Be prepared for a lot of discussion over the next few weeks about the Ali Act and the question of whether or not it should be expanded to also cover mixed martial arts fighters. Last week we reported the news that Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-OK) would soon be introducing legislation to congress that would amend the Muhammad Ali Reform Boxing Act so that it included the sport of MMA (and other professional combat sports, such as kickboxing). If successful this could lead to some profound changes in the way business in MMA is conducted.
The Muhammad Ali Reform Boxing Act is a federal law that was enacted in 2000 (amending the 1996 Professional Boxing Safety Act) with the intended purpose of protecting the economic interests of boxers. As a former fighter himself, having these protections expanded to MMA fighters is a subject very close to Mullin's heart.
"We have been looking at this since I came up here," the Congressman told me in an interview we conducted over the phone on Friday. "This is something I knew was a problem from some personal experiences so this is something I have been waiting for three and a-half years for an opportunity for me to do this. The opportunity is some of the fighters coming to me and saying we're ready.
"I have a lot of friends that were still fighting and when they said ‘yes, we're ready. We're ready to support this, let's go.' That's when we took off and went running with it. So we're putting the final tweaks in it right now and we expect to be moving on this very quick."
While Mullin admits it hasn't seen much Federal enforcement he points out that several times boxers have used it to take their promoters or managers to civil court, setting precedence that has kept others from doing the same violations. According to him the evidence that it has worked can be seen in boxers' purses compared to those of MMA fighters.
"Look at our high end boxers and look at the revenue they can bring in and then look at our top tier athletes in MMA and it's not even comparable."
So how would the Ali Act help fighters? When asked for an example Mullin offered Section 13 of the Act which requires a promoter to disclose to a boxer "‘the amounts of any compensation or consideration that a promoter has contracted to receive from such match"
Numerous MMA fighters and managers, as well as boxing promoters, have told me that something as simple as knowing the actual amount of revenue an event brought in would have a major impact on a fighter's ability to negotiate a better contract. Mullin used his own personal experience for reference.
"Any of us who have fought have heard the same thing [from the promoter] ‘I'm not making any money off this fight.' On some of the lower cards they even have the fighters sell their own tickets because that's their purse. ‘Here's 500 tickets, go sell your tickets.‘ [Sec. 13] gets us away from allowing them to mislead the fighter. They have go to the fighter and say this is the revenue off [the event] and then allow the fighter to go and negotiate their contracts knowing that info."
While few would probably complain about promoters having to disclose how much they were making off an event, other aspects of the Act make some fans apprehensive. The primary source of concern for them is the Ali Act's demands for objective ranking criteria and a prohibition of financial compensation by a sanctioning body from a promoter or manager. The intent behind these parts of the act was to prevent a promoter from having too much leverage over a boxer.
Examples of the type of behavior this was intended to stop is a promoter demanding a boxer sign a long term exclusive deal with him before being allowed to compete for the title or a promoter manipulating the rankings so that he gets to pick and choose who is the number one contender.
While this type of behavior may have led to the Ali Act in boxing it is actually part and parcel to how MMA operates. In fact, the promoter's complete control over who fights for their titles is often cited as a major reason behind MMA's growing popularity at boxing's expense. The fear for some fans then is that if MMA promoters lose this control the sport will become more like boxing with its alphabet soup of sanctioning bodies each with their own belt.
Mullin does not share this concern. According to his interpretation of the Act, it will not mandate the creation of sanctioning bodies or require a promoter to give up their promotional titles. "They can still have their titles," he contends. "UFC can still have its champion and Bellator can have their champion." What it will require is a third party ranking system, though, one in which fighters from different promotions will be ranked together. It will also apparently require a promoter accepting these fighter ratings when determining who will get a title shots.
But who will make those rankings? Without sanctioning bodies Mullin suggested that perhaps it could be the job of the State Athletic Commissions.
'The commission are already involved with the organization. They're the one in the back inspecting our wraps. They're the ones walking us to the cage. They're the ones in the cage with us. So the commissions are already there now. Let's see them go and say there is going to be an independent ranking system where if you can go in and succeed you are eventually going to have a title - not just because you are out there and you're good at promoting yourself but because you're the best."
While we didn't have time to go into all the details, Mullin did raise the possibility that with third party rankings cross promotional matches might sometimes be required. "Lets say the Bellator champion and UFC champion are one and two in the rankings, they can have a title fight between each other. Maybe it's for both belts, or for one belt or for a super belt."
In the end Mullin thinks the UFC has to choose between one of two options - allow for the Ali Act or make it a league like the NBA or NFL.
"They're already operating that way," Mullin says. "[The UFC] have control over everything. Your uniforms, like what the guys in the corner and what the fighters can wear. They have control over the sponsors they can get. So in a sense they are already operating [as a league]."
Major league athletes in the US are also usually considered employees and not independent contractors and allowed to collectively bargain. The league members, that is the team owners, pay for the athletes training and other expenses. They also are governed by objective rules of play that are meant to be fair to every member. This goes beyond just the action on the field but covers the rules for the playing season as well. In the NBA or NFL the league comes up with a schedule that is not supposed to favor any other member. Each team has to follow the same objective rules to get a playoff berth or advance in the playoffs.
If Mullin has his way the UFC will have to make that choice soon though. While he wouldn't give a timeframe he expects it to happen soon. He also said there is support for the Act from members of both parties. "I have great rapport with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle here."
"I want to be very clear here, this isn't to bring down an organization. This is to help the athletes. I love the sport. I want it to be around for years. But I want the athletes to be taken care of the same way the organization is."