Last week a subcommittee hearing entitled "Perspectives in Mixed Martial Arts" was held by the Energy and Commerce Committee in the House of Representatives. The two-hour proceeding saw a wide range of subjects important to the future of MMA discussed. (The full list of witnesses and copies of their prepared statements can be found here) This included traumatic brain injury, drug testing, athletic commission oversight, competition between promotions, the means by which rankings and titles were awarded, and whether the passage of HR 44 - the Muhammad Ali Expansion Act Bill - was needed to protect fighters.
It was during questioning of this last subject that lead to perhaps the most talked about incident of the hearing. For several minutes straight, Rep. Markwayne Mullin, the Oklahoma Republican who not only introduced HR 44 to the 115th Congress but is also a former professional fighter, grilled Marc Ratner, the UFC’s Senior Vice President of Government and Regulatory Affairs, on the promotion’s practices and whether it was truly sport. As entertaining as their back-and-forth was, hopefully the tenor of the discussion wasn't missed. If you're looking for a summary of the arguments made by opponents of and proponents for the Ali Act's expansion, this was a good start.
Here is the transcript of their exchange (starting at the 76 minute mark on the video):
Mullin: Mr. Ratner you made a statement that you said boxers and MMA fighters are treated the same.
Ratner: By commissions. Yes.
Mullin: So is there is a ranking system the same
Ratner: Are the ranking? Uh, first of all I'm a regulator
Mullin: I know but if you're saying they're treated the same that's an awful broad statement.
Ratner: Well I'm saying from a regulatory point of view, from a commission point of view -
Mullin: Well you're talking about the safety of the fighter. We're talking about the ranking - and the Ali Act doesn't deal with the safety of it, it deals with the financial disclosures of it. So when you make that broad statement - let's be narrow because this is a hearing on the legislation on HR 44, for that's what this is about. We're not talking about the safety, which is important, we're talking about what the Ali Act does and doesn't. So when you say that a boxer and an MMA fighter is treated the same is the ranking system the same? Yes or no?
Ratner: The ranking systems in boxing are completely different.
Mullin: Okay, so what criteria does the MMA use for the ranking system? The UFC specifically?
Ratner: The UFC, there's a group of sports writers. I'm not sure how many and they are the ones -
Mullin: Do they serve at will of the UFC?
Ratner: They serve? No, they're independent.
Mullin: They serve at will. The UFC reserves the right to remove anybody off that [ranking] commission that they choose.
Ratner: I cannot answer that.
Mullin: It's true. The answer is that is true.
Ratner. I do not know that, but there's a group of them - it's 18 or 20, something like that - and they rank the fighters -
Mullin: What criteria did they use to rank the fighters?
Ratner: As I said I’m in the regulatory part of it, I'm not in that part of it and I cannot answer that.
Mullin: But you did refer to it. I mean, in your opening statement you referred to the ranking system. So if you referred to in your opening statement then let’s be clear on a couple of things. How do they choose who’s going to fight for a title.
Ratner: How does the UFC?
Ratner: On a competitive basis. We make the fight that fans want to see.
Mullin: I have no objections to that. I want that. But when you are talking about a world title as a professional fighter I want to know that I’m the best if I’m fighting and that’s the whole point. As Randy [Couture] said, he wants to fight the best. So how do you know you get a fight between the best. It doesn’t have to do with matchmaking. That Mayweather-McGregor fight was not for a title. The fans wanted to see it, correct? But when you have a title out there that they - that the UFC shows as a world title, do you consider that the world title?
Ratner: Last Saturday night we had three world titles.
Mullin: World titles? So when [UFC Chief Operating Officer] Lawrence Epstein came and talked to me and he said they don’t look at the title as being a title but as an award bestowed upon the best fighter that night, would you agree with that statement?
Ratner: I do. Just going back to Saturday night -
Mullin: Then it’s not really a world title.
Ratner: It’s a world title as far as we’re concerned.
Mullin: Not if you’re considering it an award bestowed upon the best fighter. It can’t be. When you have the last three fights for the 185-pound, as I said in my opening statement. When Luke fought Bisping, Bisping was ranked number 4. The number 3, the number 2, and the number 1 contender, did they refuse the fight, like in the boxing world they do?
Ratner: In the boxing world what you have there is step aside and there’s all kind of games -
Mullin: Okay, but did they? Did the number 3, 2, and number 1 contender have an opportunity to fight or did it go straight to Bisping?
Ratner: I am going to make it clear again that I am not part of that -
Mullin: But you said in the opening statement and you said the fighters and the MMA and boxers are treated the same.
Mullin: They are not when you’re talking about the ranking system.
Ratner: I am talking about state commissions.
