A Conflict of Interests: MMA Promotion Execs Scrutinized for Managing Fighters

Scott Harris@ScottHarrisMMAMMA Lead WriterMay 23, 2016

Ali Abdel-Aziz is a prominent fighter manager and, until last year, a matchmaker with World Series of Fighting.
Ali Abdel-Aziz is a prominent fighter manager and, until last year, a matchmaker with World Series of Fighting.Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

What if Scott Boras owned a Major League Baseball franchise? What if Drew Rosenhaus or Tom Condon was commissioner of the NFL?

There's a reason sports agents aren't allowed to hold executive positions in the teams and leagues that employ their clients. It's hard to imagine a more fertile piece of ground for cultivating conflicts of interest. Agents could sign their own athletes to big contracts while spurning those outside their stables. The possibilities are almost endless.

Such arrangements would never fly in mainstream stick-and-ball sports. Not so in mixed martial arts.

It's not uncommon for an MMA fighter's agent or manager to serve as an executive for the organization in which that fighter competes. Beginning with the inception of the young sport in the mid-1990s—and, in boxing, well before that—such dual roles have ingrained themselves in the sport's culture.

That, however, is changing. New insights from lawmakers and promoters, provided to Bleacher Report, seem to indicate that this era may be coming to an end in its current form. Gradually, the country's top MMA promotions are extricating themselves from these compromising positions and the conflicts they can create. But it's not altogether altruistic. As the sport grows, so does the scrutiny, and lawmakers, regulators and fighters are taking more notice of these dual-role situations. 

In a further illustration of that scrutiny, a member of Congress is planning to introduce a bill this week that would draw a bright dividing line between MMA managers and promoters, just as a similar law did more than a decade ago for boxing.

"It comes down to favoritism," said Josh Hill, an active MMA fighter with more than six years of experience in nine different promotions. "The promoter says he's not doing it, but if he's a manager, he's going to take care of his guys first. I don't blame them for doing it, I guess, but it shouldn't be allowed."

Even as all this happens, questions arise over how, exactly, these dual roles can be identified and eliminated, to say nothing of who could or should perform such tasks. Although MMA in the United States is a well-regulated enterprise compared with many overseas counterparts, it's still governed by an uneven patchwork of state agencies with varying degrees of resources or enthusiasm for the job.

That is part of why it is functionally impossible to determine the exact number of MMA promotions whose C-suites include active managers. Individual examples, though, are easy to find. And the deeper one dives into the sport's regional and local levels, the easier it becomes.

At the top, MMA's dominant promotion, the UFC, has stayed clear of allegations of wrongdoing in this area, although president Dana White broke into the business in part as a manager to eventual UFC champions Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz. The former now works as the UFC’s vice president of business development.

Nate Diaz (top) fights Conor McGregor.
Nate Diaz (top) fights Conor McGregor.Eric Jamison/Associated Press

Bellator MMA, the sport's second-leading promotion, works closely with Mike Kogan, a former agent to MMA stars such as Nate Diaz. However, according to a Bellator spokesperson, Kogan relinquished all management duties before entering this role. In a presumed attempt to thicken the boundary, Kogan works as a consultant for Bellator television partner Spike TV, not Bellator itself.

The picture then grows murkier. On December 17, executives with World Series of Fighting, probably the sport's third-most prominent organization, announced they had parted ways with Ali Abdel-Aziz, WSOF's longtime executive vice president and matchmaker. Throughout his time with WSOF, Abdel-Aziz was a leader with Dominance MMA Management, which represents several WSOF fighters alongside multiple UFC champions.

Conflict-of-interest claims dogged WSOF and Abdel-Aziz from the get-go and were part of the reason business partners brought a major lawsuit against WSOF last fall.

At WSOF headquarters, the issue reached a reckoning point well before the suit reached the public light. It happened last August when WSOF brought in media executive Carlos Silva to serve as WSOF's CEO.

"I came in and started asking questions," Silva said. "We wanted to make sure there was no doubt and no issues. … We all decided it was best for Ali to spend 100 percent of his time in management. It was a fork in the road, and I think everyone's happy about it."

