Fighter pay has been a hot topic over the last few months as Youtube star turned-boxer Jake Paul has sought to highlight what he views as low pay for fighters from the UFC. Fighters such as Francis Ngannou and Paulo Costa have also expressed their own opinions, all while pound-for-pound great Jon Jones remains in limbo as he apparently waits for “Deontay Wilder money.”
This isn’t a new debate. I have myself over the years repeatedly asked why there is not a union in MMA, if competition or collective bargaining was better or why MMA stars can’t make the same huge purses as boxers. And while most fighters that voice complaints seem to soon lose interest, Nate “Rock” Quarry is one fighter that has remained steadfast in his efforts to enact what he sees as much needed change.
I first interviewed Nate Quarry almost 8 years ago. While his views of what ails the sport of Mixed Martial Arts remain pretty much the same, his opinion on what the solutions are has changed. Since that first interview he has signed on as a plaintiff in the UFC antitrust lawsuit and has traveled to Washington DC to lobby Congress on behalf of expanding the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act to include MMA fighters. He has also published a graphic novel titled Zombie Cage Fighter which he calls “autobiographical horror story.”
With so much recent discussion on the subject of fighter pay, I thought it might be worthwhile to ask what he thinks can be done about it.
[The following conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.]
What do you think about the current discussion regarding fighter pay? Specifically what do think of the attention that Jake Paul has brought to it?
It’s great that Jake Paul and his brother are speaking up but they shouldn’t have to. There should be plenty of well known fighters doing it. But it’s still great that they are. And if they want to really make an impact, if they are really serious about helping fighters make more money, then they should come with us to DC. Because as we’ve seen time and time again, talk doesn’t change anything. We need to pass the legislation like the Ali Act expansion. We need to win in the courts like with the antitrust lawsuit. We need permanent change.
You are a plaintiff in the UFC antitrust case and although we are waiting for the written opinion, the judge for the case has repeatedly said he will be certifying the bout class making it a class action lawsuit. You are part of the identity class which he did not say he is certifying, although it’s still a possibility. What are you hoping to accomplish with this suit?
Well I hope he certifies my class. I knew when I signed on that I was on the outside of the statute of limitations for the bout class so there was always a risk I would be removed. But for the fighters as a group it’s probably more important that the bout group was granted class because that’s where most the damages were. So if the identity class is dropped I’m going to still be cheering for them but I’ll just be sitting with the spectators in the court instead of with the other plaintiffs.
[Note: certification allows a smaller group of plaintiffs to represent a larger class of individuals who are not named plaintiffs as part of a class action lawsuit.]
Going forward, what do I hope happens? I hope we win and the fighters, even without me, win a lot money in damages. But it’s not that we just want to be compensated for being underpaid for all these years, we also want to change things to keep the UFC from doing it in the future. We want to change it so they can’t continue with their monopolistic scheme. Hopefully that will include a remedy on top of the money so fighters won’t have this ridiculous contracts that prevent them from ever testing the market.
So the goal is that when this is done the UFC will pay the fighters in the class period what they are owed and that fighters going forward won’t have to worry about the UFC using all the tolling provisions and other methods they have to lock fighters up in contracts for years, preventing them from testing the market. So contracts will be shorter and it’ll be easier to renegotiate or sign with someone else, for fighters to have the opportunity to get their true worth on the free market. If the UFC wants to pay more to stay the top promotion then great. That’s awesome. That will be up to them but they have plenty of money to do it.
The case has taken years to make it just to class certification. Are you disappointed with the speed of the courts?
I won’t lie and say I thought it was going to take as long as it has. I mean, I knew going in antitrust cases take a long time so I knew our case could take a decade or more. But I didn't really think about it or I hoped it would be faster.
It’s been… almost 7 years now. But I think we can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. It won’t take nearly as long. Soon enough we’ll be in trial and getting a verdict or coming to an agreement over a settlement.
Even with the slow speed we’ve accomplished a lot. We got a lot of things disclosed to the public. Emails from the matchmakers and financial information. Just a lot material. For example, everyone now knows how much the UFC was really paying us as a portion of the revenue. We had to guess before but now people know for fact how low it was. So much lower than what you see in other sports.
