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Coker on expanding the Ali Act to MMA: 'I think it's a pretty good idea'

The Ali Act is the federal law that is supposed to protect boxers from exploitation, but it doesn't cover MMA. The MMAFA wants to change that and surprisingly promoter Scott Coker agrees with them.

Esther Lin

The never-ending conflict in mixed martial arts between management and labor, or should we say between promoters and fighters, has really come to the fore this year.  Over the last few months an antitrust lawsuit, the new Reebok deal, and the USADA testing policy have sparked debates on fighter pay, lost sponsorship income, and lack of input from the athletes on the rules and regulations governing them. And this is in only in the UFC, never mind the number of complaints that one sees directed at other promotions. All of this has had led to discussions of possible solutions, including perhaps the most serious talk of a fighters association the sport has seen to date.

While fighters speaking with a collective voice is one potential solution to these problems, another solution is federal regulation, as we see in boxing. That sport has the Muhammed Ali Reform Boxing Act, a federal  law that was intended to protect boxers against the many problems facing them. These problems included:

  1. Professional boxing is not governed by any league, association, or any form of an established organization like majority of other professional sports.
  2. The state officials are not ensuring the protection of the boxers and are not aware or informed of contracts boxers have agreed to.
  3. Promoters are taking advantage of the sport by conducting dishonest business affairs. Promoters are not being punished due to some states being less strict about the legal terms that are stated in contracts.
  4. There is no rating system provided to rank professional boxers thus ratings are subjected to manipulation by those in charge.
  5. There has been a major interference in the sport by because of open competition by restrictive and anti-competitive bodies.
  6. There are no restrictions placed on contracts that boxers agree to with promoters and managers. It is necessary to enforce a national contract reform which will guarantee the safety of professional boxers and the public from unlawful contracts and to enhance the integrity of the sport.

The Ali Act is not without its controversy, mostly due to the lack of enforcement. Very few cases of violators being persecuted can be cited, and so its effectiveness is debated. Even so, it is still the law of the land, and is perhaps the number one reason given to me by promoters, managers, and athletes, in both boxing and mixed martial arts, for why boxers make more than their contemporaries in MMA.

Most who follow MMA will recognize that many of the same conditions listed above currently exist in the sport. Yet the Ali Act does not extend to MMA.  Thus we get the odd sight of the Attorney General being asked to investigate boxing organization Premier Boxing Champions for "following the model used by MMA promoters".

If some fighters have their way, though, this exemption of MMA could change (In another post I will look in-depth at what it would mean to extend the Ali Act so that it includes MMA.)

new video posted by Wanderlei Silva last week shows him attending the Association of Boxing Commissions convention that was held on July 29th in San Diego . Present with him were fellow fighters Jon Fitch, Nate Quarry, and Ryan Jimmo, as well as attorney Robert Maysey. Maysey is perhaps best known as the attorney that initiated the class action antitrust lawsuit against the UFC (with Nate Quarry and Jon Fitch being two of the original three named plaintiffs. The third being Cung Le ) He is also the founder of the Mixed Martial Arts Fighters Association (MMAFA), of which the fighters with him were all confessed members.

"Today we are taking a huge step in MMA history," Wanderlei Silva stated it in the opening of the video. "We're working on bringing the Muhammad Ali Act into MMA. The Muhammed Ali Act is a federal law enacted for boxing here in the U.S. - a federal act introduced here in the US. This law says that an event can not be the sanctioning body, the managers and the promotion, all in one. This must be separate. If it's all owned by one entity there can be corruption. The promotion can not be the one to decide who is champion and who will fight for the belt. Then there's no official rankings. The rankings can't be decided according to the promotion's interest. A guy ranked 10th can't be pushed up to first. So this is an important step for our sport."

The fighters goal, according to Jon Fitch, is to "get some protections for the MMA fighters out there. Stop getting jerked around by promoters. And collectively start bargaining together. ..we want to do right by fighters because if no one else is fighting for the fighters we're going to have do it ourselves. "

Later in the video, Maysey is shown speaking to the gathered commissioners where he ask them to join the MMAFA in pushing to have the protections of the Ali Act be applied to mixed martial artists.

The MMAFA's request didn't fall on deaf ears at the ABC meeting. "We're interested in what's best for the fighters" Michael Mazzuli of the Mohegun Sun and the new president for the Association of Boxing Commissions. told me. "If they overwhelmingly say this is a problem, that this is something they would like to see happen, then the Association of Boxing Commissions would definitely take a look at it at next year's meeting."

It has been reported that trainer Juanito Ibarra gave a statement indicating that the Teamster's were supporting the MMAFA. I asked a representative of the Teamsters if this was true and he confirmed that Teamsters Local 986 in California "have been working with the MMAFA to help them with their efforts including supporting their work to expand the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act to include mixed martial arts fighters."

Ibarra also mentions that they are supported by other unions. One such union is apparently the Service Employees International Union which tweeted their approval.

Ibarra also mentions sports unions in the video. Earlier this year we saw Wanderlei Silva, Nate Quarry and Jon Fitch paying a visit to the National Football League Players Association Collegiate Bowl Week where they got a lesson in the "power of unions" by NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith, so they seem likely as well.

I asked the UFC, Bellator MMA, and World Series of Fighting if they would comment on the potential expansion of the Ali Act to MMA. While no one from either the UFC or WSOF responded to my query, Scott Coker, the president of Bellator MMA, did.

"I think it's a pretty good idea," Coker's statement read. "But like many good ideas, getting it from an idea to actuality will be a long process - it's not going to happen overnight."

"A little bit of history here is in order: The Ali Act, is a federal law that was introduced in 1999 and enacted on May 26, 2000 in response to widespread abuse of professional boxers. The Act amends the 1996 Professional Boxing Safety Act by expanding upon it to protect boxers against exploitation, conflict of interest, enforcement, as well as to provide a mechanism for additional amendments. I am not a lawyer, but I don't think the ABC has the authority to expand the Ali Act to MMA, it would require an actual amendment from Congress. At one time, a few years back, Senator John McCain introduced a bill to amend the Ali Act to include MMA, however, some strong lobbying efforts (by someone) managed to stall that process and I believe it was abandoned. But hey, if all of the planets aligned and there was a concerted effort to change things, I think I would be in favor of it - in fact, I think they should call it the Randy Couture Act."

Coker's statement included the reminder that in the past the UFC has not been very receptive to the idea of boxing legislation being extended to MMA. A few years ago they even retained the firm Brownstein Hyatt Faber Schreck after Sen. John McCain introduced the Professional Boxing Amendment to to lobby on Capital Hill to make sure "a member of Congress ... didn't offer an amendment that would unjustifiably regulate mixed martial arts."

I asked Rob Maysey for a statement but he declined. He did direct me to a written statement on the MMAFA Facebook page which expanded on what he said at the ABC convention.