Abdel-Aziz did not return a message seeking comment for this story.

Although WSOF may be the highest-profile example of a show that operated with a clear manager-executive, it is no longer the largest promotion with an existing conflict. That distinction goes to Resurrection Fighting Alliance.

The president of RFA, whose events air on the AXS TV cable network, is Ed Soares. He is also co-founder of the famed Black House MMA chain of gyms and its management arm, Tough Media Corp, which is best known for representing superstars like Anderson Silva and Lyoto Machida. As it happens, several Black House/Tough Media fighters have come through RFA's doors.

In an interview last fall, Soares revealed intentions to divest himself of management roles so he could focus solely on running RFA.

Ed Soares (left) with former UFC featherweight champion Jose Aldo.
Ed Soares (left) with former UFC featherweight champion Jose Aldo.Ethan Miller/Getty Images

"The last thing I want to do is bring on any kind of violation. ... I'm eliminating my responsibility 100 percent from management," Soares said. "[Tough Media business partner] Jorge [Guimaraes] will be the sole owner of everything. We're doing the transition now."

None of Soares, Black House MMA, Tough Media or the RFA has announced any such transition since Soares' comments last fall. He repeatedly demurred on the opportunity to conduct a follow-up interview with a reporter to provide more detail.

In the original interview, Soares defended his business practices, claiming he treated all fighters equally.

"If you look at our pay scales, there's fair market value for everybody. There's no favoritism," Soares said. "I don't see anything we've done to be wrong.”

Regardless of whether such a transition occurs for RFA, it appears clear that lawmakers and regulators are ready to become more active in seeking out and addressing manager-promoters.

"I think the sport has evolved a little bit and is at a certain level where I think the concerns of boxing would come across the aisle to MMA and have the same concerns," said Nick Lembo, an attorney who serves as counsel for the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board. "'Sign with me and I'll get you better opponents, or sign with me and I know I can get you more fights for more pay.' Serving two masters."

Uneven Governance

Although multiple state and tribal athletic commissions prohibit MMA organizations from employing managers as executives, those rules and their applications are inconsistent.

For example, standard 467.104 in the Code of Unarmed Combat of the Nevada State Athletic Commission—widely considered a model for the rest of the nation when it comes to combat sports regulation—states that "promoter and certain others [are] prohibited from acting as manager of unarmed combatant and from holding certain financial interests."

This, according to the standard, includes acting "directly or indirectly" as a fighter's manager if an individual is also a promoter, stockholder, matchmaker, assistant matchmaker or "official" with a given organization in which fighters compete.

Nevertheless, Nevada has hosted several high-profile events by promotions led by officials known to hold this dual position. WSOF held seven events in Las Vegas—WSOF 22 and 17 in 2015; WSOF 12, 10 and 9 in 2014; WSOF 3 in 2013; and WSOF 1 in 2012—while it employed Abdel-Aziz. WSOF 26 took place in Las Vegas one day after the promotion announced Abdel-Aziz's departure. Las Vegas has also played host to two RFA events: RFA 4 in 2012 and RFA 31 last October.

WSOF President Ray Sefo
WSOF President Ray SefoEthan Miller/Getty Images

In an emailed response to questions about the standard and its enforcement, NSAC Executive Director Robert Bennett wrote that "we are currently updating our regulations" and that the manager-promoter role was a "conflict of interest."

Bennett did not respond to questions seeking clarification on the regulations being updated, specific reasons for the updates or Nevada's hosting of WSOF and RFA events.

Apparently, Bennett has been more vocal behind the scenes. According to WSOF officials, the company decided to part ways with Abdel-Aziz following a conversation with Bennett, possibly portended by an NSAC meeting in late November where Bennett noted unspecified "operational and administrative concerns" with WSOF.

"We sat down with Bob," recalled WSOF President Ray Sefo, "and he explained the rules."

Impact on Fighters

Although several observers both inside and outside MMA promotions emphasized that this dual position does not necessarily lead to malice, the negative effects can be real.

