In the fight game, the only people that can approximate the dishonesty and ego of a promoter are a fighter’s agents. (Which is probably why these people become agents). What information we do have about the current drama unfolding with Jon Fitch, AKA, and the UFC as a whole comes from either Dana White, he of “Fedor sucks and I personally invented the unified rules” fame, and Jon Fitch, who hasn’t spoken directly with Dana about the subject at all, but is instead repeating what he was told by his agents.
In short, we have some of the best fighters in the UFC (our rankings currently have Fitch and Koscheck at #3 and #4, respectively, in the world at 170lbs) out on the curb, and we have to figure out why by listening to two parties that make Dave Kaplan look as honest as George Washington. While I don’t tune into fightsport for this kind of drama, when it affects who I get to see fight, I get involved.
In a nutshell, the UFC has asked various AKA fighters (who all share the same AKA representation—DeWayne Zinkin and Bob Cook) to sign away some rights, and the refusal to sign said agreement means that most of the AKA fighters have either been thrown out of the UFC or are on their way out. The UFC reserves the right to prematurely end a fighters contract at any point following a loss, so Jon Fitch, following his blood-and-guts loss to Georges St. Pierre, and Christian Wellisch, following a summary pounding at the XXXXL hands of Shane Carwin, are already out the door. Highly-touted heavyweight prospect Cain Velasquez is undefeated, but has only one fight left on his contract, which will not be re-negotiated. Josh Koscheck, scheduled to headline the UFC’s December 10th Ultimate Fight Night card, is getting the same treatment, and will be released following that fight. Mike Swick’s status remains in limbo, as he’s apparently expressed a willingness to go around his managers and sign whatever the UFC asks.
This isn’t the first time that the UFC and its fighters have tusseled over this sort of agreement and there may be very good reason for fighters to raise a ruckus.
First of all, why does the UFC care so much about this? From a general perspective, the UFC wants to control every aspect of MMA that might have a dollar in it. They have waged war with MMA clothing brands that do not promote fights, such as when MMA Authentics signed a deal with Wal-Mart. This much is obvious. Dana White is clearly Machiavellian and cannot stand any kind of competition, taking it personally when any organization competes with him. However, these sort of merchandising agreements also give the UFC a huge amount of power to crush competition in the future. If the UFC controls all a fighter’s merchandising rights, when it comes time to renegotiate that fighter’s contract, that fighter is worth LESS to every other organization, so the UFC has a built-in advantage in negotiating. That is to say, Affliction may be able to sell X amount of pay-per-view dollars if they sign a particular fighter, but since the UFC still controls that fighter’s merchandising rights, that fighter cannot be used in Affliction clothing advertisements and cannot have their own Affliction shirt. This exclusivity benefits the UFC a great deal, and the fighter is in fact worse off because of it, because they cannot receive open-market bids for their services and receives nothing in return except the ability to continue to fight for the UFC.
One of the biggest sticking points here is the fact that these rights would be signed away “in perpetuity”. As Fitch said, “Exclusive rights for video games for our lifetime, which means we could not do anything video-game related with anyone else ever.” Again, this is something that would weaken for the rest of his career, Fitch’s bargaining position with respect to the UFC and every other promotion’s position should it make an offer for Fitch. In essence, it would be burning a UFC brand into Fitch’s hide for the rest of his life (and beyond).
Furthermore, making a lifetime deal now, when the sport is just starting to break out, could have you looking like a chump in the future. If Dana’s predictions become true, and MMA becomes the biggest sport in the world, fighting in 2018 (when young fighters like Fitch and Koscheck will be in the twilight of their careers, but possibly still active) and being paid like it’s 2008 will be embarrassing. This is pretty much the UFC’s M.O. – sign fighters over the longest possible time when they’re the most vulnerable. Everyone should remember Rich Franklin, the $25k-a-fight UFC champion and posterboy; Forrest Griffin, who made $44k in his 8th UFC fight to defeat Mauricio Shogun; and Keith Jardine, who made $10k to lose his 8th UFC fight to Wanderlei Silva after making $14k(!) to defeat Chuck Liddell. All of these guys signed long-term contracts in exchange for the ‘opportunity’, and that meant that the UFC got top-tier names on their cards for bargain-basement prices.
Dana’s position on this boils down to “F— you, what are you going to do about it.” I quote:
“What’s with this whole lives? Do you know how much Jon Fitch made for the Georges St. Pierre fight? Where the hell else could Jon Fitch go right now and make the money he made? He made $169,000 for that night for that fight. Where’s he going to make that kind of money in one night?”
Meanwhile we have this video from November 12 of Dana tooling around in his Ferrari and talking about how they’re upgrading the UFC offices. Fitch was working as a bouncer to make ends meet as recently as last year. $169,000 is a lot of money, but you have to remember very few fighters will fight at 40, so they need to make enough to last them a long time. Add to that the fact that Fitch essentially lost money on many of his fights prior to that ($10k does not cover a full fight camp’s costs) so the money should be thought of as spread over the past ‘due-paying’ period as well as the future when Fitch is retired. Furthermore that pay-per-view made millions of dollars in revenue, and Fitch was a headliner.
