For one UFC fighter, a conversation with one of the promotion's top executives sealed his already-evolving decision to test free agency.
The two sides had been engaged in a discussion regarding issues related to the Reebok sponsorship deal when the fighter tried to punctuate his point by reminding the executive that the 500-plus fighters on the roster are the UFC's product. As he recounts it, the executive looked at him quizzically before responding that, no, the production and show are what the company is selling.
The fighter could not believe what he was hearing.
"Without us, all you have is a cage, cameras and lights," he recalled saying, before the conversation continued in circles, ultimately ending in no resolution.
This is the type of story you sometimes hear behind the scenes or read reported through anonymous sources, but the shifting dynamics of MMA free agency have changed both the opportunities available to fighters as well as the sport's power structure. As a result, athletes now have alternative options and an increasing willingness to voice their collective concerns.
That conversation, which heavyweight star Matt Mitrione told Bleacher Report took place between him and UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta, was just one of many things that Mitrione said led to his decision to hit the open market, where he eventually signed a multifight deal with Bellator, the company that has firmly established itself as the UFC's top rival for talent.
Over the last 12 months, the movement of fighters from UFC to Bellator has not been a full exodus, but it may well qualify as a movement. Aside from Mitrione, Phil Davis, Josh Thomson and Benson Henderson are among the big names ranked within the Top 15 of their respective divisions who have bolted the Octagon for what they hope will be greener pastures, making free agency one of the key stories of 2016.
The motivations behind the shifting attitude are multitudinous. From sponsorship money losses in the wake of the Reebok deal to contract-exclusivity concerns to simple economics to athlete treatment, more and more competitors are citing reasons to fight out their contracts and test the market, something that was virtually unheard of just a few years ago.
"The MMA business is very similar to the NFL business," said Mitrione, who was in pro football as a member of the Minnesota Vikings and New York Giants organizations in the early 2000s. "There's no promise of loyalty. If you're not expecting the business aspect of things, you'll get your feelings hurt. I guess I'm the same way. I'm hurt because I displayed loyalty and none was given back. I guess it's just human nature to expect to give and to get back, but that's not the case when it comes to sports. When you know you have a value and you're worth something to them, you've got to monetize it. I've got to capitalize, and it's not fair to be criticized because I want to capitalize on it."
While free agency is as common as winning and losing in most major sports, mixed martial arts has had only one premier league over the last decade, and few have dared to stray from it, partially because of a dearth of available options but also because of fear. For the longest time, UFC has been No. 1, and few want to cross No. 1 and risk future earnings potential. It's better to stay where you are and hope to work your way up the ladder toward the bigger money.
For Davis, whose signing last April opened the floodgates to Bellator, it was a simple, practical determination that spurred him to free agency.
He had just hit his 30th birthday and acknowledged the small window for being a professional athlete. And since at the time it had been so unusual to see a top free agent hit the market (he was then ranked No. 7 in the UFC's rankings), he banked on the novelty of the situation playing into his favor as a complementary factor.
"That's the thing with going first," he said. "Even if there was no demand, because I was one of few guys to have ever really done that, the more talked about it was, the more it kind of created demand. But honestly, I think it'd be silly not to look into free agency. You need to make the most money while your body holds up and you're sharp and in your prime. If there's a competing market out there for yourself, it's up to you.
"Supply and demand. It's silly to limit yourself to only one marketplace."
While that is literally Economics 101 stuff, it is often ignored in the world of fight sports, where ego often trumps objective thinking when it comes to career arcs.
Consider, for example, how many fighters enter the UFC with just a handful of bouts, often against the wishes of trainers who know they need more polish. Others take risky short-notice fights without requesting additional compensation or a guarantee they won't be cut with a loss.
