Mixed martial arts has grown from a niche sport to popular and profitable enterprise rivaling other major professional leagues. Yet for all its success, the sport lacks some form of collective organization for the participants. That's something some current and former fighters, as well as one U.S. congressman, are looking to change. (Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post)

John “Doomsday” Howard, who has a 23-12 record in his 13-year career of hitting guys until they cry mercy, rolls into an LA Fitness in the Boston suburbs. He’s three hours late to his workout, but not because he slept in. It had snowed that morning, the schools started late, and he needed to drop off his three daughters.

“I got kids, man,” Howard says. Many professional athletes might hire a nanny. But even as a competitor in mixed martial arts who’s fought around the world in a high-grossing, fast-growing sport, that’s not something Howard can afford.

After a quick trip to the sauna, Howard hits the machines: presses, lifts, push-ups, pull-ups, sit-ups to catch a weighted ball, scrambling across the floor on all fours, standing on his hands capoeira-style, until a dark stain spreads across the back of his hoodie, Snapchatting and bantering all the while with his workout mates, encouraging, teasing. Howard is compact, but he moves the fastest of the group, all bunched muscles above slender calves. About an hour and a half of this and then a round of laps in the pool.

“This is just to maintain,” Howard says after emerging from the locker room to pick up a tall smoothie. He’s got a fight in three months, and fight camp starts two months out. That’s the brutal part, he says — physically as well as psychologically, since it’s the time when he starts running out of money from his most recent fight, in December.

His promoter, Ultimate Fighting Championship, or UFC, is a financial powerhouse. Its chief executive, Lorenzo Fertitta, told CNN Money that it would generate $600 million in revenue for 2015, “a record for the company.” Pay-per-view is the biggest revenue source, he said, but media rights and sponsorships also add up.

As MMA has grown to nearly rival tennis or golf in the value of its sponsorships and the breadth of its audience, it has failed to develop a counterweight shared by most other professional sports: some form of collective organization, setting standards for athlete compensation and other rights.

Major-league baseball, football, basketball, soccer and hockey all have unions. They also pay out a much higher percentage of their revenue in player salaries than MMA promoters do. Even the ­lowest-paid players on their rosters — in Major League Soccer, salaries start around $50,000 a year — have their training, game travel and medical insurance covered, and they enjoy such perks as per diem food allowances, a share of tournament winnings, retirement accounts, paid vacation and workers compensation if they’re injured on the job.

Not so for your everyday MMA fight, like the one Howard fought in December. “I got paid 25 grand,” Howard said after heading to a nearby barbecue joint, where he sucks down ice water but doesn’t eat — it’s time to start cutting weight — sitting next to his manager and workout buddy Jonathan Sneider. “I had to give him two [thousand]. I had to give the gym 10 percent, another management crew 10 percent. So after that, the only money I see that’s actually mine? Maybe 12 grand. And then I have to pay all those bills. Rent, cars, fix that, fix this.”

At the beginning of the year, even that meager, occasional income almost disappeared.

The email came after Howard lost the December fight. The UFC was dropping what had been a contract for four fights, leaving him scrambling to find another promoter. Signing with a smaller outfit, the World Series of Fighting, was a huge relief.

“Great, I can plan my life,” Howard says, throwing up his hands. Unlike superstars such as Conor McGregor — who rocked the MMA world when he announced his retirement this week — and then retracted it — Howard doesn’t have the luxury of walking away from the modest career he’s built. Meanwhile, he’s got side hustles: a training gig here, an event appearance there, sometimes even working night events with a balloon company to make extra cash.

“People see Conor McGregor and think all UFC fighters live like that,” Howard says. “No. He lives like that.”

“If I went back in time and talked to myself, I would say, ‘Stay an electrician, you’ll make more money,’ ” Howard says. “I’m a UFC fighter who has fought all over the world, and I’m still living like the average Joe.”

He trained as an electrician coming out of high school in the rough Boston neighborhood of Dorchester but was lured into fighting by the promise of bigger payouts. Now, his 33-year-old body has only a few years of fighting left and he still lives in Dorchester, with none of the security that he thought would come with a career in the ring.

That same rancor has bubbled up among the ranks of fighters on whose names and images millions of dollars are made. Some are talking about creating an organization that can advocate for fighters, pay their legal bills and negotiate with promoters over salaries and benefits.