Hill, who has competed under the WSOF banner both during and after Abdel-Aziz's time with the promotion, said the difference between the two eras is stark. Hill (14-1) recalled the atmosphere last year as he prepared to challenge Marlon Moraes, the WSOF bantamweight champion and a Dominance MMA-managed fighter.

"I didn't want to call and tell [Abdel-Aziz] anything during that time," Hill said. "It was awkward. … Why am I fighting a guy whose manager is also the matchmaker?"

Hill went on to lose the fight by decision, his only defeat as a pro.

It is virtually impossible to discern whether WSOF fighters managed by Dominance consistently received disproportionately higher pay than their colleagues. Each fighter is unique and in different career stages, and only pay reported to athletic commissions is publicly available, and even then often only by request. ("Unofficial" payments are commonplace across combat sports.) The details of fighter contracts are almost never made public.

Instead, many of the impacts of the dual role tend to be more subtle in nature, fighters and observers said.

In RFA's four-and-a-half years of existence, the promotion, which positions itself as a UFC feeder league, has seen five Black House fighters called up to the UFC: Pedro Munhoz, Brian Ortega, Kevin Casey, James Moontasri and Justine Kish. They account for 19 percent of the 26 fighters RFA touts as "alumni" (i.e. fighters who have moved from RFA to the big leagues) on its own website—a substantially higher percentage than any other camp.

The lawsuit filed against WSOF alleges practices from Abdel-Aziz that were "favorable to Dominance, LLC-managed fighters and detrimental to the interests of WSOF," according to Paul Gift of Bloody Elbow (h/t John S. Nash of Bloody Elbow). One passage from the suit reads:

For instance, on or about April 10, 2015 WSOF sponsor ProSupps cancelled its sponsorship of WSOF, because ProSupps commercials did not run during an event. ProSupps commercials did not run because, Defendant Aziz directed ProSupps to change its commercials, because a sponsor of one of his fighters had a conflict with video footage with ProSupps commercials.

Aziz took this position with ProSupps knowing full well that his fighter's contract with WSOF stated that a fighter could not have a conflict with a corporate sponsor.

Moreover, Aziz refused to make fights that were in the best interest of…WSOF. Rather than choosing the fights that would generate the most fan interest and thus revenue for WSOF, Aziz set matches that favored his fighters and his pocket. Aziz also often refused to set fights for fighters that were not managed by him. A promising fighter and champion, Jessica Aguliar was under contract with WSOF, and Aziz did not arrange fights for her required under WSOF's contractual obligations. Ms. Aguilar was not one of Mr. Aziz's fighters.

Fighter inactivity has been a frequent source of contention among WSOF fighters, and those complaints always appear to come from fighters not managed by Abdel-Aziz.

Former WSOF welterweight champion Steve Carl was released from the promotion in 2014 after he took to social media to air his frustration over a lengthy, unexplained layoff.

UFC veteran Jacob Volkmann publicly clashed with Abdel-Aziz after leaving WSOF, complaining about extended idle stretches and spotty communication:

Jacob Volkmann @JacobVolkmann

2 days before i signed with @MMAWorldSeries i received a text from Ali, the longest distance between fights is 4-5 mo. @ufc @BellatorMMA

Jacob Volkmann @JacobVolkmann

My last fight with @MMAWorldSeries was october. 8 months ago! @ufc @BellatorMMA

Josh Burkman, a UFC veteran who fought for a title belt during his time with WSOF, forced his WSOF release with the help of an attorney, claiming WSOF "did me wrong contractually" (h/t MMA Mania's Michael Stets).

Hill shared a similar experience. With Abdel-Aziz on the WSOF executive team, Hill competed only three times in two years. What's more, even basic communications with Abdel-Aziz were difficult, Hill said.

"When I had to deal with Ali, it was very, very frustrating," he recalled. "I had a really long layoff, and he wouldn't answer calls or emails."

Things are different now. Hill has a title rematch scheduled with Moraes for July and recently negotiated a new WSOF contract he called "very fair." He added that WSOF operations are much smoother since the leadership change.

