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The UFC showed its true colors during coronavirus pandemic

Karim Zidan delves into the UFC’s reckless handling of COVID-19 and how it exposes the promotion’s poor labor standards, its financial woes, and its unhinged promoter. 

Photo by Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images

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During the month of March, the world as we know it came to a screeching halt in the wake of a global pandemic. Airports shuttered, borders closed, and mass gatherings were banned around the world as governments braced themselves for unprecedented actions to mitigate the spread of the 2019 novel coronavirus, also known as COVID-19. Even sports leagues and organizations suspended their seasons indefinitely as a result of worldwide health crisis.

Yet despite the long list of organizations that have cancelled events and scheduled shows, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) — led by head honcho Dana White — continues to insist that that the show will go on.

The UFC’s defiance in the wake of COVID-19 includes hosting a UFC event in Brasilia amidst nationwide shutdowns, attempting to host an event in London the following week before leaving fighters stranded far from home, and stubborn insistence that it will pull off the UFC 249 Pay-Per-View event on April 18. Despite facing widespread media criticism regarding the reckless decision to host an MMA event during a global health crisis, the UFC’s response has been limited to ad hominem attacks, bad faith arguments and gaslighting from the promotion’s president.

“A lot of these media guys are absolute and total (expletive) scumbags,” White said during an interview on Frank Warren’s Heavyweight Podcast (h/t MMAJunkie.com). “As soon as you let them know what you’re doing, all they’re trying to do is (expletive) up everything that you’ve worked. So I’ve literally told every one of these guys to go (expletive) themselves and I’m not telling any of them what I’m doing, where I’m doing it.

“But know this: The fight is happening, April 18, somewhere on Planet (expletive) Earth. And when you need to know, I’ll let you know.”

While it is highly unlikely that the UFC will be able to host the UFC 249 PPV — especially following the loss of one half of its highly anticipated main event — the promotion’s decision to plow ahead in spite of a global pandemic lays bare some of the longstanding problems facing the leading MMA organization. While none of these concerns are new, they have been amplified during these troubling times to a point where they no longer can be ignored or trivialized.

Labor Exploitation

Ever since Dana White and former UFC owners Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta purchased the UFC — a near-bankrupt organization labeled ‘human cockfighting’ by late senator John McCain — in 2001, they have managed to transform the promotion in a billion-dollar global enterprise. While their success was lauded as American entrepreneurship and innovation, the truth is that the Fertittas built their empire on the backs of underpaid fighters who have no say in how the UFC divvies up its profits.

Fighters who join the UFC sign contracts for a certain number of fights with specifically designated pay that increases incrementally with each victory. The contract is far from favorable for most fighters, as it gives the UFC the right to terminate or extend contracts at their own discretion. Fighter pay remains a guarded secret. Though some athletic commissions are required to report the base pay each fighter received, it does not include any discretionary bonuses (performance or PPV-related) that the UFC doles out. Despite class-action antitrust lawsuit brought forth by former UFC fighters in 2015 who claim that the promotion suppressed wages using anti-competitive and unlawful practices, the UFC has done little to change its ways.

As fighters are not represented by any association or union, they have limited leverage against the more powerful UFC and are unable to collectively bargain for increased rights. This was particularly evident when the UFC signed a controversial deal with Reebok in 2015, which forced fighters to wear Reebok fight gear and logos at UFC-related events instead of their own acquired sponsorship. The deal, which was worth $70 million, was forced upon UFC fighters without any form of negotiations, costing countless fighters thousands of dollars in sponsorship income that they relied on.

Reebok And UFC Long-Term Partnership Announcement Photo by Chance Yeh/WireImage

Even successful fighters like Vitor Belfort — whose earnings far outweigh the average UFC fighter — claimed that the Reebok deal was akin to slavery.

”I’m not satisfied with the way the company is handling sponsorship. We are pretty much living in slavery. We can’t use our own sponsors; they are banned inside the Octagon. We have no properties… It’s a contact sport. I don’t think it’s fair for someone to earn 500 dollars to be elbowed in the face. There has to be a retirement plan, which does not exist now.”

While the UFC’s authoritarian contracts and sponsorship deals are longstanding concerns, the promotion’s decision to postpone several events in the wake of the COVID-19 global pandemic emphasized how restrictive and exploitative the contracts are under such circumstances.

