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Quote compilation: Ex-UFC fighters explain how Reebok deal drove them to Bellator MMA

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A quote compilation of former UFC fighters (all of whom are now with Bellator MMA) sounding off on the Reebok deal.

MMA: UFC Fight Night-Mousasi vs Leites Per Haljestam-USA TODAY Sports

Just a shade over two years ago, UFC president Dana White proudly declared that everyone was happy with the new Reebok uniforms as part of the six-year, $70 million sponsorship deal. Two months prior, White also defended the decidedly underwhelming tenure-based sponsorship by saying, "I just don't know how the deal could be any better. Could there be a lot more money? Of course there could. Everybody wants more money. That's never gonna change no matter what. If this deal with Reebok was $200 million it wouldn't enough money."

While it’s not to say fighter reaction has been 100% negative, the Reebok deal was certainly a problem for the likes of Ben Henderson, Ryan Bader, and most recently Gegard Mousasi, all of whom have since signed with Bellator MMA after their UFC contracts expired. The following is an extensive round-up of quotes from notable UFC-turned-Bellator fighters who have voiced their displeasure over the much-maligned UFC-Reebok partnership.

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Josh Thomson (Last Reebok payout: $5,000) - August 2015

"My understanding is that we have to wear Reebok with the UFC," Thomson said. "There's no other option. Well, you get paid to wear Reebok but you only get paid in their program, whatever their pay scale is. I took my negotiations over to Bellator, where there is no sponsorship tax, so my sponsors can sponsor me directly.

"So, if I have a company that is sponsoring me for $20,000 per fight, my sponsors aren't getting taxed by Bellator, which is more money in my pocket. You can't say that the UFC can match that. They just can't."

(Quotes via MMA Fighting)

For the record, Thomson said he earned $35,000 in sponsorship money for his Bellator debut.

Ben Henderson (Last Reebok payout: $15,000) - February 2016

“I won't lie, it was a very big deal," Henderson said. "The ability to get sponsors on your own and not have to rely on the amount that Reebok dictates to you was a huge factor. I'd be straight up lying if I said it wasn't a very big part of my decision to go to Bellator.

"I also want to be a trailblazer for the betterment of fighters. Bellator is open to a fighters union -- fighters binding together to see what's in our best interest. That's something you can't even breathe about elsewhere. I think it's a good thing for myself and other fighters to have that."

(Quotes via ESPN)

Matt Mitrione (Last Reebok payout: $10,000) - April 2016

"The biggest part [of leaving the UFC] isn't the money part, it's the freedom to go get your own money. You can now express the fact that the emperor is not wearing any clothes...It's sponsorships, it's being able to voice an opinion without fear of getting your back end bonus that may or may not come anyway."

"It's just in general like, who the hell are you to take away my money, my sponsorship money, to take that away from me without even a conversation about it? Knowing that we don't fight hard for our contract money because the contract money was far outweighed by the sponsor money. But now all of the sudden you take that away from me and now I'm depending upon the 8 and 8 [thousand dollar, show and win purses] that I never fought on and now it's going to be tooth and nail to get it bumped up to 12 and 12 or 10 and 10. We had no say in that and that's what hurt."

(Quotes via MMA Fighting from interview with Inside MMA)

Rory MacDonald (Last Reebok payout: $10,000) - August 2016

"You walk into that cage like every single other person out there on the roster," MacDonald said. "You're basically like a robot walking into the cage with the same jersey on, there's no difference between this guy and that guy. It's boring, I find it. It's very plain. I understand where they're trying to go with it, but that's just not fight sport. There's no personality there."

(Quotes via MMA Fighting)

MacDonald did admit that his sponsorship money dipped by going to Bellator, but he’s nevertheless happy with his decision. He’s also the only fighter on this list who had an individual Reebok contract.

Roy Nelson (Last Reebok payout: $15,000) - May 2017

“That’s the one thing I’m very excited about. That’s definitely a plus, than being in the UFC versus being an employee and getting a ‘wear this uniform,’” Nelson said.

