- Interview by
- Chris Brooks
Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) is one of the fastest growing sports in the country. In the course of two decades, it has gone from being illegal in many states to becoming a multibillion-dollar business. Today, the privately owned Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) is the largest MMA promotion company in the world.
The UFC sets the standard for the industry and exercises enormous control over the careers of the fighters that have made millions for the UFC by putting their bodies and health on the line. And yet, the company has misclassified fighters as “independent contractors” — meaning they are treated as self-employed business operators and not employees. This has allowed the company to reap enormous profits through pay-per-view events, television licensing, ticket sales, and sponsorship deals while skipping out on providing fighters with basic benefits like health insurance.
But all of that might be about to change, thanks to the organizing of Leslie Smith, one of the highest-ranked MMA fighters in the world and a founder of Project Spearhead, the organization leading the charge for fighter unionization. Labor journalist Chris Brooks spoke with Smith about her organizing efforts and the issue facing fighters in the industry today.
What is Project Spearhead and why was it formed?
Project Spearhead is a fighter-led organization that is trying to get a fighters’ union started. To form a union, you have to be an employee. Currently, the UFC misclassifies fighters us as independent contractors. So we are asking fighters to sign cards with the intention of getting the Labor Board to issue a ruling on our status as employees. Basically we are taking action to spearhead a movement among MMA fighters to win more rights.
You are collecting union cards currently? The deadline is February 12, 2019? How many do you need?
Well, technically we need 30 percent of the total number of eligible employees to trigger a union election. That’s 200 cards signed out of the 600 fighters on the UFC roster. We haven’t released the number or names of anyone who has signed cards. We were on track for the first three months to hit our goal within a year, but once the UFC retaliated against me people stopped signing cards. The UFC has created a climate of fear and people are very worried about signing a card.
There have been other organizing attempts among MMA fighters — the Professional Fighters Association and the MMA Fighters Association — in the past. How is Project Spearhead different?
Project Spearhead is a completely grassroots effort that is not invested in, backed, or supported by outside groups with outside agendas seeking to make money off fighters. This group was started by fighters with help from a labor lawyer.
And the pursuing for collective bargaining sets you apart from other efforts. Can you talk a little about why this is important?
Collective bargaining is huge, it will make all the difference. There are other steps being taken right now, like the Ali Act, which will improve conditions for fighters, but in order to actually win some control over our careers and a legitimate share of the revenue we are generating, we need collective bargaining. We will also win benefits we deserve and a grievance process, all of which I see as essential rights that fighters deserve.
Almost all the fighters I have met have recurring health injuries. Many in the UFC take fights when injured, which means we aren’t fighting our best fights. We do this because we have to keep working so we can afford health care for ourselves and our families. So, having a chance to bargain for health care is going to be huge.
Fighters have been pushing for the Ali Act to be expanded to include MMA fighters for many years — and the UFC has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on lobbyists fighting it. Can you explain what the Ali Act is and how it could help MMA fighters?
The Ali Act would do a few different things, but one of the most important things it does is that it requires an outside body to evaluate the rankings of fighters, which would take power away from the UFC and their ability to mandate our standing and arbitrarily change rankings at any time. My worth as a fighter and ability to negotiate is directly impacted by my ranking in the world. When the UFC changes that in a whim, like they did to me when they took me out of their rankings and off their website in retaliation for my union activism, it’s very hard to walk into a place and explain my worth — even though I’m an accomplished fighter. I’m ninth in the world with ten years of experience but without the UFC ranking it’s harder to negotiate work. It would also create transparency by forcing promoters to disclose the revenue generated from fights, so fighters would be in a better position to know how much to negotiate.
The Ali Act is being primarily pursued by the MMA Fighters Association. But it’s important to note that the MMAFA believes in creating more competition as a way to improve conditions for fighters. They feel that the UFC has monopoly power over the industry and stifles competition from other promoters. They are not interested in unionizing fighters or pursuing collective bargaining. They are a group I was part of before, but because I think unionization and collective bargaining are essential, we came to a crossroads, even though I support the Ali Act.
The UFC says that fighters like yourself are “independent contractors.” The UFC seems to want it both ways. On the one hand, they are deeply involved in controlling your work. They determine where and when you fight, who you fight, what fighters can and can’t wear, the amount of promotion fighters do, they mandate drug tests. Then on the other hand, they want to claim you are an independent contractor so they aren’t liable for payroll taxes, health insurance, and workers comp. And, of course, if you are an independent contractor then you don’t have the right to unionize.
If you are under contract with the UFC, then you have to wait until the company matches you up for a fight. One of the main ways that people get a fight started is they start talking smack about another fighter on Twitter. That is not very dignified and not how I want to represent myself. But that is one of the only options other than waiting. My manager called the UFC every day for an extended period of time trying to get a fight.
Then when the UFC makes a decision, you have to be ready, available, and willing to work exactly when the UFC wants you to. During the period that we are under contract with the UFC we can only fight exclusively for them. We can’t use our skill set with another promotion during that period. I consider that pretty employee-like.
My personal experience is that I want to fight. But I have been put on the shelf. I don’t get to choose my opponents or the fights. I don’t have any say about what is going on with my career or what my next steps are going to be. So the UFC exerts all this control over fights and careers but claims we are independent contractors.