In addition to being a Plaintiff in the Le v Zuffa case you’ve also lobbied Congress for expansion of the Muhammed Ali Reform Boxing Act as a member of the Mixed Martial Arts Fighters Association. Do you plan to try to restart this effort?
Yes. [The MMAFA] is still here and although I don’t have a date yet we haven’t given up on the Ali Act and plan on being back in DC soon to get that started again. We’re not quitting.
I’m sure you are aware that many fans seem opposed to the idea of expanding the Ali Act to MMA. That it will, according to them, ruin the sport. Many also argue that it won’t work for MMA or that it doesn’t work in boxing now. What do you say to these critics?
I hear this every time I talk bout the Ali Act, someone says. ‘No I don’t want it to be like boxing.’ And so I ask them what exactly it is that you don’t like about boxing? Usually they shut up because most people don’t have an opinion yet. They don’t know, they just know they don’t like it because the promoters don’t like it.
But sometimes they’ll have an answer. ‘Well there’s too many belts in boxing.’ OK, but there’s more belts in MMA. Every promotion has their own belt in MMA. Plus, if you do any sort of research, all the belts in boxing - the WBA, WBO - all of them were around before the Ali Act was passed. Kind of hard to blame them having four different sanctioning bodies on the Ali Act if they were around before the Ali Act. Have they made any since the Ali Act? No? Well, maybe we should credit the Ali Act for that?
The other thing I’ll hear some people saying is, ‘well I don’t like it because the champions are always ducking people in boxing.’ So you’re concerned about champions ducking opponents but you’re not concerned about the UFC having a monopoly and denying someone a chance to fight for the title just because they don’t like their style or they aren’t signed with the UFC? It’s alright that the UFC blocked Couture from fighting Fedor because that’s different. It’s OK when a promoter does it it because then it’s just business.
People will complain about how the Ali Act hasn’t made boxing perfect and it probably hasn’t. Nothing’s perfect. But it did what it was designed to do. It prevented a monopoly from taking over boxing. There is no one in boxing today saying you have to sign with me as your promoter if you want to ever fight for the heavyweight title like there was before the Act. Correct me If I’m wrong but I think every major heavyweight in boxing right now is with a different promoter? There is nothing close to a monopoly.
The Act was intended to protect the boxers financially. Protect them against promoters and managers taking advantage of them. And we have the same problems now in MMA that boxing had before the Ali Act so why shouldn’t we also be protected? People always talk about Don King, how horrible he was. How he ripped off his fighters and it was because he was so bad boxing needed the Ali Act. Well the UFC today pays less than Don King did then and they had to pass a law to stop him.
People are not even aware of this. They don’t understand how much the UFC keeps compared to the fighters. The UFC pays a smaller share than Don King did and then people think we don’t need the protection of the Ali Act?
Many will say it won’t do anything. That it’s relatively toothless or never enforced.
I don’t think that’s true. If it was true that it didn’t do anything then the UFC wouldn’t be fighting us. They wouldn’t be spending millions on lobbyist or asking Trump to help stop it.
Maybe it isn’t enforced as much as it should be. Maybe the government and the athletic commissions haven’t enforced it as much as they should have, Maybe that’s true, but fighters also enforce it themselves. It says that in the act that they have the [private right of action.] A boxer can go to court on his own whenever their promoter or manager is violating it.
So boxers can use that on their own and they do. If no one enforces the Act why do promoters in boxing follow it? Because the boxers can enforce it themselves. And here’s the other thing that all the people that say this miss - we have a secret weapon they don’t have in boxing. We we will have an association. So it doesn’t matter if the commissions fail to enforce it because we’ll enforce it ourselves with the association. An association can do that. An association can force the commissions to step up and enforce it or they can go to court on behalf of its members.
But what do you say to those that are worried this will ruin the sport? It’s not just a lot of fans but also fighters who seem to like the idea of one major set of titles. They like being known as UFC fighters and are worried something like the Ali Act could destroy the promotion.
Why would we want the biggest promoter to crash and burn? We want them to remain around, we just want them to also pay more.
