The Bullies’ Club

Just like Trump, UFC president Dana White built his fortune off exploitation and union-busting. No wonder they’re friends.

A UFC fight in the Acer Arena in Sydney, Australia in February 2010. Adrian Pua / Flickr

Our new issue, “Rank and File,” will be out August 8. To celebrate its release, new subscriptions are discounted.

“Ur a jackass get fedors nuts outta ur mouth.” “Go follow john mayer u puss!” “bro ur name is OMG lady gaga!? LMFAO you should be beat with a fuckin stick and kicked in the nuts repeatedly.”

These are some of the classy tweets written by Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) president Dana White, who also spoke at July’s Republican National Convention. White’s penchant for adolescent banter and public temper tantrums makes him a perfect companion for Donald Trump.

Trump, whose proposed tax reforms are the most regressive in history, hopes to do to the United States what White, with his financial partners Lorenzo Fertitta and Frank Fertitta III, have done to the UFC: create a tiered system that shuttles wealth to the top, while spouting “everyman” populist rhetoric.

Since White and the Fertittas purchased the near-bankrupt blood sport for $2 million in 2001, they have turned it into a billion-dollar global enterprise. The company recently sold its majority shares for an unprecedented $4 billion — the highest-grossing sale in sports history.

Their success has made White and the Fertittas the poster boys for leadership, innovation, job creation, and other virtues Trump has proclaimed during his rise to political power. Yet like the worker abuse at Trump’s Taj Mahal, the stories of the many fighters, referees, and cutmen who have not shared equally in the UFC’s profits have been conveniently sidestepped.

Certainly, some referees and fighters — like Herb Dean and Conor McGregor — make big bucks, pulling in six-figure salaries or seven-figure fight purses. And of course White and the Fertittas — who hold more shares than White — are doing fine. They have estimated net worths of half a billion and $2–3 billion respectively.

But many UFC workers are so underpaid and poorly supported that their wages and benefits do not cover basic needs. UFC Hall-of-Famer Mark Coleman started a crowdfunding campaign to pay for his medical expenses. Other fighters — especially women — hold down second jobs because they make as little as $6,000 per fight.

“Big John” McCarthy earned less than $2,000 for refereeing UFC 194’s main event. However, echoing the neoliberal “do what you love” mantra, he says that he “loves combat sports so much that he doesn’t mind the low pay at all.”

The UFC maintains this disparity, which leaves some fighters driving Lamborghinis while others would be better off “emptying trash cans,” through its individual contractor model. Each fighter signs a contract for a certain number of fights and months of service that also designates specific pay for each fight. They earn more money if they win and make as little as half if they lose.

In boxing, the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act established minimum purse standards. But no legal minimum regulates UFC pay. Fights aren’t their only source of income, though. White and the Fertitta brothers occasionally give some employees discretionary checks if they perform especially well or are deemed “loyal.”

Fighters cannot quit to work for another promotion company, but the UFC has the right to either terminate or automatically extend their contracts. If fighters win a championship during the last fight on their contract, then they must fight again.

A similar clause requires fighters to complete their months of service, even if their contracts are interrupted by injury or a prison sentence. In other words, when fighters are incarcerated or recovering from surgery, they are obligated to return to the UFC as soon as they are released or recovered.

Further, a non-disclosure clause bars fighters from publicly discussing their salaries. Information has filtered out, however, from fighters who have broken their contracts in protest or whose court cases against the UFC have been released.

Zev Eigen — a former Yale law professor — notes that the UFC’s contracts violate the Thirteenth Amendment, the National Labor Relations Act, and provisions won by the Ali Act. He describes them as “the worst [contracts] he’s seen in the sports or entertainment fields.”

The Good Seats

Like many of Trump’s businesses, the UFC’s worker exploitation depends on the absence of organized labor. Last August, when the Teamsters and Unite-Here! initiated a campaign to organize UFC fighters, the company was quick to reach out to its employees. “Being a part of their union could force you to be completely submissive to union bosses . . . If you value your voice and independence, we encourage you to reject the unions,” they wrote.

The letter is actually more tame than White’s and the Fertittas’ past anti-union statements. A few years earlier, Culinary Workers Union Local 226 waged a political battle against the UFC as part of their campaign to unionize workers in the Fertittas’ Station Casinos, which is the largest nonunion gaming company in the country. During the conflict, White called them “union idiots” and told them that they won’t “win” and that they should “go away” because he and the Fertittas “will beat [them] every fucking time.”

Most recently, veteran cutman Jacob “Stitch” Duran was fired after fourteen years of service for protesting the company’s controversial deal with Reebok.

The deal stripped fighters and ring staff of the right to wear their own sponsors’ logos at UFC-related events. The UFC made $70 million while robbing its employees of thousands of dollars in sponsorship income.

The message is unambiguous: free speech belongs exclusively to the owners.

If fighters complain or break the rules, they can expect to hear White’s trademark “You’re done” — a nice complement to Trump’s “You’re fired.” Those who spoke to ESPN about their working conditions chose to remain anonymous, fearing “career suicide” and a company that will “crush” any opposition. Just like the Donald, White and the Fertittas have little use for freedom of expression when it challenges their interests or the narratives they want to manufacture.

Trump shares a lot with White and the Fertittas: they all have a way with virulent anti-worker rhetoric, bust unions, and made fortunes propped up by inherited wealth. The money the Fertittas used to purchase the UFC came from Station Casinos, founded by their father Frank Fertitta Sr. And of course Trump’s empire was built with his father’s money, including the $3.5 million Fred Trump provided to save Trump’s Taj Mahal.

Unsurprisingly, White supports Trump for the same reason Trump supports anything: pure self-interest. “When we first bought this business . . . no arenas wanted this thing. Donald Trump was the first one to have us come out . . . You will never hear me say a negative thing about Donald Trump.”

Based on how his company treats workers, it should be no surprise that White evinces no concern for those outside of his class. As George Carlin pointed out back in 2005, “It’s a big club, and you and I ain’t in it.”

Preview the new issue of Jacobin and get a discounted subscription today.

If you like this article, please subscribe or donate.