"Some people are so brainwashed," Mitrione said. "They say, 'How dare you think about business like that?' If you cite money, you're a greedy pig. If you cite anything else, you're a scared p---y. It's crazy. The thing is, the UFC has become bigger than the sport, and what's bad about that is so many people want to be in the UFC that everyone else is an afterthought. There are guys in smaller organizations that their only goal is 'I want to go to the UFC.' And I'll tell them there might be more money in another place. And they'll say, 'It doesn't really matter. That's my goal.' But once people get to the UFC, they might get the disenchantment of what's going on. If you're a veteran in the UFC, you'll see it."
"Being famous and being in the UFC doesn't do you any good if you can't capitalize on it and monetize it realistically," he continued. "It's not feasible for the most part. They took so much money from us and so much revenue-earning potential from us, it changed the entire landscape of everything. I don't understand why anyone would re-up with the UFC unless they're still caught up in the glamour of being in the UFC."
The glamour is one thing, but even those who have left acknowledge the earnings potential at the top of the roster is huge. Recently, though, hoping for the jackpot payday and abstract promises has not been enough for some.
"When you talk about backroom bonuses and discretionary bonuses, they're awesome, they're cool, but it's not a steady salary, it's not promised," Henderson told Bleacher Report. "Some guys never get a bonus. It's all at the whim of the higher-ups. And you shouldn't have a problem paying your mortgage because of the whim of the higher-ups, because they didn't feel your fight was worthy of a bonus.
"That struck me as wrong. It's not right at all. Fighters are professional athletes. As much as we sacrifice, we shouldn't have to live hoping that we get a bonus, hoping that we did enough to impress them."
"I can't base my livelihood on how much you like me," Thomson added. "You hear, 'Oh yeah, we'll take care of you.' I can't do that. When it comes down to paying bills and they say they'll take care of you, you should be real careful in that situation. I needed to have it where I know I get this much money. I get that now. I know what the numbers are. Your bills don't give a crap if you get a backroom bonus or not. Your bills are coming the same either way."
Several fighters cited the restrictive sponsorship deal signed between the UFC and Reebok as a factor in their decisions to test the market. The deal, signed in December 2014, disallowed any personally acquired in-cage sponsorships for athletes, giving Reebok the prime real estate on athlete uniforms.
While UFC fighters are still allowed to court sponsors, the inability to display those sponsorship logos on uniforms during fight week and fight night has caused many companies that formerly sponsored UFC fighters to either stop or funnel their ad dollars to fighters in other promotions, including Bellator, that don't have such restrictions.
The disbursement of Reebok money has also ruffled some. The deal is valued at six years and $70 million, but that figure includes the cost of product given to fighters and their teams during fight week. So, for example, someone such as noted trainer Greg Jackson, who corners multiple fighters on many cards, will receive uniforms for each fighter he corners, with the cost coming out of the contract. In addition, the UFC hired an administrative team to oversee its uniform code, and the administrative fees are part of the cost of the contract.
All of those hidden costs take away from the actual cash dispensed to the athletes.
"Fighters are smart, and we know there's only that limited time we can make money," said Henderson, who makes his Bellator debut April 22 against welterweight champion Andrey Koreshkov. "If you have other options now where we can make good money and make sponsorship money—so not only are you going to make as much as you made in the other organization, but on top of that, you'll make a good chunk of change in sponsorships once again—why would you not do that?"
Mitrione was more blunt regarding the deal the UFC made without athlete input.
"They steal from your left and your right pockets and you're stuck there. Not to be incredibly crass—but you're stuck there with your d--k in your hand. I was doing what was expected from me, and they okey-doked me. They pulled the chair out from underneath me."
To be clear, fighters in the UFC have a significantly higher ceiling as far as earnings go, mostly due to the company's many revenue streams and pay-per-view model. Most champions, for instance, receive a portion of pay-per-view revenue based on a sliding scale that increases as buys increase.
