One of UFC’s earliest and biggest stars took to Capitol Hill Thursday to criticize what he called a flawed business model used by his former employer, urging Congress to amend federal law to provide more oversight to the mixed-martial arts world.
Former heavyweight champion Randy Couture told members of the House Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade subcommittee the deck is stacked against MMA fighters and they have little bargaining power, largely because the promoter and the sanctioning body are one and the same.
Promoters, such as UFC, the largest and most successful MMA operation in the world, create the fights, draw up rankings, award titles, determine purses and generate intrigue for certain bouts and pay-per-view shows. Fighters, meanwhile, have to fight exclusively for one organization and “have to sign a contract signing away a lot of their ancillary rights.”
“If you’re not a Ronda Rousey or a Conor McGregor, you’re getting the shaft,” Couture, a frequent critic of UFC’s business practices, said following Thursday’s hearing. “Everybody below that that’s not in the top echelon is struggling. It’s not going to get better; it’s going to get worse.”
Thursday’s discussion was an informational hearing that could lay the groundwork to re-examine the Muhammad Ali Act. Passed in 2000, the Ali Act was considered landmark legislation for boxing, aimed at protecting fighters both in and out of the ring, while also providing better oversight of the sport. Since then, MMA has grown in popularity but has been able to operate outside the terms of the Ali Act.
In May, Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-Okla.) introduced a bill that would extend boxing reforms to combat sports. Mullin said following Thursday’s hearing that he’ll reintroduce the bill the first week of January, shortly after Congress reconvenes, and he’s hopeful the measure can work its way through the Energy and Commerce committee and eventually reach the House floor next year.
Mullin sees the bill as a bipartisan measure that faces just one big roadblock: the UFC.
“The UFC is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars lobbying against their fighters, and I really wish they’d be spending that money paying their fighters,” said Mullin, an Oklahoma businessman who briefly competed as a professional MMA fighter. “If the sport is going to survive, it’s only going to survive if you take care of the fighters and the promoters, too. . . .The MMA doesn’t exist without fighters.”
UFC issued a statement Thursday, making clear its stance on congressional oversight or any changes to the Ali Act that might cover MMA.
“UFC continues to believe the federal government would have no productive role in regulating MMA promotions or competitions,” the organization said. “In addition to the organization’s standard health and safety practices, each state actively regulates MMA bouts to create an atmosphere that promotes the safety and well-being of the competing athletes.”
Not all members of the subcommittee came to Thursday’s hearing with Mullin’s understanding of the MMA world’s inner-workings. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) said she is not a fan of the sport but does care about workers’ rights and safety.
“You don’t have to be an MMA fan to recognize the need for greater negotiating power and stronger protections for MMA fighters. . . .The lack of leverage they have in their contract negotiations is, frankly, pretty shocking,” she said.
Couture explained to the panel that if the Ali Act was amended to also encompass MMA, contracts would be standardized, an independent agency could determine rankings and titles, fighters could operate in a free market and promoters wouldn’t face inherent conflicts of interest. The current structure gives all the leverage to UFC and the vast majority of fighters, Couture said, aren’t getting a fair cut. He estimated UFC, which was sold this year to a group led by the talent agency WME-IMG for more than $4 billion, takes in 90 percent of the revenue and shares a small fraction with the fighters.
“A machine is basically printing money for them,” he said. “They don’t want to give up that structure and that power that’s allowing them to do the things they’re doing [and] kind of hold an iron fist over the sport.”
Couture was one of the UFC’s biggest stars, holding a half-dozen world titles before he retired in 2011. He clashed in the past with UFC President Dana White, and his appearance on Thursday’s panel was not without controversy. Mullin had said the UFC threatened to boycott the subcommittee hearing if Couture was involved.
Jeff Novitzky, UFC’s vice president of athlete health and performance, represented the Las Vegas-based company at the hearing. He spoke on safety and anti-doping measures but said little about the Ali Act. Novitzky did express concern that an open market could unfairly pit a UFC fighter against another competitor who’s subject to different safety and anti-doping standards.
In addition to Couture and Novitzky, the subcommittee also heard from Dr. Anne McKee, the Boston University researcher who’s credited with much of the groundbreaking chronic traumatic encephalopathy discoveries in recent years. McKee said her team has identified 218 cases of CTE in the past eight years. She told the panel that she’s only examined the brain of one MMA fighter – a 27-year old who committed suicide. That fighter’s brain showed evidence of CTE, she said.