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New MMA Athletes Association Offers Soul, but Path to Power Is Muddy

Mike Chiappetta@MikeChiappettaMMA Senior ColumnistDecember 1, 2016

Five longtime UFC stars are behind the launch of an association trying to change the UFC power structure.
Five longtime UFC stars are behind the launch of an association trying to change the UFC power structure.MMAAA

Wednesday's "industry-redefining MMA announcement" by the new MMA Athletes Association turned out to be just another promise to redefine the industry. If you're keeping count, this is the third association that has attempted to corral the multinational fighters of the UFC into a group with the collective power to take on its new ownership team, WME-IMG, and draw a fair share of company revenue.

There were few specifics with little teeth, but at least this one came with soul—five fighters who stepped out of the shadows and stood up to voice their discontent with the UFC's treatment of its athletes past and present—and a hope that they can attract support from their colleagues in banding together to change their collective futures.

As an announcement, it was typical MMA theater, a grand unveiling to fine immediate effect but a mostly uncertain future.

Bjorn Rebney made a splash with Bellator, and now finds himself opposite the UFC in a different capacity.
Bjorn Rebney made a splash with Bellator, and now finds himself opposite the UFC in a different capacity.Henry S. Dziekan III/Getty Images

For the first time, however, the optics were powerful. Former UFC champions Georges St-Pierre, Cain Velasquez and T.J. Dillashaw, as well as longtime stars Tim Kennedy and Donald Cerrone, raised their hands and acknowledged that fear be damned, they were all-in on fighting the power.

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Their simple presence should not seem like a big deal, but in a sport where fear of retaliation comes through both history and experience, it was a bold statement. Never before had an active UFC fighter stood on the front lines of an introductory association announcement and as a committed part of the group.

"A lot of agents and fighters will be threatened by the UFC, but we're not going to let any fighters down," St-Pierre said in a group conference call to announce the association's formation. "We're here to stay. This same thing happening now has happened in every sport. In the NHL, in the NFL. It's going to happen whether they like it or not. A lot of fighters want to remain anonymous. Come see us; it's time to stand together.

"I've been approached many times in the past for this kind of thing. I've decided [to stand up] now because this is a very solid team that will make the difference."

As a group, they're after three objectives: a settlement that will compensate past fighters for the UFC's "egregious" business practices, a collective bargaining agreement in line with that of major American sports leagues and a 50-50 revenue split.

UFC fighters are currently believed to earn somewhere between 8-15 percent of yearly revenue, which was estimated to be around $600 million for 2015, the last complete year.

First, the good.

From the athletes, there was fire, passion and sincerity.

They spoke of helping fighters broken from the sport, those who struggle to pay for basic living expenses and others who are deluged with health care costs related to their profession. Kennedy, who has served in the U.S. Army as a special forces soldier for a decade, likened the mission to the military's sacred rule.

"We're here to never leave someone behind," he said. "We're here to take every step necessary to make sure no athlete, no fighter in the UFC gets left behind. That one-sided system the UFC has in place and has had for many years, and now under the new ownership intends to keep in place, it will get changed and changed immediately."

Just how that is going to happen is a subject that was mostly left untouched. Other than MMAAA advisor Bjorn Rebney's allusion to a possible strike, no other clear steps were detailed.

They claim to have a plan, a "well-developed" one that they will keep under wraps for now.

While the strategic blackout makes some sense, a more curious piece of the puzzle was Rebney.

Ah yes, Bjorn. If that name sounds familiar, he was the founder and ex-chairman and CEO of Bellator, the UFC's only significant rival of the last few years.

Rebney was forced out of his company shortly after selling it to Viacom. If this seems like a fun axe to grind for someone who was repeatedly slammed by UFC president Dana White, who used to gleefully call him "Djork" and "Bjork," he downplayed any personal vengeance or potential monetary gain. Rebney said his reasoning was heartfelt and that he's been working on the launch behind the scenes for two years without earning a check.

"They're risking more for less than any athletes on earth," he said. "It's outrageous, and that's what we're going to change."

Still, the flip from promoter to activist sounds a little mysterious, to go along with the unnamed people who are funding the MMAAA's launch for unknown reasons, and the fact that four of the five fighters to comprise the association's board come from WME-IMG rival CAA. (For the record, Rebney said CAA is not backing the venture but is supportive of its athletes.)

Leslie Smith @LeslieSmith_GF

I'm listening in on THE conference call right now, fighters in support of each other and their rights is awesome. @TimKennedyMMA

It's all somewhat hazy and confusing. For now, that will be a problem.

At least we know the fighters' hearts are in the right place.

Kennedy passionately invited any and all on the UFC roster to reach out to him for more information, but it seems a two-hour announcement would have been a perfect place to spread both the message and the means.

For now, he'll wait to see who takes him up on it. Neither of the associations that have publicly launched have made much headway. The Mixed Martial Arts Fighters Association has been around for nearly a decade with little progress, and the Professional Fighters Association has stumbled less than four months into its existence, losing two key members of its leadership team after breaching the confidentiality it had assured to interested fighters.

As the sport has matured, fighters' rights have waned, and an association has become a necessity. Now it's MMAAA's turn to take its shot. At some point, one of these groups will be the one to coalesce support and deliver fighters to a new level of professionalism. This group has the soul, but without specifics, that is all it has for now.

    

All quotes obtained via conference call.

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