“I think it all depends on who you are and how marketable [you are], because sponsorship is about marketability. We’ll just use UFC, if you’re on the Reebok deal and you’re making $15,000 and nobody knew who you were and you’re just like, I’ve been fighting here for the last five years, blah blah blah, and you’re making $15,000 and you’re like, ‘yes!’

“And then there were people that were names and you hit 15 grand and you’re like, um, you just took my salary away. I made more from sponsorship than I did from fighting. I did that for the longest time.”

(Quotes via MMA Fighting)

Lorenz Larkin (Last Reebok payout: $10,000) - June 2017

“It just allows me to be myself,” Larkin said. “It allows me to wear what I want to wear. It allows me to be me. I’m not up here wearing a private school uniform. So, I can’t complain.”

(Quotes via MMAjunkie)

Ryan Bader (Last Reebok payout: $15,000) - June 2017

“I'm not entirely sure for the whole market, but I just know that we're right back to where we were in the heyday of sponsorships in the UFC, us personally,” Bader responded, when asked about how his current sponsorship stacks up to the pre-Reebok UFC days. “But, we have great relationships with a couple billion dollar companies that have stood by us for a long time. One, American Ethanol. You know, CtyoSport, which owns Muscle Milk and Monster Milk and all that kind of stuff. Those two have been great, they stuck around. And then we brought on some other great sponsors too. And it was just one of those things where it wasn't hard. We stepped right back into what we were making when everything was open and free in the UFC. That's a huge factor too. That's a significant amount of income we were missing out on in the UFC.

“A lot of people attack Reebok, but it's really not Reebok's fault,” Bader continued. “They came in and they had a good deal - what I think was a good deal for them - and I have nothing against Reebok. It's just one of those things where it's kinda like, ‘This is how it is now. This is how it's gonna change, and it's better for all of you.’ When that necessarily wasn't the case. And you see that now, and people are using Reebok as a scapegoat, when it really wasn't them. They were just doing business and it's just one of those things where it got forced on us. And to all a sudden say, ‘Alright, you lose out on 3/4 of your sponsorship income, but we're paying you this.’ I was one of those guys that was the highest tenured guy, that had 17, 18, 19, about 20 fights in the UFC, you know. And it still wasn't a fraction of what I was making. So, that's why you see a lot of these guys come out. And they use Reebok, but I don't necessarily think they should be funneling their anger toward Reebok. It should be toward the UFC, or whatnot, who put them in place and took away their ability to get outside sponsorship.

“And you hear people speak out, because number 1, they don't want to attack the UFC for fear of, not retaliation, but of getting kinda stonewalled on fights and whatnot. So they go down the line to Reebok and they can bitch about Reebok, without directly talking bad about the UFC.”

(Quotes via Bloody Elbow)

Gegard Mousasi (Last Reebok payout: $10,000) - July 2017

“Let’s be honest, Reebok was (only) there to sell the company. Never was it meant to help the fighters out,” Mousasi said. “Reebok became with UFC because they wanted to sell it for $4 billion. It’s just as simple as that, to make global the sport, and just to sell it. It was terrible for fighters.”

“I don’t know. I was not happy with the Reebok deal. 99% of the fighters are not happy with the Reebok deal. Reebok themselves are not happy. And UFC is not happy with Reebok, but it is what it is.

“Reebok is bad for UFC. I don’t know if the new owners realize what they’re doing.”

(Quotes via Bloody Elbow from The MMA Hour interview)

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It’s worth pointing out that none of these fighters reached the $20,000 sponsorship tier, of which you need a minimum of 21 fights under a Zuffa-owned promotion to qualify. Both Bader and Henderson just so happened to have their contracts expire at exactly 20 fights. MacDonald is the only one in this list who fought for a title in the Reebok era, and he earned $30,000 as a title challenger.

As the UFC continues to reshape its business model, we will surely see more well-known free agents not re-signed and instead joining other promotions, with Bellator MMA taking in the lion’s share. For as long as this current arrangement exists, the Reebok deal will continue to be a reason for free agent fighters to defect from the UFC.