MMA: The Role of Promoters, Managers and Trainers in the Sport

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MMA: The Role of Promoters, Managers and Trainers in the Sport
Paul Abell-USA TODAY Sports

If you ask most MMA fans what the role of a manager to a fighter consists of, most would not know, but happily hazard a guess: “To get a fighter signed to the UFC.”

While simplistic, it is also true for the most part, and given how much control the UFC has in every aspect of contractual negotiations, it would seem like being a manager was nothing more than a temporary job, putting the ball in the hands of the player that can take it to the end zone.

Before the UFC became the face of MMA (before they consumed Pride FC), a fight manager was focused on three basic things: handling ancillary business deals, getting his fighter as much money as possible (in the safest environment possible) and as quickly as possible.

The good managers—the real professionals—were trusted to negotiate the darker landscapes where the language is legalese and numbers and no small amount of double-talk.

In the book by Thomas Hauser called The Black Lights, the role of manager is perhaps best defined by some of the men themselves, such as Jim Jacobs and the late Emanuel Steward.

"The cardinal rule of managing is never put your fighter in a match you don’t think he can win,” said Jacobs, who managed Edwin Rosario and Wilfred Benitez. “And if you put him in a match that figures to be a war, you’d better be sure it will significantly advance his career or pay him a lot of money."

Steward, perhaps one of the greatest managers/trainers of the past 35 years, was of a like mind on the subject.

My job is to outwit people. Every fight requires that I be in there looking for an edge. And if I can find an opponent who gives the appearance of being formidable while posing no threat whatsoever to my fighter, that’s fine.

Steve Grayson/Getty Images
Emanuel Steward

Now, try to imagine what the career of Kazushi Sakuraba would have looked like if Steward had been his trainer and the MMA landscape hadn’t been dominated by so few big promotions, leaving so few choices.

To say it would have been drastically different is an understatement.

Gone would have been the bouts pitting him against monster heavyweights, along with the short-notice fights that were less about his chance of winning and more about using his name in order to make as much money as possible, shooting him against the wall again, and again and again.

In the world of MMA, getting signed to the biggest promotion is the goal for a fighter; after that it seems the real fighting is done in maintaining their position in that company by fighting anyone put in front of them, at any time, even on short notice.

And this is perhaps the greatest contrast between the two sports; in boxing, the fighter makes the event, while in MMA, the event makes the fighter.

If a fighter can make it through his or her first contract with the UFC, he or she get’s a new contract and with it a longer timeline to achieve greatness and maximize the attention such a large spotlight can put on their career.

Men like Anderson Silva, Georges St-Pierre, Jon Jones and Jose Aldo weren’t handed their mantles as top draws in MMA, they fought hard for them, and in the words of Lorenzo Fertitta: “They simply eat what they kill.”

It’s good, fair and to be honest, it realizes the idea that inspires most to become fighters in the first place: “Work hard, train hard, fight hard and be rewarded for your performance.”

In fact, it sounds so perfect that one might think managers are no longer needed in the brave new world of MMA.

But that assumes that the UFC is a support group first and a fight promotion second; a contradiction in terms if there ever was one. 

Not every fight offered a fighter is in their best interests, let alone in the keeping of common sense or career longevity.

Al Bello/Getty Images
Micky Ward (left) and Arturo Gatti

Indeed, a fighter can see his career used up quite quickly when fighting in any MMA promotion, especially if he engages in numerous wars, which is what the UFC prizes above all else because the fans prize that above all else. 

Boxer Arturo Gatti had some great fights and saw his career revitalized after his manager, Pat Lynch, decided to rebuild the battered fighter by giving him some time off and getting him some easy fights that allowed his body to recover.

Had it not been for Lynch, we never would have seen Gatti wage war with Micky Ward, because Gatti wouldn’t have made it that far; he would have been all used up. 

Wanderlei Silva, the kind of warrior the UFC would love to have 100 of, was put into more than a few bouts he never should have been considered for during his time with Pride FC.

He took them because that’s what “champions do,” and pride was on the line.

There is no harm in that attitude, at least none that we can see just yet; Silva looks to be turning back the clock a little bit, but no matter how good he’s looked in past fights, you cannot un-ring a bell, and Silva had his bell rung by heavyweights.