At UFC's last show—UFC 196—it is believed at least three fighters made seven-figure paydays: featherweight champion Conor McGregor, who received the first guaranteed $1 million show purse in UFC history, Holly Holm, who made a $500,000 show purse, and Nate Diaz, who also made a $500,000 show purse.
Based on comments about total earnings, both McGregor and Holm receive pay-per-view points, which means their compensation was probably multiple times their reported pay. Meanwhile, UFC President Dana White told ESPN Radio's Russillo and Kanell (h/t Fancy MMA) that Diaz also made "millions of dollars," ostensibly on the strength of a bonus.
But those paychecks remain outliers. For most of the hundreds on the roster, their salaries depend on base pay, with a bonus paid out for a win as well as the possibility of the aforementioned, undocumented bonuses paid at management's discretion.
At least one fighter told Bleacher Report that the UFC uses those bonuses as leverage in regular contract negotiations.
"I couldn't tell you what it was like to do business with the UFC, because there never was a business side of it as far as, there is no negotiation," Thomson said. "There were times we've heard there's talks and negotiations, but you really don't need a manager because, 'This is the deal you're going to get.' There's been talks like, 'Sure, you can negotiate for an extra two or three grand, but don't expect to get any backroom bonuses.' So then you question, is it really even worth negotiating that extra two or three grand?"
While Henderson said he was well taken care of when it came to UFC bonuses, particularly during his time as UFC lightweight champion, he said free agency was a way of ensuring organizations would bring their best offers to the table. That's something that's not nearly as likely to happen when an organization isn't bidding against anyone.
He recalled, for example, the time around the end of 2010 when the UFC absorbed WEC.
"I don't want to say I was strong-armed, but I wanted to fight out my WEC contract because it wasn't as high as some of the UFC guys," he said. "I wanted to fight that out and hopefully increase my value to my company and get a bigger payday, but I wasn't really allowed to do that. It was like, 'Nope, here's your contract. You've got to sign it.'"
Because the vast majority of the roster exists in that kind of space with little leverage, there is little question that frustrations regarding contract status and salary information abound.
Thomson, for example, said he decided to head for free agency when he deduced the UFC was no longer interested in pushing him as a lightweight title candidate. This was nothing explicitly told to him; he simply had to guess the thoughts of the higher-ups based upon their booking of him.
"If you want to be smart about decisions, every fighter should fight out their contract and see what the free market has to offer," he said. "Even if one promotion doesn't love you, another may promote the crap out of you and make you a superstar. We've heard for years from Dana White's own mouth that Nate Diaz wasn't a needle-mover. As we know now, that's a bunch of B.S. At contract time, those are the kinds of things you're going to hear. You can't let that stuff distract you."
Recently, the UFC's No. 1-ranked welterweight, Rory MacDonald, became the latest to announce a willingness to test the free-agency waters, telling Ariel Helwani on The MMA Hour (h/t MMAFighting.com): "I really sacrificed, and I took a lot of chances. I did a lot of favors, I felt like, for the UFC, and I don't think it got returned. So now it's all about making money, and whoever wants to pay me the most is where I'll go."
Despite his lofty standing, in his last fight at UFC 189—a savage, five-round thriller with Robbie Lawler largely considered the best fight of 2015—MacDonald earned a disclosed salary of just $59,000, per MMAFighting.com.
With Bellator focused on international expansion in 2016, with shows already scheduled for Italy, Israel and the U.K., the promotion would almost certainly target him if he hits the open market. And given Canada's strategic importance for the UFC as well as his age—he's still just 26—MacDonald stands to be perhaps the most coveted free agent that MMA has yet seen.
But who knows who else will be right behind him?
Henderson told Bleacher Report that at least 15 current UFC fighters have already contacted him to hear his feedback on dealing with Bellator, including "a couple" of UFC champions. Davis said he gets questions all the time, sometimes through text or even Instagram.
"They ask me things like, 'Hey, Phil, there's nothing crazy on that side of the fence, right?'" he said. "They just want to make sure it's straightforward business."