Howard doesn’t hold out much hope, doubting that the sport’s high-rollers would unite with its rank-and-file to speak with one voice. “My solution is to keep grinding,” he says. “That’s how I grew up.”

Still, fighters have found a lawmaker — Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-Okla.), who’s spent some time in the ring himself — to back legislation that would subject MMA to the same rules that were instituted for boxing 16 years ago, giving fighters more leverage in their negotiations with the corporations running the show.

***

The sport of MMA is essentially a commercial creation.

It emerged in the 1990s, when some promoters decided to see what would happen if they allowed two guys to go after each other without the narrow rules of fighting disciplines such as muay thai and jiu-jitsu. They drew contestants and crowds, but it wasn’t well-managed as a business. Its reputation for brutality also garnered the ire of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who derided MMA as “human cockfighting” and pushed to ban the sport.

MMA’s fortunes turned in 2001, when casino magnates Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta bought the limping UFC. They made a reality show about fighters competing for contracts, gave it away to a TV network and spent millions of dollars promoting it. It was a hit, and other programming followed.

Now, according to the New York Times, the UFC estimates that as many as 40 million people watch its biggest matches on pay-per-view. It has about 523 fighters under contract. Another promoter, Viacom-owned Bellator, has about 120 fighters and says it’s seeing similar viewership numbers. And the sport just was re-legalized in the last state to lift its ban: New York.

And yet the rules of engagement are fundamentally different from other sports. Fighters are under contract to promoters and usually don’t have much power to negotiate the terms of their employment. Rather than a system of seeds and brackets, matches are made by the promoter in a closed-door process that has a lot to do with fighters’ mass-market appeal.

“Our clearest position on that is we put on fair and competitive matches that we believe fans want to see,” UFC spokeswoman Isabelle McLemore says. She says independent rankings factor into the matchups, but that the decisions are subjective and opaque — as are the times when fighters are cut entirely, and what goes into how much fighters are paid. For example, Howard doesn’t know how cheated to feel about his salary relative to the proceeds from the web video, pay-per-view, and other things he’s required to do as a UFC fighter.

“How do I track this piece of paper?” Howard says of his fight paychecks. “How much money did you make off my name?” McLemore declined to comment on Howard’s contract, but the specifics do reflect those of agreements that have become public through litigation, illuminating how fighters are required to sign away all future rights to revenue derived through the use of their image.

And indeed, the slight that pushed many fighters over the edge has to do with advertising.

Early on, fighters were allowed to wear attire emblazoned with their sponsors’ logos in the ring, which could yield more income than the fight purse itself. Those rights gradually eroded: The UFC first banned those sponsors that competed with its own, then imposed a tax on fighters’ sponsors.

It did away with personal sponsors in the ring when it cut an exclusive deal with Reebok. Fighters draw some revenue from the arrangement, but it limits their ability to seek their own sponsors who might pay them more. (The UFC’s McLemore says she thinks most fighters are happy to not have to worry about chasing down their own sponsors.)

Even with the restrictions, the sport’s biggest promoter has created a powerful brand. Waves of new fighters eagerly await the chance to step in for any who might leave. Sneider, who manages a handful of fighters, recounts a conversation he had with recruit.

“He said: ‘You know what? [Expletive] boxing, I want to be in the UFC,’ ’’ Sneider recalls in a soft Boston Irish lilt. “Why do you want to be in the UFC? You know you’re going to get paid more boxing. He said: ‘I want people to know I’m in the UFC.’ ”

For up-and-coming fighters, the UFC’s dominance is almost impossible to resist.

“These kids, they see everybody online, on social media, it’s everywhere. It’s turning into this giant thing,” Sneider says. “You could easily go over to this other promotion and make a lot more money, but no, you want to be in the spotlight.”

***

Sports such as baseball, football and basketball have monopolistic leagues with no trouble attracting talent — but also unions to extract a chunk of the sport’s revenue for players.

Of course, team players usually are employees of their club, while fighters are independent contractors, and thus barred from unionizing. But even individual sports such as tennis and golf have formed players associations that have improved conditions for their professional members — setting up pension systems, standardizing rankings and rules of play. Some associations go to bat for players when their contracts are violated.

