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Is MMA a sport? Does it matter if it isn’t?

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Supporters say the Ali Act will make MMA a real sport. But will the bill do that? And does it even matter?

Is MMA a sport?

Most would answer that of course it is. When two fighters have a match in a cage or ring there is no reason why it should not be considered a sport any less than collegiate wrestling, tennis, or any other contest where two athletes compete directly against each other.

But what about outside the confines of the cage and before the match? Does that matter when we are discussing what is a sport? Should fighters and fans expect championships to be determined by athletic accomplishments and not economic impact? And if so does that means fighters have some rights with regards to those athletic accomplishments?

These are important questions, and the answers to them could possibly lead to federal legislation that would potentially have a profound impact on mixed martial arts – both the sport and the business.

Last week’s House of Representatives subcommittee “Perspectives in Mixed Martial Arts” hearing covered a lot of subjects, but the majority of the time was focused on HR 44 – the Muhammad Ali Expansion Act. The bill, if enacted, would expand the protections of the Muhammad Ali Reform Boxing Act to MMA and other combat sports, bringing what some term the “boxing model” to those industries. There is some question as to what that means.

To supporters of the bill, it would lead to higher pay for fighters and fairer determination of title contenders. For opponents, it would mean eliminating the very system that has made MMA, or more accurately the UFC, the success it is today.

To see how far apart the two sides are on the current state of MMA and whether the Ali Act provides a solution, just check out the verbal sparring session that took place last week between Oklahoma Rep. Markwayne Mullin, a former MMA fighter himself who introduced the bill earlier, and the UFC’s VP of Government and Regulatory Affairs, Marc Ratner.

According to Ratner in his prepared statement, the model currently used by the UFC is better than “boxing’s sanctioning organization model” which they might be forced to use if the bill is enacted and which, he claims, has “hindered boxing’s growth.” He also warned that this change would hurt MMA by possibly preventing them from being able to “put on the fights the fans want to see.”

Being able to “put on the fights the fans want to see” can be interpreted two different ways. The first, thanks to the fact that there are no legal barriers to the UFC operating as a title sanctioning organization, along with their dominance of the market, they have no need to worry about working with competing promoters or broadcasters. Without the conflicts that arise when trying to take other interests into consideration, and with the vast majority of elite fighters already under exclusive contract with them, it becomes that much easier to make a bout between two top fighters.

The second way to read that statement is that because the UFC owns their own titles and is not bound by any rules or guidelines on how a fighter receives a title match, they can put together championship bouts that are perhaps not justifiable based on merit but are again “fights that the fans want to see”. The examples at middleweight given by Mullin perfectly illustrate this: how does a fight between the current champion and the number 13 middleweight, or against the former welterweight champion who hasn’t fought in four years, determine who is the best fighter in the world today in the 185-pound weight class? It obviously doesn’t, but it does allow you to make a fan-pleasing rematch, or allows a returning superstar a bout on the biggest stage. The winners here are the fans that want to see these match-ups in place of other bouts with perhaps less appealing fighters, and the promoter, who gets to stage more lucrative contests than what he could have if title contenders had been determined by competitive merit.

For those concerned about making sure MMA is more a sport than purely spectacle, the question is this – how do you make sure merit is given its proper consideration? According to Ratner, the market does it on its own. “We put on the fights that fans want to see and they want to see competitive fights [emphasis mine].” If the market is interested in competitive fights, it is in the UFC’s interest to make sure they provide them. And therefore the UFC and other MMA promoters are kept honest by “fighters, fans, and sports reporters” who will let their displeasure known if they fail to make the fights competitive enough. According to Ratner’s statement, the success of the UFC and MMA is evidence that the current system is working.

One of those who disagree with this line of reasoning is Jon Fitch of the Mixed Martial Arts Fighters Association. He wrote an op-ed for the Washington Examiner that was cited by Rep. Joe Kennedy during the hearing. In order to demonstrate what he thinks is the absurdity of MMA’s model, he offered up the following analogy:

Imagine that the Houston Astros were the top team in their division at the end of the regular season and reach the final round of the playoffs. But unfortunately for them, they don’t have a very big fan base, so the MLB decides they don’t get to compete in the World Series. Instead, they pick teams in bigger cities, with higher ticket prices, and more fans. MLB decides they can make the most money off of a New York Yankees versus Los Angeles Dodgers World Series. So that’s the World Series they put on, and the MLB rakes in millions in ticket sales, television contracts, and apparel sales.

Obviously there are noticeable differences between stick-and-ball league sports and prizefighting. But there’s also some undeniable truth in his statement too. For most people, sport is decided on the field of play. The team or player who scores more wins, and the winners advance in any playoff towards the title. That second part doesn’t always happen in prizefighting. Does this lack of a guaranteed progression based on results in competition make MMA less of a sport?

Is it sport if one fighter is expected to win seven, eight, or nine straight fights against top opponents but another fighter, who is also more popular with fans, needs only one or two victories before being awarded a title fight? Or for a fighter’s chance at the title dependent not on his in-cage performance but on whether or not he agrees to a promoter’s contractual demands? Or for a fighter to be denied a chance to compete for a promotion’s title for something as mundane as someone in authority not liking them? As former UFC champion Randy Couture noted in his statement to the hearing “In sport, competition and result in competition determines merit – not how loud you complain, how much you insult or how many people you offend (those are entertainment concepts).”

