|UFC President Dana White is used to strong-arming his foes, but can he beat the feds? (Getty Images)|
The UFC is under attack, but not from do-gooding pacifists or meddling politicians. This time the UFC is under attack from something much scarier: The Federal Trade Commission.
The FTC vs. the UFC? That's a heavyweight fight. That's Dana White's worst nightmare. The FTC looks for antitrust violations, picking apart monopolies as the unfair bullies they are -- and as far as I'm concerned, the UFC is guilty as charged.
And I love the UFC. Understand that, and maybe you can understand how uncomfortable this story is for me. Understand that, and you might even forgive me -- not for taking on the UFC, but for waiting so long to do it.
Because this has been a long time coming.
The UFC is brilliantly run, and has been since Dana White and the Fertitta brothers bought it in 2001. At the time the UFC had one foot in the grave -- unlicensed in most states, unknown in most households, unpopular with politicians and unable to find footing in the sports marketplace. Had the UFC gone under a decade ago, mixed martial arts in this country probably would have died with it. There wouldn't be hundreds of MMA gyms, or millions of MMA fans, or thousands of jobs devoted to the fastest-growing sport in the world. If it weren't for the UFC, most states in this country wouldn't have opened its doors to MMA.
And I wouldn't have a favorite pastime. Well, not this one. Watching it, reading about it, competing in it. I've done it all -- I do it all, to this day -- which is why this story is so uncomfortable for me. And why I've waited so long to write it. Because MMA is my hobby, my pastime, my passion. And because I'm a coward.
For years I've loved the UFC enough to leave it alone, let it do its bullying thing, with the tradeoff being that the UFC would love me back. And it has, up to a point. The UFC has given me credentials to every fight card I've asked to cover, and the UFC has put Dana White on the phone with me. Neither of those is as simple as you might think, because the UFC doesn't treat the media like the other major sports leagues in America treat the media. It's not a collaboration -- it's an intimidation.
Point blank, the UFC bullies the media, holds a grudge, uses access to its events as the carrot to keep us media folk in line. Write the wrong thing about the UFC or its leadership, and the UFC makes you pay -- rips you in public comments, denies your access as a journalist to events, encourages other folks inside the business to keep you there on the outside.
That's a fact, and the UFC knows which MMA writers I'm talking about. The hardest-core MMA fans know their names as well. Some of them work for established mainstream media outlets. Others work for niche MMA sites like Sherdog.com. This stuff isn't a secret.
Neither is the UFC's use of strong-arm tactics. A secret? No, not at all. One of the UFC's best fighters -- best in every way, from his fight record to his image to the way he represents the sport at fan-friendly events -- was fired from the organization a few years ago because, basically, he stood up for himself. Welterweight contender Jon Fitch was allowed back, but only after he caved and gave the UFC what it wanted.
See, the UFC had agreed to terms with the video-game company THQ in 2008, but for the UFC to reap those rewards it needed its fighters to sign away the lifetime video-game rights to their likeness. Jon Fitch, along with several teammates from American Kickboxing Academy in northern California, didn't like the sound of that. Why should he receive a one-time check but relinquish his lifetime rights, allowing the UFC to profit off his fighting ability even more than it already had? Fitch refused, so the UFC fired him.
That's how Zuffa, the UFC's parent company, operates. An FTC antitrust investigation can be misleading, because Zuffa is not a monopoly in the most basic sense of the term. It's not the only MMA promotion in the world, or even in the United States -- Bellator Fighting Championships is a legitimate promotion, and it was recently purchased by CBSSports.com's parent company, Viacom -- but the UFC is the most stable, the most coveted, the most popular. Zuffa has made a habit of buying out the UFC's biggest competition: the WEC in 2006, Pride in '07 and Strikeforce last year.
