going to have my usual fight. I realize that if the UFC doesn't like what I'm doing or saying they might not give me the best situation but to be honest with you, the actual fight isn't the important aspect here. I think I am doing a bigger job and more important job talking about making things better.