Mullin: State commission when you’re talking about the safety and regulating the safety but not, not the true ranking system. If the UFC is considered a professional sport, then it should be on a merit-based rankings system. When the fans know the number 1 contender actually has a shot at the title. Because we haven’t seen that at 185 [pound division]. How did Dan Henderson – and I like Dan Henderson, this is no knock on him – but he wasn’t even in the top-10, and when was he last in the top-10? He got to fight Bisping for the title shot. Did the 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2 and 1 all refuse?
Ratner: When Dan Henderson fought Michael Bisping, it was a natural rematch from a fight maybe four or five years ago.
Mullin: But then it wasn’t a title shot, but yet it was for a title shot. Then that means the world championship belt that the UFC has isn’t really a world championship belt. It’s really what Lawrence Epstein personally told me: it’s simply an award they bestow on the best fighter that night. That’s insulting to every professional athlete. How did [Georges St-Pierre] get a fight for the title when he hasn’t had a fight in four years, much less at 185 pounds, where he never fought for the belt?
Ratner: St-Pierre hadn’t fought in four years, you’re absolutely right.
Mullin: So how did he get a title shot?
Ratner: St-Pierre was a former champion, a former pound-for-pound best fighter in the world, according to our -
Mullin: So he still didn’t fight for a title. He fought for an award bestowed upon the best fighter of the night. I’m wrapping up Mr. Chairman. When you say boxers are treated like MMA fighters, clarify that statement that you’re talking about the health of the fighter, but not the professional ranking system, and not about the financial disclosures, because there are distinct differences. And the Ali Act is the backstop to boxers. There is no backstop for MMA fighter. It’s take it or leave it, and that’s why I say the UFC has become the Don King of MMA.
As good as that exchange was it left a few things up in the air. Thankfully I had a chance to speak to Rep. Markwayne Mullin before last week's hearing, during which he revealed what comes next for the bill and an alternative option available to the UFC and Bellator.
Nash: Why do think we need to have the Ali Act expanded into mixed martial arts and other combat sports?
Mullin: To make it fair. We're not adding anything new, we're just asking that MMA fighters get the same protections that boxers already get. The Ali Act was written because promoters like Don King were talking advantage of his boxers and we're seeing some of those same things in MMA now. That's not good for a sport.
People just assume that when you’re having a championship fight it’s the best two fighters, because in football or baseball they have a set playoff and system to get the two best to play, but in MMA that doesn’t have to be true. They can just say it’s the two best and pretend. But we aren’t getting the top two fighters.
When was the last time the 185 belt was defended by the champion against the number one contender? You have to go back to Weidman against Luke Rockhold that was two years ago. When Bisping fought Luke he was number 4. Then you had Bisping against Dan Henderson, and Henderson, his career speaks for itself, but he wasn’t in the top 10. How does he get a title fight? And then you have GSP who hasn’t ever fought at 185-pounds, and it would be different if he was still the 170-pound champ but he also hasn’t fought in the last 4 years. So how you get to jump over everyone else? What happened to the number one contender? Or number two or three or four or five? Did they get a title shot or offer?
It goes down to what Lawrence Epstein said to me when we met. They don’t look at that title as a title they look at it like they are bestowing a trophy on the best fighter that night. That is a quote of what Lawrence Epstein told me here in my office. And I thought that’s discrediting the sport. That’s like the WWE at that point.
Nash: So what do you see the Ali Act doing for MMA? What things in MMA have to change?
Mullin: With the ranking and titles being controlled by the promoter than ranking and title fights can be manipulated by the promoter. And it’s fine to matchmake whatever fights you want but don’t discredit the title. I like fun fights, that's not the problem. Make those fights but fighters deserve to know if they work for it and win in the ring they'll get a chance to earn the title. Just like a real sport. It can't just be decided by who the promoter wants to see fight for it.
We feel that if we get a true ranking system, that ranks all fighters objectively regardless of the promotion they're in, this will help fighters negotiate much better contracts.
If the UFC or Bellator want to have their own ranking system and their own titles and have no one else fight for them, they need to move to a real “league” system. They need to make the fighters their employees. But if they want to continue operating like they do in boxing where the fighters are viewed as independent guys, then they should follow the same rules they do in boxing.
Nash: So what should we expect after the hearing? When do you see it being up for a vote?
Mullin: Depends on how the hearing goes. If they hearing goes well, and it has a lot of bipartisan support - which is important - I would like to see it move to markup which would be our next step. Before we can vote for it on the floor, you have to suspend the rules and move on past it or you go through regular order. Regular order means you have to got to markup where amendments can be offered to the bill and then it gets referred to the floor and you vote on it. The timing on this could be anywhere from a few weeks to a few months. But that’s just getting it off the house floor, at that point we still have to get it through the Senate and then on to the President’s desk. Once we get it out of the House we are halfway there."