Will the UFC stop being the number one promotion? That’s up to the UFC. It will be very easy for them to stay the biggest promoter and put on all the best fights and have all the biggest shows. All they got to do is pay more. They make so much money, so much more than all the other MMA promotions that all they’ll have to do is share more of that money with the fighters.
All we are trying to do is make it a more open, free, competitive market All we want to do is to have the UFC competing and bidding for fighters, not trapping fighters in contracts and holding title fights in front of them. If they do that they can stay the biggest promoter.
So I don’t think expanding the Ali Act to cover MMA fighters will ruin the sport. I think it will save the sport. Make it a real sport where fighters get to compete for the title because they really are the best not because the promoter likes them or because they do whatever the promoters demand.
I think we’ll have the chance for a true world champion because we won’t have a bunch of different champions, one for each promoter, who can’t fight each other so we never know who really is the best. I think promoters won’t be able to hold a title shot over a fighter and tell them if you want a chance to fight for the belt you have to sign a 6 or 10 fight contract.
But what about the fears of some fans and fighters that it will lead to multiple titles? A lot of people really do not like boxing’s Alphabet titles.
Well, I’d point out to them that boxers make a lot more than MMA fighters, so maybe it’s worth it. I’d also say we don’t have to have a lot of different belts. The reason there is a bunch of different belts in boxing is not because of the Ali Act. We could very well decide there should only be one title. That’s what the MMAFA is for. That’s why you want to have an association. So fighters can have a say and make these decisions.
This sounds a little like an idea I had that I shared on Kurt Emhoff’s podcast. We were discussing how to make a “boxing league” and my idea was for the boxers to create a boxers association that would either issue guidelines that the sanctioning organizations would have to follow or have the association operate as sanctioning organization themselves.
Well, that is a possibility. If that’s what most the fighters want then why not? If fighters want 1 belt or 10, it’s will be up to them but there’s no reason we can’t have just one “true title” if that’s what we decide as a group.
But the most important thing is it shouldn’t be controlled by the promoter. The titles and rankings have to be independent. So yes we can have single world champion but a fighter shouldn’t have to go to the UFC if they want to be that world champ. They should be able to sign with whatever promoter gives him or her the best contract and then they still should be able to compete for the world title.
All of this goes together, the lawsuit and the Ali Act. When we’ve succeeded promoters will have to compete for fighters and as we’ve seen in other sports that’s when wages go up. The UFC won’t be able to monopolize the sport. They won’t be able to buy up and put competitors out of business or make fighters sign contracts that have all these clauses that make it impossible to ever be a free agent. They won’t be able to control rank and title. Other promoters won’t be able to do any of this either. We won’t have to worry about another promoter becoming the new UFC. We’ll be able to operate on a level playing field where fighters know how much money their fights are bringing in and won’t have to sign long contract if they want a chance to be the world champion. The whole industry will be completely different.
There’s been several efforts over the years to organize fighters, as either a union or an association, but they almost all quickly fizzle out. Gray Maynard has mentioned that, for a whole bunch of reasons related to the profession, efforts that require fighter solidarity aren’t likely to succeed. Even though you are a member of the MMAFA I notice you guys seem to have a similar view. The class action lawsuit and lobbying congress are actions that don’t require the full roster.
Right now you can’t get everyone to step forward. It’s just not realistic. I think we eventually will after we win the lawsuit and the Ali Act is passed. After that fighters are going to realize they can now safely step forward. But for now many are just too scared. Or ignorant about it. Most fighters don’t know anything about what we are trying to do with the lawsuit or what will happen if the Ali Act passes. They don’t have an opinion. And I don’t really blame them. It sucks when you’re fighting. You’re tired, you’re constantly training, and you have no control over it anyway so it makes sense why you don’t really pay attention to it.
But I think more of them will start paying attention once you see the antitrust case getting close to the end, or when the Ali Act is passed. Then it will be real and fighters will know things are changing and that we can have some control over our careers. Then you’ll see fighters wanting to join the association.
