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Kajan Johnson: Protest at UFC retreat led to ‘productive’ Reebok meeting with execs

UFC lightweight Kajan Johnson discusses his brief protest at a recent Reebok summit in Las Vegas and how it lead to an “incredible” and “productive” meeting with UFC executives on the organization’s apparel deal.

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Kajan Johnson was at the center of attention at a Reebok summit part of the UFC Athlete Retreat in Las Vegas this past weekend for criticizing the UFC’s apparel deal with Reebok.

During the final minutes of the summit, the UFC lightweight stood up and spoke out against the Reebok deal, which has been in effect for nearly two years, saying he has lost 80 percent of his sponsorship money because of the partnership.

Johnson said UFC fighters never have the chance to discuss the deal with the UFC and Reebok, so he looked at this summit as a rare opportunity to do so.

“I was really just saying what everybody was thinking. We’re all in this conference center, and we’ve got these executives talking kind of at us — not really [with] us. It wasn’t a two-way conversation, we weren’t really able to ask any questions,” Johnson told “There’s this Reebok dude that’s talking about how good the deal was for him, for his company, and for the UFC. And I’m just sitting there like, ‘Yeah, but what about us? There’s no fight without us. There’s no show without us. You got nothing to sponsor with us. The UFC has nothing to promote without us.’

“So I stood up, and I said that. I was like, ‘Well, I understand it was good for you and the UFC, but you took food off our plates. I lost 80 percent of my sponsorship. You’re paying us almost nothing.’ He didn’t really know what to say. The woman that was interviewing him was trying to get me to sit down, and then this rep from the UFC came up and told me to stop filming, because I was filming the whole time. I wasn’t going to stop filming, I wasn’t going to sit down, obviously. I was going to say what I was gonna say; I came there to say it.”

After the incident, Johnson left the room. He wasn’t literally kicked out, he said, but UFC officials wanted to talk to him.

“Obviously, I had grievances, and they pulled me out to talk about those grievances. It wasn’t like security grabbed me and dragged me out,” he said. “If I didn’t stand up at that point, that conference would’ve gone on for another 15 or 20 minutes, but that shut the conference right down. It was over anyway, but I was the first to leave for sure.”

Johnson said the UFC was “upset” with the way he revealed his issues with the Reebok deal. The 33-year-old admitted that he shouldn’t have unleashed his anger on the Reebok representative, as the apparel company is not responsible for paying UFC fighters.

“My issue is not with Reebok. Reebok has done what they said they were going to do,” he said. “They created great clothing for us. It’s very well-made. Some of us aren’t happy with the design, but that’s another issue, and I think they’re addressing it. The UFC, on the other hand, did not do what they were supposed to do. They did not look out for the fighters’ best interests. It’s their job to take care of us. It’s their job to make sure that whatever deal they sign, that we’re OK with it, and that that deal also looks after us.

“I actually apologized to the Reebok rep after on the phone. It’s not him that I really have the beef with. It’s the UFC. It was an oversight in the moment. But still, regardless of that fact, I’m glad I did it.”

The aftermath of the protest was a “situation that was really, really incredible,” according to the Canadian. The UFC scheduled an impromptu session that most fighters in Las Vegas for the Retreat attended. Fighters talked to UFC executives about all the grievances they have with the Reebok deal, followed by possible solutions to make the Reebok deal ideal for everyone.

“It was really, really productive,” Johnson said. “There were a lot of people that were speaking up. I spoke a little bit at the beginning, but I didn’t have to say very much; I just had to create that situation. And then the room just took over. There were guys like Joe Lauzon talking about numbers. Sara McMann was really vocal, giving a lot of great solutions and ideas that we can use to work around the deal that’s currently in place to put more money in fighters’ pockets.

“I don’t think it’s ever happened before that that many fighters have sat down and had an open and honest, back-and-forth conversation with high-level UFC executives outlining the problems and then trying to find solutions to those problems that work for both the company and the athletes.”

A tense occurrence turned into a “really positive experience,” Johnson said.

“The executives and fighters left that room feeling great, feeling hopeful for the future,” he said. “Before, there was a lot of turmoil. It was like, ‘OK, we’re going to war.’ At the end, it was the opposite. It’s like, ‘OK, how can we do this together? How can we create a situation that’s mutually beneficial?’ We’re in this boat together.”

“Ragin” doesn’t know if he’ll face any formal or informal disciplinary action from the UFC for speaking out, but if he does, he won’t care.

“If I had to break an egg in order to do it, I’m happy that egg’s broken,” he said. “Even if I’m now gonna be penalized, I think I got the ball rolling in the right direction, and it was worth it.”

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