In the future, MMA fighters will look back on this time as the dark ages of the MMA. When MMA fighters have full medical coverage, retirement plans, and are getting paid purses that are a legitimate share of the revenue they are generating, they will have a hard time believing that we lived with these conditions for so long.
The UFC has also exerted control over endorsement deals. In 2014, the UFC inked major multi-year deals with companies like Reebok, making them the exclusive sports brand sponsor of UFC. Before that, fighters could sign their own individual sponsorship deals with companies. So, again, the company makes decisions that financially benefit UFC owners but not the fighters.
The UFC has always made a lot of money off of sponsorships. Prior to the Reebok deal, they were charging a $50,000 fee to any company that wanted to sponsor a fighter. Companies had to pay that to the UFC prior to paying a fighter they wanted to sponsor. But then the UFC decided they wanted to make even more money. So they made an exclusive sponsorship deal with Reebok.
A lot of fighters were making more money off their sponsorships than their fight contracts. So once the UFC signed this deal with Reebok it put fighters even more at the mercy of the UFC then they were before.
Project Spearhead is working toward goals related to this. We want space on our uniforms for personal expression or individual sponsorships.
I think fans would be astounded to learn just how big a business UFC is. The company was acquired in 2001 for $2 million and sold to Hollywood talent industry WME-IMG in 2016 for a mind-boggling $4 billion. And Disney-owned ESPN recently acquired television rights after committing $1.5 billion to broadcast the sport over the next five years. How much of that money has trickled down to the actual fighters in the octagon?
There has never been any trickle down. Unless we collectively bargain or start exercising some sort of collective leverage over the company, there won’t be.
UFC fighters are professional athletes in one of the toughest sports in the world but we are treated with less respect than athletes in other sports. Football, basketball, baseball, and hockey players are all treated better. They all have medical coverage, retirement plans, they all have a grievance process. And they have that because they have a union. We deserve to have the same.
Kobe Bryant spoke at an MMA retreat last year and I asked him how essential the union has been to him and his career. He admitted it was extremely important and said that it not only raised standards for athletes but fortified the sport.
So I think we should follow the example of other professional athletes, but not only other athletes. MMA fighters are naturally courageous people. It takes a lot of courage to step into the ring on national television and fight. Now we need to follow the courageous examples of factory workers, UPS drivers, teachers, and all the other workers across the country who have fought for a union and stood up for their rights. Fighters can draw a lot of strength, support, and inspiration from other workers who are fighting for a better future for themselves.
You were on a two-fight winning streak and a top-ten ranked fighter in the women’s bantamweight division when your opponent couldn’t make weight for a fight in April. The UFC refused to extend your contract and instead paid you the show and win money, declaring the last fight on your contract nullified and that you are now a free agent. Can you talk about how unprecedented that action was and whether it was in retaliation for union organizing efforts?
When the UFC released me and said that paying me my show and win money was a fulfillment of my contract, we said that was unprecedented. The UFC came back with a short list of people they had released and paid full money or cut on a win streak, but my lawyer and I were able to find glaring discrepancies between the list provided and my own situation.
Nowhere in the contract does it state its even an option for the promotion to choose to pay me and consider that a fulfillment of my opportunity to fight. There is a lot more to the fight than the show and win money. For me, every fight is the most important fight of my career because my opportunities in the future are based on the fight I am in right now. I’m literally only as valuable as my last fight. So taking away my chance to fight prevents me from being able to show my true value and be able to get opportunities for future promotions and sponsorships.
I’m having a lot of difficulty finding another promotion right now because the UFC sets the industry standard. So the UFC cutting me worries other promoters and will continue to have longer effects beyond this one fight.
In response you filed an unfair labor practice charges against the UFC for retaliating against you for leading the unionization drive — and the regional board upheld the charge and declared that you were not only an employee but that the UFC did retaliate against you and the Board was going to bring charges against the company. Then suddenly the Board declared that their decision was pending review in Washington D.C. What happened there?
I don’t sit around assuming that that world is against me. That is not healthy or useful. But the president of the UFC, Dana White, just met with President Trump. There is a photo of White smiling alongside Trump in the oval office. They’ve known each other and have been friends for a really long time. Trump was instrumental in the UFC’s early years, providing a venue for fights. Dana White spoke in support of Trump at the RNC. So there is clearly a deep association there. On top of that, the UFC is a multibillion-dollar industry and has large sums of money to spend lobbying the government.
So it’s possible that the UFC is pulling as many strings as possible to keep itself from being held accountable to our country’s laws.
What are the particular challenges that women face in the UFC?
In the UFC, people get paid for wearing Reebok clothes in increments over a number of fights. The more fights you make, the more money you get for wearing the Reebok clothing. But women have only been fighting in the UFC for a very short period of time, so they don’t fall in the upper tier. So the women in the UFC are getting drastically less money than the men.
There was a lot of attention paid to Ronda Rousey saying she was the highest-paid fighter in the UFC. But Ronda Rousey is only one person; there are a lot of women fighters and they are definitely not treated equal to men.
Fans say they love watching the women fight. The women always bring it. We are serious athletes. Yet the commentators also say things that are derogatory to women. They call us girls, not women. They refer to us as scrappy or make other belittling remarks that they wouldn’t use to describe individual fighters if they were a man.
The UFC makes substantial sums of money through television and online streaming, so commentators play a fundamental role in how the sport is perceived and how fighters are treated by the public. When commentators use sexist language it has an impact.