UFC: The Withdrawal Epidemic and the Fighter Insurance Argument

James MacDonald@@JimMacDonaldMMAFeatured ColumnistSeptember 17, 2012

NEW YORK - MARCH 06:   UFC president Dana White speaks at a press conference at Radio City Music Hall on March 06, 2012 in New York City.  UFC announced that their third event on the FOX network will take place on Saturday, May 5 from the IZOD Center in East Rutherford, N.J.. (Photo by Michael Nagle/Getty Images)
Michael Nagle/Getty Images

Much has been made of the UFC’s “injury epidemic” over the past several months, but it has occurred to me that their plight could more accurately be described as a “withdrawal epidemic”.

This distinction goes beyond mere semantics. The former suggests that the injury rate has risen substantially, which is a reasonable assumption to make. Unfortunately, this overlooks the role played by the UFC’s fighter insurance policy, a perspective that so many find unpalatable.

The level of discourse on this particular topic has been substandard, to say the least. Indeed, one gets the impression that the majority of MMA journalists are in principle opposed to the notion that fighter insurance could in any sense be the reason why so many fighters are pulling the figurative ripcord.

They seem to think that an acknowledgement of the argument’s legitimacy would, by implication, mean that calls would soon be made to strip the athletes of their right to some sort of health coverage. Again, this is a conflation of two distinct issues: injuries and withdrawals.

Injuries, not withdrawals, are the problem the UFC is faced with. The implementation of fighter insurance simply offers athletes the financial freedom to fight at their physical peak, rather than pressuring them to compete while under the burden of impending healthcare costs.

Those amongst you with a little philosophical training will doubtless be screaming, “Occam’s razor, homie. Why you gotta go and complicate the issue?”

Video Play Button
Videos you might like

At the risk of strawmanning you folks, this is about the level of debate I am often faced with when I present the fighter insurance argument. It is either dismissed out of hand with extreme prejudice or I am offered a profoundly unsophisticated rebuttal that amounts to little more than a non sequitur.

The stock reply goes something like this:

“If fighters don’t compete, then they don’t get paid; ergo, there is no benefit to withdrawing from a fight due to injury.”

I was crestfallen when Ben Fowlkes, so often the bastion of rationality, laid out a version of this argument over at MMAJunkie.com:

“The thing about the fighter insurance is that it's not some golden ticket. It's not like you get paid your show and win money for sitting on the couch with an ice pack on your knee. It's not as if these guys are going in for elective surgery.”

This kind of response misses the point. Consider, if you will, the climate that existed prior to the UFC’s decision to insure their fighters. Most of their athletes did not have the luxury—a term I hesitate to use in this context—of being able to pull out of a fight.

If a fighter was carrying an injury, he oftentimes needed that paycheque in order to cover the costs of his surgery or his rehab. As a shank-wielding Jon Jones stood over the bloody corpse of UFC 151 (R.I.P.), we all witnessed the undercard fighters expressing the extent to which they rely on their show money to simply get by.

Imagine those same fighters having to fork over their savings to pay for surgery. Am I the only one who thinks that many of them competed injured in order to alleviate that kind of financial burden?

The simplistic rebuttal, outlined above, also seems to disregard the long term goals of your average UFC fighter. There is more to consider than earning a single paycheque, particularly when you don’t have to worry about picking up the tab when you visit the hospital.

Sure, you don’t get paid unless you fight. However, you are also risking your spot on the roster every time you compete far below your physical potential. You are putting your long term employment on the line all in an effort to pocket a few thousand dollars, and maybe some bonus money if you luck out.

To disregard these factors is to fail to reason honestly about the broader benefits of fighter insurance. Conceding that the UFC’s athletes may be more willing to withdraw from a scheduled bout is not akin to identifying fighter insurance as a problem.

On the contrary, it is very much a good thing that the UFC has unburdened its roster, and not just because healthcare should be a right rather than a privilege. It has also exposed the fundamentally flawed nature of modern MMA training and its bafflingly counterintuitive “train as you mean to fight” philosophy.

If the case I have made is not sufficiently compelling, simply ask yourself why Bellator are not dealing with a withdrawal epidemic. Answers on a postcard, please.