But for now it’s just a few of us doing this. There should be more of us, yes. But I can understand why the young guys don’t. The risk is too big. You worked your whole life to get to that level and you haven’t really made any money yet so it makes sense why you’d be worried about making the UFC mad. I probably wouldn’t step forward and do this if I was in their shoes either. We saw the same thing happen with Amazon workers when they tried to form a union. They ended up voting against it because they were scared about losing their jobs.
But retired fighters, or the champs that have made some money and don’t have to worry about the UFC cutting them? They could step forward. They can join us. Come with us to DC.
Like I said, I understand why the young fighters can’t do this, but the legends? They have nothing to lose. This is for the future of the sport. And the champs right now? They should be out front trying to get the Ali Act passed as soon as possible because they will be the big winners. Jon Jones? Francis Ngannou? Their first fight after the Ali Act passes will probably pay them more than every fight in their career combined has.
When you look at the politics of most MMA fighters, the majority of them seem to lean to the right. Progressives or liberal fighters seem to be very rare. You are one of the few exceptions. What’s it like being one of the few public left-leaning fighters?
The weird thing for me, and I don’t want to sound like a self righteous condescending asshole, but the weird thing for me is they don’t see it the same way I do. But I always say if anyone wants to have a legitimate, reasonable discussion with me, I am always happy to. I make that offer and you will still get a bunch of people just name calling but plenty of times someone comes around and says ‘but are you aware of this?’ And then shows me something that I didn’t know and after I look at what they’ve shown me I might change my opinion. I want to look at the numbers and the data, so if you show me something and have the data or evidence to back it up, then I think I’ll change my mind.
Like when I look at the data it looks like things really went wrong in the 80’s when we started doing something called “trickle-down economics.” We decided we should let the rich have all the money and we’d all better off because they knew better than us. It wasn’t unions or a higher minimum wage or healthcare like every other major country, it was giving tax cuts to the rich that would make us better off. That was the argument behind trickle-down.
And because of that trickle-down message people are convinced that poor people deserve to be poor. “If somebody isn’t successful it’s nobodies fault but their own.” Really? It’s their own fault that they aren’t a billionaire or millionaire? It’s always ‘people are poor because they’re lazy.’ Don’t get me wrong, there are lazy people. But there are people that work very hard, who show up to work picking strawberries, or work 12 hours a day at a restaurant or full time at two jobs to put a food on the table for their family. If it was just hard work that was the key to success than every janitor or person out in the fields would be rich.
I come from a struggling working class. My dad was a blue collar worker, I went with him to pick up his last paycheck and he was dead a few weeks later. He left my mother with nothing but debt. So I know from personal experience not everyone has the same opportunities, That poor people aren’t just lazy.
Reagan said “the most terrifying words in English are ‘I am from the government and here to help’” and I always thought why would anyone want to vote for someone that thought like that? I want someone in government who thinks government can help. If I have a problem with the pipes in my kitchen I don’t call the plumber that thinks plumbers are useless. So we elect people that don’t think government can ever work and then are surprised when it doesn’t?
So how do you work with other fighters who may be more conservative? There were a lot of fighters who were very public in their support for Trump, while you were openly opposed to him.
When fighters ask me why we don’t have the Ali Act I ask them who did you vote for? When they say Trump I reply, ‘that’s why’. Because when he had almost 60 co-sponsors in the House for the Ali Act Expansion Act - both Republicans and Democrats - and were ready for a floor vote, Trump had it killed. And then there’s Trump’s head of antitrust who used to work as for lobbyist for Zuffa and all you would read is how he was corrupt and would write amicus briefs for companies defending them. And we wore worried that this Trump appointee was going to interfere with our case. Before last year I had never heard of the word amicus and now I have to be concerned about it? So it was very hard for me to see fighters with their arms around this man who was trying to stop everything we were doing to help them.
I will say, while I don’t understand why you’d vote for him, I’m still with any fighter who wants to help our sport - even if voting for Trump didn’t help. I’m always going to side with another fighter over a promoter. Me and Jon Fitch don’t see eye to eye at all on twitter but I’ll stand side-by-side with him in the courtroom every day. I’ll go to DC and walk the halls of Congress with him or anyone else, even if we disagree on other issues. Whatever it takes.
Is it hard getting fighters to see the value in having solidarity with their fellow fighters?