The UFC leverages that power to get whatever it wants from fighters. That includes their signature on a contract relinquishing their lifetime rights to their video-game likeness, as well as forcing businesses that sponsor UFC fighters to pay the UFC a surcharge to be allowed into the Octagon. It also includes fighter contracts, which are as one-sided now as baseball contracts were before the advent of MLB free agency in 1975. Fighters typically sign a three-fight contract, terms imposed by the UFC, and often are left dangling before their final fight, when they are given another contract offer -- terms imposed by the UFC -- and told to (A) sign it or (B) never fight in the UFC again. Fighters that choose (B) are banished for their final fight to the untelevised undercard, as happened in 2008 to popular former UFC heavyweight champion Andrei Arlovski.
The purses can be insulting for UFC fighters, especially its newest fighters. A fighter who competes three times in a year, and wins two of them, could earn between $40,000 and $50,000 for the year. That's a respectable wage in many lines of work, but not for a professional athlete on multiple fight cards that generate millions in PPV and ticket sales for a promotion said to be worth more close to $2 billion.
That's a rip-off.
What would constitute a fair wage for UFC fighters, even its least experienced ones? Nobody knows, because Zuffa hides its financial information. Fighters can't identify a fair percentage of the profits because they have no idea what those profits are. Boxers avoid this sort of blind negotiation thanks to the 2000 Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act, which forces promoters to share such financial information with its fighters. MMA has no such disclosure law, so UFC fighters have to deal in the dark.
But the UFC is so influential, so enormous, that new fighters are willing to fight for $6,000 in the hopes of winning -- and doubling their purse thanks to a "win bonus" -- and getting more fights, more wins, more bonuses. On a card with roughly 10 fights, fighters get five-figure bonuses for the top knockout, top submission and top overall fight. Win a few fights a year and pocket a bonus or two along the way, and a young UFC fighter can avoid working a second job. Do that three or four years in a row, and he can become the next Georges St. Pierre or Jon Jones, fighters with headliner status and six-figure guarantees.
Or a young UFC fighter could do like so many young UFC fighters do. He can fail this survival of the fittest and find himself cut by the promotion, fighting in the minor leagues, sacrificing his body and brain while chasing another shot at the UFC dream.
A professional fighter is an adult, and the choice to pursue such a violent career is his. But the UFC should play fair in all things, from its purses to its treatment of negotiations like the one that saw Jon Fitch briefly lose his job even as he was in the middle of a 16-fight winning streak.
Now then, let's get back to me for a moment. I have dreams of my own. I dream of covering more Zuffa cards -- my first one was UFC 68 in Columbus, Ohio, which I attended in March 2007 with plans of ripping MMA but instead wrote this love poem -- and in fact I've been approved by Zuffa to cover its Strikeforce card March 3 in Columbus. I've also dreamed about writing Dana White's biography. I told him as much during a phone interview last year, and while White laughed, I wasn't joking. The profanely fascinating UFC president is that charismatic, that interesting, that I'd like to write his book.
But White and his sport are so charismatic -- to me, anyway -- that I've hated the idea of writing this story, the one you're reading now. So for years I refused. I watched the Jon Fitch thing unfold, and looked the other way. I've seen media members get frozen out by the UFC, and looked the other way. I've followed the unseemly wage scale for fighters, especially the most vulnerable fighters, and looked the other way.
But last week, ESPN's Outside the Lines aired a report on the UFC that delved into the FTC's antitrust investigation of Zuffa, which Zuffa co-owner Lorenzo Fertitta acknowledged by saying, "My understanding is that yes [the FTC has] opened a non-public investigation based on the acquisition we made of Strikeforce."
So I can't look the other way anymore, because this is really happening. The UFC's stranglehold on MMA is being investigated by the federal government. Its days as a competition-gobbling, fighter-intimidating bully could be coming to an end. So here I come out from under my rock, finally bold enough to acknowledge what has been going on for years.
No one takes on Zuffa and the UFC and lives to tell about it. Not professionally, anyway. But here I am, writing a story I never wanted to write, wondering what the consequences will be for me.
I'm still planning to cover the Zuffa-owned Strikeforce event on March 3, by the way. I have the confirmation email from a UFC publicist and everything. But if you don't see my byline from that event in Columbus, well, you'll know why.