"It's all been so much easier," Hill said. "If I email or call them, they email or call right back. Everything is just more out on the table now."

Changes Ahead

Abdel-Aziz's departure was the most visible change at WSOF, but according to Silva, remaining leaders took other actions to make internal operations more collaborative and transparent.

"We cleaned things up, and now there's no question about anything," Silva said. "Ray makes our matches, and I run the promotion. It's very clean and very simple. … [But] we did take that opportunity to set up a weekly call [about matchmaking]."

Even as change gains momentum at the sport's highest levels, the manager-promoter role remains epidemic among smaller, more localized promotions. At this level, oversight is particularly spotty.

"I see it a lot at smaller shows," Hill said. "When you're starting out, you have to get wins. You're a fighter and you're not thinking about money. You just want to fight. … But [a manager-promoter] won't bring in anyone good to fight his guy. It's common."

Identifying every local MMA promotion in the United States and the potential managerial roles of each promoter would be a difficult task. Athletic commissions vary widely in the oversight they are able or willing to provide, be it in the language of their regulations, enforcement or even simple record-keeping.

"Each individual commission makes their own decisions," said Michael Mazzulli, president of the Association of Boxing Commissions, an umbrella organization, and director of the Mohegan Tribe Department of Athletic Regulation. "Enforcement is up to the individual commissions. We'll assist them in changing their policy. … But ABC aren't policemen."

That may ultimately be a job for the federal government. Mazzulli indicated that a "firewall" should exist between MMA promotion and management duties, and he didn't reject the notion of a federal role in that action.

That action may be imminent.

This week, Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-Okla.) expects to introduce legislation proposing an MMA equivalent to the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act, an amendment to the 1996 Professional Boxing Safety Act.

Among other things, the Ali Act, which was enacted in 2000, prohibits boxing promoters and similar executives from simultaneously managing fighters. According to Mullin, the new legislation will propose the same thing for MMA.

"This legislation would create a firewall between promoters and managers in MMA and other combat sports," Mullin said in an emailed response to questions. "I do not believe that fighters can receive proper representation from a manager if the manager is also on a promoter's payroll. 

"One of my top goals is ensuring that the fighters and promoters are on an even playing field and both can benefit from the sport they are dedicating their lives to."

The Ali Act has encountered criticism in the boxing world for not fostering enforcement around the new rules it created. According to Mullin, the U.S. Department of Justice would enforce the MMA equivalent law, but the legal arena could be where such a law would pack the most punch. Mullin cited the success that boxers have had in suing promoters and managers under the boxing law and predicted an MMA version of the law could afford MMA fighters the same opportunities.

Markwayne Mullin
Markwayne MullinSue Ogrocki/Associated Press

"With boxing, we have not seen much federal enforcement, but several boxers have used the protections under the Ali Act to bring their promoters or managers to civil court, and they have set an important precedent that encourages others to keep from violating the Professional Boxing Safety Act," Mullin said. "The protections for boxers have been working, and that is evident in the purses we're seeing boxers receive from fights. If you look at high-end boxers and look at the revenue they can bring in compared to top-tier athletes in MMA, it is not even comparable."

Although MMA may be slowly changing, this dual role appears entrenched in the culture of the sport.

"A lot of athletic commissions are understaffed and underfunded," Lembo said. "If no one complains and no one knows the manager has the role…until it's a problem, it's not something anyone has to address."

Update: After the publication of this report, Ali Abdel-Aziz contacted Bleacher Report to discuss his tenure with and departure from World Series of Fighting. "I'm not perfect," Abdel-Aziz said. "I make mistakes. ...Of course you're always going to take care of your guys. That's just from being human. I'm not going to lie about that."

Abdel-Aziz also said "I never did mismatches" for or against any fighter, and added that "I'm much happier now" as solely a manager and not a manager-promoter. "I don't feel like I have to look over my shoulder anymore," he said.

--End of Update-- 

Scott Harris covers MMA for Bleacher Report. Scott is available on Twitter. All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.