Yes. Most fighters understand most of the things other fighters go through because they go through them. But at the same time it is an individual sport and you are almost taught to look out for just yourself. Even when you’re part of team or gym. And then there’s this kind of Stockholm Syndrome thing you go through with the promoters, because you have no power and the only way you can get paid is if they decide to pay you more or give you a big fight. So fighters start thinking they’re looking out for us. That promoters like the Fertittas care about us.
‘The Fertittas care about us.’ The Fertittas were billionaires when they bought the UFC and made billions more when they sold it. They care about you? No they don’t, they’re rich. They care about money. Even when they have more money than they could ever spend in their entire lives they wanted more. That was why they owned the UFC. Not because they loved the fighters but because they wanted to become even richer. It’s amazing. If you give a starving man a crust of bread he’ll thank you for it even if you’re the one starving him.
I have a scene in my comic (“Zombie Cagefighter”) where the promoter wants me to fight this huge zombie and he tells me he doesn’t have the money to pay me, so I start yelling at him how “no promoter in the history of fighting has ever made a dime.” That’s exactly how it is in the real world. Promoters will always act like they’re struggling to break even when in truth they are making millions and giving you pennies on the dollar. My goal is to get fighters to realize this doesn’t have to be the case. To understand they’re always being lied to and that we can change the landscape of MMA so that we get our fair share.
You mention fighters being ignorant about the lawsuit and Ali Act. Do you think managers could help with that? By making sure their fighters are informed.
Oh. God no. Not when they have one promotion they are working for. Instead they lie to us.
We have emails of managers undercutting their fighters - telling the promoter we’ll take even less than you offered - just to stay in good with the promoter. We have managers going behind their fighters backs to help the promoter instead of their fighters. They work for the promoter. They are much more interested in keeping them happy than they are their own fighters. We’ve seen how often they’ll side with the promoter over their own fighter or lie to their fighters on behalf of the promoter. They aren’t working for the fighters.
And then you see the managers telling their fighters what a great job he did for them. How he got them this big deal and when you see the emails you see they did nothing. They took whatever the UFC offered. The UFC’s pay structure is set - it’s already predetermined by the UFC - so what do managers do? “I did a great job, I got you 33 and 33 instead of 32 and 32 [to show and to win]?”
So what would you like to see fighters do? If a fighter is reading this and they agrees with what you’re saying what would you suggest they do?
The number one thing fighters can do is make an appearance, either in the courtroom or in Washington DC. And if I had to choose I would say DC. Walk the Capitol with us and let congress know we want this bill passed. If you can’t go to DC come to Vegas whenever there’s another hearing. It can’t hurt for the judge to look out and see that there is a bunch of fighters interested in the outcome of the case besides the five Plaintiffs. And if I’m not the 6th Plaintiff I will be sitting there in the audience.
So if you’re a fighter and you want to to follow the case go to our website and you can register for updates and you’ll know when the next hearing is. And if you want to help with the Ali Act. Contact any of us fighters involved with the case. We’re all on twitter or social media. You can find me on twitter @NateRockQuarry. And we’ll let you know what you can do to help and when we’re going to go to DC next. If you can’t make it to DC or Vegas then just publicly voice your support. It would help if fighters did this, especially the former champs that people know well.
And who am I to do this shit? I last fought 10 years ago. When people ask me who I am I say remember the first season of the Ultimate Fighter? ‘Yes.’ I was the guy that got hurt. And they’re like ‘Oh. Well that was a long time ago.’ I fought for the championship once years ago, and lost. So it shouldn’t be me doing this. Where are the former champions that held the belt? Where are the current champions? Come with me and walk the halls of Congress.
And let me tell you, what an incredible experience it is to go to the Congress, to talk to members of Congress, to walk the halls and get a tour of the Capitol - a legal tour, not an illegal attempt to take it over. What an experience. That will be something you can tell your grandkids you did. That you met the elected leaders of our country and you did something to help future generations of fighters. Tweeting mean things about the UFC isn’t not going to change things. We need to pass the Ali Expansion Act to see real change.
People still talk about Curt Flood in baseball. So I’m telling fighters this is your chance to be a Curt Flood in our sport.