As Gripes over UFC Outfitting Deal Pile Up, Will Backlash Be More Than Words?

Chad DundasMMA Lead WriterMay 7, 2015

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The MMA world got its first real look this week at how a new, exclusive outfitting deal between Reebok and the UFC might affect the sport’s athletes.

Thus far, it has been met with fairly unprecedented internal backlash. The vast majority of fighters to comment publicly about the fledgling arrangement—on social media and elsewhere—are not impressed and not amused, per MMAJunkie.com.

Fighters contend the tiered payout system outlined to them via email on Wednesday will amount to huge cuts in their pay. With roughly two months left before the deal takes effect, there is still a lot we don’t know, but if the first wave of public reaction is any indication of what’s going on behind the scenes, it’s nothing short of a talent relations disaster for the world’s largest MMA organization.

For the specifics of the deal and more on the initial response to it, you can read fellow B/R lead writer Jeremy Botter’s take. Or just look at this picture posted by UFC lightweight Myles Jury, which seems to succinctly capture the mood:

Now, the really hard part begins. Can the UFC convince its army of 500-plus independent contractors that the Reebok deal really is in their best interests? And if it can’t, will the fighters’ gripes ever advance beyond words into any kind of meaningful action?

DALLAS, TX - MARCH 14:  A detail of gloves worn by Anthony Pettis and Rafael dos Anjos in the Lightweight Title bout during the UFC 185 event at American Airlines Center on March 14, 2015 in Dallas, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

To its credit, the fight company has been proactive to date in tooling and retooling the specifics of the new apparel deal, which frankly sounded more like an ambitious idea than a detailed plan when it was announced five months ago. An early notion to link fighter payouts with the UFC’s official rankings was scrapped after its many terminal flaws were quickly discovered and lampooned by the media.

There was near unilateral agreement that this new payment plan—a tiered system based on seniority and number of fights in Zuffa-owned organizations—was better. Once the exact numbers came out, however (and were revealed to be even lower than original reports indicated), the warm fuzzies quickly evaporated.

Sep 27, 2014; Las Vegas, NV, USA; Tim Kennedy loses to a knockout by Yoel Romero during a middleweight fight during UFC 178 at MGM Grand Garden Arena. Mandatory Credit: Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports
Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

UFC and former Strikeforce middleweight Tim Kennedy joked that he would take a pass on what he considered a low-ball offer. Later, he tweeted at Bellator MMA, seeming to offer up his services to the UFC's biggest competition. The next morning, Kennedy tweeted that his social media account had been hacked, though, that explanation soon revealed itself as just more of the Texas-based fighter’s dry humor.

Heavyweight Matt Mitrione, typically sort of a company man and a five-year veteran who has had all 13 of his fights inside the Octagon sarcastically congratulated Reebok on signing “the deal of the century.”

“Unfortunately, it was at the cost of the fighters,” Mitrione wrote. “Hope the bad press is worth it.”

The following day, he followed up with these sentiments:

So clearly the UFC is already out attempting to stem the tide of fighter complaints. Hopefully, the company is also trying to make amends. As UFC CEO Lorenzo Ferttita told selected media during a conference call on Wednesday, this whole thing is still a work in progress, and the organization will continue to make alterations as necessary.

Dec 28, 2013; Las Vegas, NV, USA;   UFC chairman Lorenzo Fertitta speaks at a press conference to introduce the new digital platform UFC Fight Pass at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Fertitta said, of the numbers released this week, via MMA Fighting.com’s Ariel Helwani:

These are minimums. We're always going to continue to review this. Obviously we're making a bet that this is going to be a successful retail launch, and we're hopeful that there is going to be additional revenue associated with that, but what we're able to guarantee at this point is based on the guarantee payments that will be given and flowed through to the fighters.