On March 16, White sent out an email to UFC staff informing them that the promotion was forced to postpone UFC London (scheduled for March 21), as well as two other events scheduled for March 28 and April 11. Prior to the cancellation of UFC London, the promotion had attempted to reschedule the event in the United States despite the majority of their fighters already in London. Welterweight contender Leon Edwards, who was scheduled to meet Tyron Woodley in the main event, detailed his chaotic experience dealing with the UFC during that time.

“I went to bed on Saturday night and I got a phone call waking me up at about 9 a.m. on Sunday from my manager,” Edwards said (h/t MMA Mania). “He said the fight’s off in London and you need to get to America today. I was like, ‘Hold up, what? How long?’ You’ve got three hours. [UFC] didn’t care about getting back. They just cared about me getting there. That was the whole talk, about me getting there. Nothing about me coming back. This is madness. The whole Sunday I was like stressed out and I was trying to figure what I can do to make the fight happen and it just couldn’t happen.”

Edwards eventually took the decision to pull out of the fight himself. Several other fighters shared similar experiences and concerns surrounding the UFC’s handling of the event, including Ashlee Evans-Smith who described the uncertainty of being in limbo without adequate information from the UFC.

“It was a roller coaster of emotions because going over there I didn’t know I didn’t know what to expect,” Evans-Smith told the A-Side Live Chat. “I didn’t know if I was going to fight. I didn’t know if I was going to get quarantined. Still cutting weight—and I’m a big girl for 125—I’m hangry at this point, like, ‘What the hell is going on in the world?’ I was on the plane crying because, I don’t know, I’m a girl, I’m emotional. I love my sport. I wanted to compete. I need to make money, put food on the table, all that.”

Smith added that fighters “deserve that money” for their postponed bouts, especially given the circumstances of competing during a global health crisis.

“I, personally, was going to go over there and risk my personal health. I was willing to risk getting quarantined to fight, to perform, to do my job for them. So I really hope that they compensate us.”

And yet, none of the fighters involved on any of the three postponed shows have reportedly received compensation from the UFC.

UFC fighters do not receive salaries or guaranteed contracts. They also do not have year-round healthcare — UFC fighter insurance is only valid for injuries related to a fight — and are not eligible for pensions. They are also unable to procure their own sponsorships. As such, fighters rely on a constant stream of fights in order to make ends meet. Yet when the UFC postpones their scheduled bouts, the promotion is under no obligation to compensate the fighters as long as it reschedules the bout at a later date.

To make matters worse, the UFC classifies its fighters as independent contractors, not employees, which means that fighters are unable to reap the benefits and protections afforded to employees under U.S. law. This leaves fighters in desperate situations when crisis strikes, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only are the fighters unable to collect a paycheque, they are also unable to collect unemployment benefits because of their status as independent contractors. That is how exploitative the UFC’s contract are, and the only way to alleviate the promotion’s stranglehold is for fighters to collectively bargain for their rights.

Financial Mismanagement Spearheaded By Hollywood Powerbrokers

Not only does the UFC’s decision not to compensate its fighters for their canceled or postponed bouts highlight its exploitative treatment of fighters, it also places a spotlight on parent company Endveaor’s mismanagement of the UFC’s cash flow.

Back in February, the UFC paid out $300 million in dividends to some of its biggest investors, including celebrities such as Mark Wahlberg and Charlize Theron, Gisele Bündchen, Ben Affleck and tennis stars Serena and Venus Williams. Other beneficiaries include UFC president Dana White and Endeavor CEO Ari Emanuel, each of whom reportedly pocketed more than $3 million each.

There is also reason to suggest that Endeavor decided to dole out $300 million in dividends because of its failed effort to raise $600 million in an initial public offering (IPO) last year. In September 2019, Endeavor pulled its plan for a public offering of shares amid concerns from investors regarding the company’s financials, as well as market instability. The company’s IPO filing showed staggering debt up to $4.6 billion and an operating loss of $107 million. When Endeavor finally pulled its IPO offering, insiders speculated that the company “may have to pay out some retroactive bonuses to calm the waters.”

According to reports, S&P Global Ratings placed Endeavor its subsidiary UFC Holdings on credit watch negative last week due to the recent string of live event cancellations during the coronavirus outbreak. S&P Global also predicted that Endeavor’s revenue from events could drop this year by “mid-teens” percentage and that its debt will reach a ratio of seven times its EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization).