Not content with simply being a jerk, Dana has also decided to notch it up by playing the victim and blaming the economy.
“The economy is changing by the second. Every day when you wake up tomorrow, bad things are happening…Not just in the United States but all over the world. Television networks are in trouble. The sponsors who used to sponsor them are in trouble. Some of them are going out of business and the rest of them are cutting their sponsorships big time.
Companies that have been around for hundred years are going out of business. It’s crazy. Banks are going under. And I’m in a situation now where I’ve got these guys — I’m trying to run a business — bro, I live on a plane 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That’s all I do is fly everywhere to try to build this company. And these guys think this thing is so big and these guys start negotiating all this stupid stuff like they’re Mel Gibson.”
In the words of one insider, Dana makes it sound as if he’s fighting a galactic war and if you don’t sign away your ancillaries, you’re in league with the aliens. This is a bunch of garbage, of course, as the above-linked SI piece notes that fighters with more leverage have been able to get better deals, “the organization has not been eager to change the language in the deal save for its biggest stars at this point.”
The noteworthy thing here is that this was done with such finality. From the sounds of it, there was not a long negotiation; the AKA fighters were offered an ultimatum and refused it. According to Fitch:
But the way they brought that to us was, they told us, “Hey, we need a big favor, we need you guys to sign this stuff right away.”
We went back (to UFC) with our managers and said, “Why do you need this done right now? Can we negotiate it? Because we don’t feel comfortable with the terms.
The very next thing that came back to us was, “We need a yes or no answer on this. Either you guys are in or you’re out. If you’re not in, then you’re going to get cut.” And they went for all of us at AKA, pretty much.
Nevertheless, cutting an entire team of star fighters (and further weakening the incredibly top-heavy heavyweight division) can’t be good for the UFC, so why are they willing to do this?
1) To make an example. According to Fitch,
“Maybe they’re trying to set an example. They brought this to our gym, our management first, beause we have one of the stronger management teams. We always get decent deals out of everything, we don’t let anyone walk over us, and I think that’s one of the things they’re trying to do is to publicly break us, or get rid of us, kind of make an example for all of the rest of the fighters.”
Dana even notes that AKA isn’t the only problem camp “This is more than just AKA. There’s other camps out there that we’re having trouble doing business with.”
The rumor is that this ‘other camp’ is none other than super-camp American Top Team. The UFC can live without AKA, but ATT would be a huge loss across all weight classes, so I wonder if that is really the case.
2) To separate fighters from their management. It is in the UFC’s interest to drive a wedge between a fighter and his management, since its management’s job to make sure the fighter is not being exploited. Dana’s comments painting Mike Swick to be “the good son” for working around his management reinforce this, as does the UFC’s history of trying to work around managers.
3) Their hand may be forced. According to Fitch, “We were already promised to THQ by the UFC, even though none of us were under contract (for that), in order to save face, they had to force us to sign this thing,” although Dana disputes this.
What Does All This Mean?
Dana White is correct that the UFC is a business and also that it is bigger than any fighter. Exploiting fighters by driving them away from their management and legal representation, making them sign long-term deals that ensure the UFC favorable negotiations in the future, and making them sign away valuable rights for no compensation are all effective ways to increase profitability, if you can get away with them. The UFC can live without Andrei Arlovski, Randy Couture, Jon Fitch, or Matt Lindland. If driving top fighters out of your organization ensures all the other fighters are willing to play ball, then so be it.
However, there is a limit to this. The UFC’s advantageous position is not set in stone. Affliction is only a viable competitor because it was able to scoop up all the heavyweights the UFC lost, and an AKA vs. ATT card would be a great way to start a new rival promotion, so this advantage can only be pushed so far. For every endlessly loyal Mike Swick or Chuck Lidell, there’s a Brandon Vera or a Randy Couture that will push back and fight for his own interests. If the UFC insists on using its market power as a bludgeon, they are going to force managers to band together and collectively bargain. This has happened in every monopoly sports league to date, so if the UFC is truly going to join the ranks of the other major league sports in the United States, it’s only a matter of time.
In closing, I’d just like you to keep this in mind the next time Dana White talks about how much he sacrifices for fighters, how he isn’t in this for the money, and how he just loves the sport. He’s cut a fighter that sacrificed everything, drove to California with no money, worked low-level jobs to get by while competing on the highest stage and generating millions of dollars for the UFC, and most recently had his brains bashed out in a 5-round display of guts that was an instant classic. Jon Fitch wanted to be a f—king fighter, to steal Dana’s catchphrase, and Dana White, probably from the cellphone in his Ferrari, has cut him from the organization because Dana wanted him to be a product.
Yes, the UFC is a business, and yes, Dana White deserves credit for building it up and promoting it so fighters can make a dime. However, fighters like Jon Fitch deserve credit for, with very little remuneration, putting on the fights that entertain and sometimes inspire the people that pay for it all in the end, we, the fans. Demanding that your fighters sign away valuable rights forever, for free, or they will be fired, with no negotiation and no place to go, isn’t fair, and it isn’t business–it’s extortion and abuse of monopoly power.