One of the more thoughtful responses so far has come from UFC middleweight Josh Samman. Samman, who fought four times as a competitor on season 17 of The Ultimate Fighter but has only two official fights in the UFC since, noted in a piece written on BloodyElbow.com that the new system as outlined would constitute “an enormous pay cut” for him.

Longtime MMA journalist Josh Gross notes Samman is represented by the same management team as retired fighters Cung Le and Nate Quarry, both of whom are involved in a class-action lawsuit currently pending against the UFC. But Samman’s column also struck a halfway hopeful tone, though, he admitted part of that optimism might come from sheer desperation.

Dec 6, 2014; Las Vegas, NV, USA; Eddie Gordon (red) and Josh Samman (blue) during UFC 181 at Madalay Bay Events Center. Samman won via second round KO. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports
Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

"I get a lot of the things that they [UFC executives] are trying to do here, and most of it I can support,” Samman wrote, “but that may be only because I'm not sure what other option there is besides standing behind it and hoping for the best. I'd be lying if I said this one doesn’t sting a bit."

The underlying point here should be obvious by now: Nobody asked the fighters about this.

Fertitta may contend that the UFC tried to “get as much intelligence as we possibly could by talking to managers and fighters over about an 18-month period” leading up to the implementation of the Reebok deal, but it’s clear most of UFC’s athletes feel as though they didn’t really have a say in the matter.

If they had—and knowing what they know now—many likely would’ve voted to stay with their traditional third-party sponsors.

But there was no vote, and regardless of how the Reebok deal ends up affecting fighters’ lives, a lack of any collective bargaining still puts a major gulf between MMA and other, more mainstream sports. So long as fighters continue to lack any formalized union or association to represent them, they’ll be all but powerless in these types of situations.

Apr 25, 2015; Montreal, Quebec, CAN; Demetrious Johnson (red) and Kyoji Horiguchi (blue) congratulate each other after their fight during their flyweight bout during UFC 186 at Bell Centre. Mandatory Credit: Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports
Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

In our limited understanding of the Reebok deal thus far, it seems the UFC’s ability to replace fighters' lost income might come down to secondary sponsors. As Fertitta explained this week, per Helwani, the fight company has the ability to showcase one additional sponsor on fighter garb on a per-event basis.

Most of that money won’t go to fighters, Fertitta says, but secondary sponsors will have the option to sponsor certain athletes—perhaps like when we saw UFC flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson decked out in Bud Light gear and flying a Bud Light banner for his most recent title defense at UFC 186.

It’s possible those pick-and-choose sponsorships can make up the difference for fighters who feel they’re going to take significant losses under the new agreement.

Anyway you slice it, however, eliminating third-party sponsors only cedes more power to the UFC's already immensely powerful owners. As their grip continues to tighten, it starts to feel more and more important that fighters find a seat at the negotiating table.

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

Perhaps the Reebok deal will turn out to be the boon for fighters it was promised to be. Perhaps everyone will come out ahead in the end. If that happens and everyone is satisfied, perhaps our sport can happily continue down its current path.

If not, though, or if the circumstances of how this outfitting deal came to pass seem bothersome to MMA’s labor force, then its ongoing complaints will eventually have to graduate to action.

Perhaps it's time for fighters to question whether they should be more to the UFC than just independent contractors?

Perhaps it's time for them to test the legality of the fight company’s notoriously prickly contracts?

Perhaps—as Kennedy first indicated—places like Bellator will suddenly start to seem more attractive, if fighters can get paid a comparable wage, compete in front of like-sized crowds and keep their third-party sponsors intact?

Rafiq Maqbool/Associated Press

If any of those questions seem even remotely compelling to this sport’s athletes, then grumbles and moans aren’t going to cut it. It’s time for them to begin working through their differences and toward some kind of united body. It’s time for them to at least try to have a voice in the discussions that so greatly impact their lives.

Because if they don’t and they simply slump on with the status quo, nothing will ever change.

Then all their words will mean about as much as a hacked tweet.