Duda: Labor unions saw success in 2022 — why didn’t MMA fighters use the momentum?

Melissa Duda, Op-Ed Contributor

The COVID-19 pandemic jolted the labor union movement with workers risking their lives more than ever. The circumstances American workers faced — created by the pandemic and corporate responses to it — were a catalyst for the labor movement, and unions successfully emerged in major corporations like Starbucks, Amazon, Apple and Chipotle. Undoubtedly, each union election was inspired and driven by the success of others. So, why didn’t mixed martial arts fighters, a vastly underpaid group with extremely dangerous working conditions, use this momentum to similarly improve their labor situation?

In 2022 alone, there were several instances in which a union could have benefited MMA fighters. So far, 2023 has only presented a stronger case for unionization. A union would certainly not solve all of the issues, but the security of fair wages and health benefits from a union may prevent a fighter from engaging in unsavory or unsafe behavior out of desperation for money.

The Ultimate Fighting Championship is the most prominent MMA promotion company worldwide. So when UFC fighters say they have accepted fights due to financial desperation, it’s ironic that this wealthy promotion also screams “fighters need to unionize.” It would be markedly impactful for UFC athletes to move to unionize and set an example for all MMA organizations. 

The most controversial MMA  story of last year reported an alleged betting scandal reeking of desperation for money. Glory MMA & Fitness coach James Krause and his MMA athlete Darrick Minner knowingly concealed a detrimental knee injury, and the betting line swung significantly in favor of his opponent hours before the fight.

Krause admitted he made substantial money by betting on MMA fights, and Minner had only six fights in the promotion leading up to the FBI’s ongoing investigation into the scandal. As a new fighter, Minner was egregiously underpaid — initial UFC fight contracts are typically between $10,000 and $30,000 per fight.

Minner’s choice to fight with a debilitating injury so he could financially survive should not be the status quo in the world’s premiere MMA organization. Rather, a union could grant fighters something comparable to paid sick leave or workman’s compensation. Would this have happened if coaches and athletes were earning commensurate salaries compared to other professional sports? 

Some fighters have pushed for fair compensation and treatment by the UFC. The potential fight between Jon Jones and Francis Ngannou would have easily been the biggest fight of the year. Ngannou could have made at least $600,000, which would be split among his coaches, managers and physical therapy. Fighters are rarely left with much. Heavyweight boxers, on the other hand, can make up to $33.6 million, like Tyson Fury did in his 2022 fight against Dillian Whyte.

The average fight purse — the agreed-upon pay that a fighter is to receive after completing the fight — is about $21,000. Most state athletic commissions do not disclose fight purses, which helps the UFC maintain control over fighters by preventing a fighter from knowing what their peers are earning per fight. Being in the dark weakens their bargaining power when negotiating contracts. Unions would help this issue by advocating for higher wages and transparency in purse disclosures. 

Last year, the UFC inked multimillion dollar sponsorship deals with Crypto.com and Project Rock, but fighters do not see a penny of these arrangements. Fighters were better off when they could secure their sponsorship deals independent of the UFC — something the UFC no longer allows. A union would curtail this financial control by once again allowing fighters to have their own in-cage sponsors, securing a steady source of income for fighters in between events.

Of course, MMA fighters must overcome enormous hurdles for a union such as National Labor Relations Board recognition as an employee rather than an independent contractor. But this is an uphill battle. As of 2021, UFC lobbyists have spent $240,000 on lobbying against the Protecting the Right to Organize Act of 2021, which would redefine the employment status of mixed martial artists.

Another hurdle arises from the UFC fighters themselves. Many UFC fighters have voiced their opposition to unionizing, maintaining loyalty to UFC President Dana White. This would undoubtedly hinder union organizing efforts since voting for a union requires at least 30% of workers to sign a petition to unionize.

Like their counterparts throughout the American workforce, fighters will face worsening labor conditions due to greedy corporate reluctance to raises, sick days and terminating non-compete agreements. If MMA followed the example set by other professional sports in unionizing, fighters could regain financial control. Paradoxically, using the UFC’s own “the time is now” slogan, the time is now for fighters to push to unionize — 65% of Americans supported labor unions as of 2020, and public approval has not been higher in decades. Last year brought forth memorable union success stories for other corporations, and there is no reason MMA fighters cannot capitalize on this momentum in 2023.

Melissa Duda is a Weinberg first-year graduate student. She can be contacted at [email protected].If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.