Los Angeles LGBT Center’s 48th Anniversary Gala Vanguard Awards Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images

The UFC is one of the most profitable additions to Endeavor’s portfolio, having reaped a reported $900 million in revenue in 2019 (only 16% of which was paid out to fighters). However, since the company has now drained the UFC’s cash reserves, the promotion is in a tight position to recoup in 2020, and that was before COVID-19 became a global pandemic that shut down much of the market. Matters appear to be far worse now.

Endeavor has since laid off 250 employees across the company. While none of the cuts have reportedly impacted the UFC, it is only a matter of time before the promotion feels the pressure from its Hollywood powerbroker’s financial woes.

A Mad Promoter Enabled and Emboldened by Donald Trump

Over the past 15 years, Dana White’s penchant for adolescent temper tantrums, unhinged rants, and tough-guy schtick made him a quintessential component of the UFC. To this day, he is arguably more popular than the vast majority of the fighters on the UFC roster. Yet despite his contribution to the UFC’s knucklehead brand, White has also proven to be one of the promotion’s biggest liabilities.

White has been with the UFC since 2001, when his longtime friends Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta purchased the MMA organization from Semaphore Entertainment Group. He was immediately positioned as the face of the UFC and has been synonymous with UFC branding ever since. While White had the opportunity to exit the UFC when the Fertitta brothers sold the UFC to Endeavor in 2016 for more than $4bn, he chose to stay on as president and help Endeavor CEO Ari Emanuel during the transition period.

While some assumed that White would be muzzled under the new ownership, he grew to be an even more controversial and problematic figure. Over the past few years, White has been involved in a public disputes UFC champions such as Tyron Woodley and Georges St-Pierre. He has also insulted reporters and defended the inclusion of convicted domestic abuser Greg Hardy on UFC fight cards. White even defended the UFC’s questionable pay scale by saying, “If you’re not that big pay-per-view star, shut up and fight.”

However, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic which wrecked havoc on the UFC’s schedule, White’s rants have become disturbing displays of paranoia, misinformation, and propaganda aimed at any who criticize his reckless decisions.

Prior to COVID-19 being declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO), White told TSN’s Aaron Bronsteter following UFC 248 that “I don’t give a shit about the coronavirus. As far as I’m concerned we are gonna continue to run our business.”

Dana White MMA News Max Holloway Hawaii Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

As the weeks went on and COVID-19 wrecked havoc on the UFC’s schedule, White’s statements continued to become more controversial. He labeled MMA media as the “wimpiest people on Earth” for their criticism of his decision to push on with UFC 249, questioned Americans for following social distancing protocols, and compared hiding from coronavirus to “hiding from cancer.”

“One thing is guaranteed – We’re all going to die of something. You can’t be somebody that’s going to hide in your house for months,” White told Yahoo Sports’ Kevin Iole last week. “You’re going to hide in your house for months? For what? No way. To be honest with you, if this goes on for months, I have a great house to be locked up in, man.

“I don’t think I’m a high-risk guy for this thing, and if I’m wrong, then the corona is going to get me. It is what it is. There’s nothing you can do about it. I’m not going to refuse to live my life. I’m not going to hide.”

White’s disregard for COVID-19 and his newfound disdain for the media mimics statements by U.S. President Donald Trump, whom White maintains a well-documented friendship with. White is a vocal supporter of the current administration and even praised Trump’s business savvy during a speech at the Republican National Convention in 2016. His defense of Trump’s actions over the past two years can be viewed as an extension of the UFC’s continued support of the president. Since the 2016 RNC, White has visited Trump in the White House along with interim champion Colby Covington – a welterweight fighter who sports Make American Great Again hats – and allowed the UFC to produce a propaganda documentary that presents Trump as a magnanimous business mogul.

Emboldened by the president, White continues to insist that UFC 249 will take place on April 18. He claimed to have found multiple venues but refused to share the information. He also won’t talk about whether UFC fighters will be tested for COVID-19 ahead of their bouts, instead saying that “the less the media knows, the better.

White’s comments have led to a deluge of criticism from mainstream outlets, many of whom questioned the UFC’s decision to host events during these uncertain times. His remarks, as well as the UFC’s relentless pursuit for profit amidst a pandemic, will not be forgotten anytime soon.

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