That’s the thinking behind the MMA Fighters Association, which was set up by a Phoenix lawyer named Rob Maysey in 2006. The group aims to fund itself through group licensing revenue and provide some collective benefits, including litigation support and financial planning. It also sets its sights on a more far-reaching goal: legislation in Congress that would protect all MMA fighters.

“Our overall goal is not to change the classification from contractor to employee,” Maysey says. “It’s to bust up the stranglehold on the sport that one promoter has to allow these guys to move around to a whole bunch of different promotions. That will drive their market value.”

As the MMAFA sees it, the legislation already exists — for boxing. The Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act was passed in 2000 after a string of corruption scandals. It mandates a system of objective rankings to be administered by a third party, prohibits coercive provisions and establishes minimum standards for fighter contracts. It also requires promoters to disclose financial data about each bout.

Marc Edelman, a sports business law professor at the City University of New York, sees the comparison to boxing as apt.

“Given that the role that MMA serves in American society today is so similar to the role that the World Boxing Association served 10 or 15 years ago,” Edelman says, “it would seem prudent to expand the Ali Act not only to MMA, but to other combat sports.”

Maysey says 300 current and former fighters endorse the legislation. They’ve enlisted the help of the Teamsters and the Service Employees International Union, and several fighters showed up at rallies for raising the minimum wage, reinforcing that even some professional athletes aren’t paid enough to survive.

Their champion for the legislation is Mullin, who leads other members of Congress in early-morning workouts. He knows a thing or two about MMA — he did a bit of it himself, back when you could get away with training for just a few weeks before a fight and almost everyone had a side job.

“These guys now, it’s what they’re doing year-round,” Mullin says. “They’re professional athletes.”

At the same time, he says, fighters take more abuse than football players, and they earn vastly less.

“They’ve made very little, they’re wore out, they’ve been beat in the head and there’s no career for them to move to, except go get a gym,” he says. “And if you make one person mad in this sport — because there’s only one place to make any money, and it’s the UFC — then they could ruin your entire career.”

The Muhammad Ali Act doesn’t directly address fighter brain health — which research is just starting to show is a problem — but Mullin thinks that if fighters have the economic wherewithal to turn down fights until they’ve fully recovered from the previous one, the danger of long-term brain damage will be reduced.

Mullin knows this won’t be easy: The UFC has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on lobbyists in recent years to keep such proposals from reaching the floor.

The UFC declined to comment on the record about legislation that hasn’t been introduced. McLemore did say that the company feels that it is regulated enough by state boxing commissions, which created regulations as they legalized MMA over the past decade. But MMA still isn’t subject to all of the same rules as boxing, which Mullin’s bill would rectify.

Mike Mazzulli, chairman of the Association of Boxing Commissions, says it’s time for MMA to be governed like boxing as well — as long as it falls under his jurisdiction. “If it’s going to help the athlete, then I’m all for it,” he said. “Will it help in MMA? Yeah, I think it would.”

***

After his afternoon training session, John “Doomsday” Howard walked through his neighborhood of Dorchester. It’s changed a lot — the hilltop park has new play structures, and some houses have been fixed up. Howard stood out, trailed by his manager and two workout buddies and a couple of reporters, a hulking figure hunched into his hoodie against the chill of early spring.

“Are you a rapper?” asked one kid, taking a break from chucking a football on the basketball court. Another stared at Howard approaching, then yelled, “I thought you was Tyson!”

Howard stopped. “No, but I’m Doomsday,” he said. “You ever hear of that UFC fighter out of Boston? That’s me.”

For the last stop of the day, Howard drives to Somerville, where he spars at a storefront gym called Sityodtong that owner and coach Mark DellaGrotte has made into a sought-after training ground. That evening, it’s packed with young men and women, grappling on mats and pounding pads held by beefy guys; it smells like feet.

Howard puts on gloves. He looks strong, but so do the reedy kids around him, dancing back and forth, peppering pads with sharp jabs, getting ready for competitions that could be their shot at a glorious career in MMA.

For Howard, though, it’s just a job.

“I’m 33 — I realistically only have five to seven years left,” he says. “People don’t understand that I’m a real father. I got this job to provide for my kids. That’s it.”