Fighting Dirty: Why these UFC veterans are trying to change the MMA business

UFC+fighter+Yoshiyuki+Yoshida+kicks+his+opponent%2C+Josh+Koscheck%2C+during+the+UFCs+Fight+for+the+Troops+event+held+at+the+Crown+Coliseum+in+Fayetteville%2C+N.C.+Kosheck+won+the+match+by+knocking+out+Yoshida+30+seconds+into+the+first+round.+More+than+9%2C000+Fort+Bragg+troops+attended+the+charity+event+which+benefitted+veterans.+%28U.S.+Army+photo+by+SPC+Christopher+T.+Grammer%2C+50th+Public+Affairs+Detachment%29

Christopher Grammer/Wikimedia Commons

UFC fighter Yoshiyuki Yoshida kicks his opponent, Josh Koscheck, during the UFC’s Fight for the Troops event held at the Crown Coliseum in Fayetteville, N.C. Kosheck won the match by knocking out Yoshida 30 seconds into the first round. More than 9,000 Fort Bragg troops attended the charity event which benefitted veterans. (U.S. Army photo by SPC Christopher T. Grammer, 50th Public Affairs Detachment)

Gray Maynard has always made the most with what he’s been given. He’s never considered himself an activist, and is content to stay out of the public eye. Just last weekend, he drove to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to go ice climbing solo.

Now 42, Maynard was once hesitant to air his own payment concerns about the UFC in public. But fighter pay is a hot topic right now. Everyone from heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou to YouTube star-turned-boxer Jake Paul is chiming in on the compensation of MMA athletes.

“Watching other people go through these same struggles makes me think,” Maynard said. “Am I being selfish by not speaking up and telling people how my career went?”

The Michigan State All-American wrestler is a fighter’s fighter, and somewhat of a pioneer in the sport’s lightweight division. His epic fights with Frankie Edgar and Nate Diaz, among others, helped popularize the once-overlooked 155-pound weight class.

Despite this, Maynard spent the latter end of his UFC career locked into an eight-fight contract that he signed in 2014. He was guaranteed just $42,000 per fight, and was pressured by UFC President Dana White to retire only one fight into the deal. Should he have obliged, Maynard would have still been under contract with the UFC, unable to sign with any other promotion.

“Where else am I going to go?” Maynard recalled thinking before re-signing with the UFC in 2014. “My whole career has been there. There weren’t many other options.”

Three years prior, the UFC had bought out its biggest competitor: Strikeforce, a popular MMA promotion based out of San Jose, California. There wasn’t much of a free agency for Maynard to test and, on a three-fight losing skid, his bargaining power within the UFC was limited.

“At the time, I didn’t have an agent because I had just let him go,” Maynard said. “I was losing the 10 percent I was paying him; it was a lot.”

Maynard was one of the best lightweights in the world. He fought for the UFC lightweight title against Frankie Edgar twice in 2011, drawing in the first and losing in the second bout. In each fight, Maynard earned $42,000 in base pay.

“After my title fights, it really clicked in my head,” he said. “I’m one of the best in the world, and my buddy’s a mortgage guy making three times as much as me. He was a decent mortgage broker, but I’m the best in the world.”

But Maynard wasn’t one to complain, so he did what he had done his whole life — he fought on. He did construction side work in an effort to pay his fighting expenses and raise his family comfortably.

“I’ll be remodeling a house one day, then jumping to practice, then jumping on a main event with [Nate] Diaz,” he said. “It’s crazy what I was doing. And I’m proud of that.”

He took fights that, even he admits, he shouldn’t have to progress through his eight-fight deal as quickly as possible.

“Two or three of them I took just to get it over with,” Maynard said. “I wanted to get out of the contract, and there were a couple of times where I definitely wasn’t ready.”

The UFC released Maynard in 2019. He had three fights remaining on the contract.

The UFC’s low revenue share is another main point of contention for Maynard. The other major American sports leagues pay approximately 50 percent of generated league revenue to their athletes. In the UFC, that number fluctuates between 10 percent and 20 percent.

Just 14 percent of the total revenue from January’s UFC 270 pay-per-view was paid to the athletes. The card was headlined by heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou, who is in the midst of his own feud with the UFC over his compensation.

“We know for a fact how much the UFC spends putting on the shows, and how much they make doing the shows,” said UFC veteran Jon Fitch. “We know how much they’re making. They can easily afford to pay double.”

For Fitch, it’s another example of the UFC taking advantage of athletes in a young sport with insufficient competition.

The UFC controls a massive share of the MMA market — an estimated 90 percent. According to Fitch, if other promotions want to succeed, they have no choice but to follow in the UFC’s footsteps.

“If you have a group of people doing it the honest way against somebody who’s cheating, who do you think is going to win?” he asked.

Due to the substantial share of the market that the UFC commands, they effectively have a monopsony over the MMA industry. A monopsony occurs in a market situation in which there is only one substantial buyer of a product — in this case, MMA fighters.

Because of this, Fitch argues that it is more important than ever for fighters to join a players’ association. This is commonplace in other sports; football has the NFLPA, basketball has the NBPA, etc.

 

An association like this exists, though. It’s called the Mixed Martial Arts Fighters Association (MMAFA), and it dates all the way back to 2005.

The issues described by fighters are well-documented and longstanding. Arizona attorney Rob Maysey had noticed the mistreatment of UFC fighters in the early 2000s. A Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioner at Cornell University, Maysey attended UFC 44 with his teammates in 2003.

“Gerald [Strebendt] fights Josh Thompson, he loses late in the first,” Maysey said. “A few minutes pass, he comes back into the crowd. He’s asking to borrow money to get home.”

After seeing this, Maysey made it his goal to form a fighters’ association. He started the MMAFA in 2005, and spent the next several years FedExing informational packets to gyms around the country. Maysey wanted to make it clear to fighters that there was an antitrust lawsuit waiting to be filed against the UFC.

In 2012, former UFC welterweight champion Carlos Newton contacted Maysey to get the ball rolling. Other fighters followed. Fitch was one of them. Nate Quarry was another.

“Professional sports have always had to band together and fight for legislation and sue for their rights,” Quarry said. “Now it’s our turn.”

Maysey’s MMAFA became the driving force behind the lawsuit against the UFC. The first class-action antitrust complaint was filed on behalf of these fighters in 2014. In 2020, the United States District Court in Nevada granted the plaintiffs class certification, clearing the way for nearly 1200 fighters to potentially be included in the suit.

“We believe the UFC has already made changes to the promotional agreements,” Maysey said. “We believe they’ve also altered some of the anti-competitive practices we said they were engaging in.”

The lawsuit is still ongoing, but Fitch, Quarry and Maysey are all optimistic in the direction it’s heading. Its success could give an association like the MMAFA the power to fix the problems that hinder many fighters.

“It’s been a long, long journey,” Quarry said. “Having the teeth behind a lawsuit, behind actual legislation, will change the foundation of the sport.”