Now, had he a manager who honestly had his best interests at heart, it would have done him a world of good. 

As it stands now, the UFC simply cannot try to look out for the “best interests” of any one fighter when it comes to matchmaking because to favor one is to put another at disadvantage.

But more to the point, the UFC prides itself in only making matches that matter (for the most part); as Dana White has said before: “There are no easy fights in the UFC.”

Much of this attitude is driven by the desire to avoid the pitfalls that are inherent to the current system in boxing, which see’s fighters make the fights they want to make, usually at the cost of giving the fans what they want to see.

If Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao were MMA fighters under the Zuffa banner, they would have fought three times by now; if that isn’t what the sport is all about then I don’t know what is.

But the combative sports are harsh and can exact a huge toll on those who ply it as their trade and chief passion, which begs the question: “Is it a sport the fans love to see, or is it just a new kind of fight?”

Either way, the price a fighter can be forced to pay for one bad night can set his career back years by diminishing his marketability to the fans and potential sponsors as a “winner.”

Much has been made of the notion that in the UFC, how you fight is just as important as if you win or lose and to be fair, that seems to be the truth, up to a point.

Leonard Garcia was just released from the UFC after losing five bouts in a row, but he was kept around far longer than many others due to the spirit in which he fought.

Garcia has been involved in bouts that won "Fight of the Night" on six different occasions since his debut with Zuffa at UFC 69; his bout with Jung Chan-Sung won Fight of the Year for 2010. 

But now he’s on the outside looking to get back in, and to be honest, he needs a manager like Lynch to pull him aside and help him rebuild himself if he really expects to achieve anything more than being an exciting punching bag for the rest of his career.

But if the role of manager is still honestly needed, it is mainly to intercede with prospective promotions looking to sign a long-term deal for their man; not always the easiest thing when a big promoter is beginning to flex their muscle to get a fighter under their wing.

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
Leonard Garcia (left).

Many stories circulate in the world of boxing about promoters trying to gain rights to a fighter by using any means necessary, but perhaps the most humorous of them deals with legendary promoter Don King (also noted in The Black Lights, among many other books on the sport).

As the story goes, Mickey Duff, who was managing a fighter named John “The Beast” Mugabi, was not able to attend one of his fighter’s bouts against a tough opponent promoted by none other than Don King. 

So, Duff waited by the phone, anxious to get the result.

The call came in and Mugabi had won via first round KO. Then, Don King got on the phone.

“Mickey, the kid’s good,” King said, “but we got a problem. He’s begging me to take over his career. He says he wants Don King to run him, but I told him no. I said you and I are friends, Mickey, and I won’t take him on unless he lets me keep you as a fifty-fifty partner.”

“Don,” Duffy said, “I didn’t know you spoke Swahili.”

“I don’t,” King said.

“That’s very interesting,” said Duffy, “because Mugabi doesn’t speak a word of English.”

Stories like this are plentiful in the world of boxing, dealing mainly with Bob Arum and Don King; none of this should surprise anyone considering that both men have promoted—and in many ways owned—some of the biggest names in boxing history.

Dana White, for his part, doesn’t seem to be in the business of trying to steal fighters or buy what he already owns via contract, but he isn’t above attacking anyone who makes a decision that is contrary to his desires at the time.

Such was the case when White criticized Jon Jones and his coach, Greg Jackson, when the latter advised the former to turn down a last minute replacement for Dan Henderson (in the person of Chael Sonnen) at UFC 151.

But when considering how drastically the business models of professional boxing and the UFC differ, White making his feelings known is perfectly acceptable and above boards.

For White, it’s business, pure and simple.

As of now, the UFC is the biggest show in the sport, and to gain admittance, a fighter needs to fight hard and keep fighting hard.

Once inside the door, the fundamental truths of the fight game come into play and he or she has every opportunity to use the skills and god-given talents on hand in order to climb that ladder and see their dreams realized. 

So, while this new creature called MMA may be different in many was to the old lion of boxing, some of the simple mechanics remain the same; trainers and managers serving their fighters to the best of their ability, albeit within new confines.

As long as no one takes a fighters future out of his own hands, outside of the cage, then they can reap what they sow, eating what they kill.

For professional fighters, nothing could be more profound. 

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