For the most part, the fighters say it is.
Through the years, Bellator President Scott Coker has gained a reputation as a straight-shooting, fighter-friendly promoter who both privately and publicly treats athletes with respect.
"For me, dealing with Scott and [matchmaker] Rich [Chou] the first time, it was a little bit of a breath of fresh air," Henderson said. "They were super up-front, transparent and honest about where they were coming from. With some other people, it's like, 'This is how it is, and this is how it's going to be done.' There's no discussion. Scott, Rich and [consultant] Mike Kogan were super open to discussing things. They had openness, forthrightness, transparency. That's not something you get in most negotiations, I suppose, but especially in MMA."
"UFC is run on a need-to-know basis," said Thomson, who faces Michael Chandler at Bellator 154 on May 14. "It's like, 'You're talent, we're the promotion.' For me, the grass is greener on the other side. Obviously, I have a relationship with Scott, but we were able to negotiate things.
"Can we have an extra hotel room for main events? Can we have one extra flight for main events? Can we increase our per diem? Those might sound like little things, but it wasn't 'This is what it is—take it or leave it.' Those are important for fighters. You want to feel appreciated and taken care of. And when they say, 'Let's give you that because we believe in you,' that makes you want to fight and perform so much better."
Whether that ends up in a more exciting product is a matter of subjective observation, but there is no disputing the competition has been meaningful on several fronts. Most notably, Bellator has upgraded its roster, and fighters have a point of leverage for contract negotiations. But even for the UFC, it represents a chance to reassess many points, from contracts to sponsorships to talent.
No company has unlimited resources, but for a long time, the UFC's power was mostly unchecked. Now, even it will have to face decisions with sharper focus as Bellator encroaches on its market share.
For now, the UFC has been gracious to most of its departing free agents, chalking the losses up to business. But the market leader didn't reach this point without a mile-wide competitive streak. How it manifests itself remains a question mark. Quite recently, it struck back by re-signing two major free agents, Alistair Overeem and Aljamain Sterling.
"Probably over the next couple years or so, there will be a lot of guys testing free agency and making the UFC offer good, upstanding contracts, making sure the UFC brings its best to the table," Henderson said. "That's all fighters really want. We want the best deal brought to the table, whether it's Bellator, UFC, ONE or World Series of Fighting. UFC is a super-smart, multibillion-dollar business, and I imagine it will see the threat of not bringing its best to the table, so I imagine it will."
If it doesn't, the story of free agency is bound to continue taking twists and turns.
"Each fighter has to be able to sit down and have some honest conversations regarding 'Who am I, what skills do I bring to the table and what value do I have on the open market?'" said Davis, who fights Muhammed Lawal in a No. 1 contender's fight on May 14. "Here's the thing: You don't want to risk an opportunity and stay where you are and be a disgruntled employee. There's room to competitively market yourself in a way that makes you more valuable without ruffling too many feathers. That's something I wish guys would explore just to, as a whole, raise the value of the fighter."
"The reality of it, and this is going to sound kind of strange, is that fighters are not used to being professional athletes," Henderson said. "Some of these guys are just enamored with being popular and famous. There are things that those guys have to start to think about more. Here's what matters to me: doing the best I can for myself and my family, having a nice house, being able to retire. When fighters start thinking about those things, everything changes."
For now, UFC still stands as the top promotion, which is not likely to change anytime soon. It is too established and too steeped in not just the fight world but in pop culture. But even as the company stands atop the MMA landscape, Bellator sits one rung below the UFC, patiently chipping away.
Prizefighting may be big business, but it's a small world, and the athletes are talking. They say that free agency isn't just fleeting chatter. It's a deep, momentous, public conversation, and it's only getting louder.
Mike Chiappetta is a Senior MMA Columnist for Bleacher Report who has covered the sport for a decade. He can be found on Twitter at @MikeChiappetta.