Of course, anyone familiar with boxing will have a hard time telling you that it is more of a true sport than MMA. There are numerous examples of important fights failing to be made, of questionable rankings, and odd title matches. Luis Ortiz is currently ranked #1 by the WBA at heavyweight (where Anothony Joshua is champ) but only #14 in the WBO (where Jacob Parker holds the belt). Peter Quillin is but one of many examples of a boxer that relinquished his title rather than face a mandatory contender. A light heavyweight unification bout never materialized between the WBC’s Adonis Stevenson and the WBO’s Sergey Kovalev simply because of financial interests. These are but a few examples of boxing suffering the same shortcomings of MMA.

If the expectation is that switching to “boxing’s sanctioning organization model” will suddenly make MMA a more meritocratic sport, it is likely people will be disappointed, but this was also never the primary purpose of the Muhammad Ali Reform Boxing Act. Where the Professional Boxing Safety Act of 1996 was targeted towards the health and safety of boxers, the amendments in the Ali Act were targeted at boxers’ economic welfare. The Ali Act’s title is in fact “An Act to reform unfair and anti-competitive practices in the professional boxing industry.” The means by which this was supposed to happen was spelled out in the Senate report:

The reforms proposed by the legislation should increase competition in the industry, due to a reduction in anti-competitive restraints of trade. There would be increased free market bidding by promoters seeking to sign boxers, which will benefit boxers, as will a more consistent and legitimate ratings system.

So what were these “anti-competitive restraints of trade” used by boxing promoters that the Ali Act was meant to alleviate? This is detailed later in the report:

Historically, promoters in the industry have required an exclusive long term promotional contract with a boxing challenger as a condition precedent to permitting a bout against another boxer that the promoter has under contract. The Committee believes, and hearing witnesses and industry members strongly concur, that this tactic is the key contracting practice that has been used by promoters to gain undue control over boxers and championship titles, to the clear detriment of the sport. Promoters have used this practice to extract “exclusive promotional options” from boxers who already have a promoter, and who would not otherwise enter into a contract with a new promoter. The athletes would be better served, as would open competition in the sport, if boxers were free to contract with those promoters they personally choose, rather than being coerced to contract with a promoter who is in the position of barring a lucrative bout.

This practice also has enabled a single promoter to gain control over a majority of championship bouts in a weight division because it results in one promoter having control over both the champion and the challenger. No matter which boxer wins a title bout, the promoter remains in control over who may compete for that title, since he has both contestants under exclusive contract. If a boxer who seeks to challenge a champion (or a more established boxer) refuses to provide long term contractual rights to the promoter, the boxer will be denied the right to compete in the bout. This practice frustrates the years of determined training and arduous competition that boxers endure, for they will be denied the opportunities that their successes in the ring have earned. No boxer will ever be able to compete for the title in that division unless they sign away future promotional rights to that promoter. The promoter thus has gained total control over an entire segment of a major professional sports industry. This contracting practice allows a promoter to achieve a monopoly on a substantial portion of championship-level competition in that particular weight division.

If you change the words “boxing” and “boxer” to “MMA” and “fighter” this could easily be describing the business practices of MMA promoters today. The Ali Act’s intent then in regulating more meritocratic methods for ranking and crowning champions has less to do with actually making boxing or MMA more of a sport and instead tries to make a more competitive market for boxers selling their services.

At the time the Muhammad Ali Reform Boxing Act was written, examples like the International Boxing Club of New York and Don King were firmly on everyone’s minds. These were promoters that used their control of the titles, through long-term exclusive contracts, coercive contracts and conspiring with sanctioning bodies, to dominate the market. Thankfully, MMA doesn’t have the same problem of promoters conspiring with sanctioning bodies. There is no need, since MMA promoters have done away with the middleman to sanction title bouts themselves.

In MMA titles are ceremonial and championship fights are decided solely at the promoter’s discretion. The typical UFC contract spells this out: “Additionally, Fighter expressly acknowledges and agrees that ZUFFA is not a sanctioning organization and Fighter does not possess and cannot assert any property right or similar legal interest in the UFC Title or in being a UFC Champion.”

In order to get any chance at a major MMA championship a fighter has to sign with the promotion that owns that title, accepting the provisions that will grant the promoter long-term rights to the fighter if they eventually become champion. Thus the fighter is locked in with that promoter if they become champion and any other fighter who wishes to win that title will have to go through the same process.

This creates a situation where MMA fighters need to seek out promotions that can offer them a chance at a championship instead of promoters seeking out fighters talented enough to rise the ranks and be awarded a championship bout. This change in relationship makes fighters easily replaceable – any vacancy in a promotion’s rankings or title picture is immediately filled when a fighter is no longer under contract with that promoter – instead of scarce. This MMA model is basically the reverse of what we see in boxing and helps explain why MMA fighters make less on average than boxers.

Because boxers actually own their ranking and title (see Duva v World Boxing Association where the court declared it a property right] these are not lost when they sign with another promotion. In affect this makes them scarce commodities with only a limited number ranked at any time in the sport. A boxing promoter can not just crown a champion or declare someone a challenger then, he must find a boxer skilled enough to be ranked and then sign bouts for him against other ranked boxers if he wishes to get him into more lucrative title fights. As Carlos Newton put it once, “fighters compete for titles and promoters compete for fighters.”

What this creates is an environment where it is much more difficult for one promoter to dominate the market, and makes the athletes, specifically ranked athletes, much more valuable. Multiple promoters now have to compete for the top fighters if they wish to promote championship bouts.

This doesn’t mean all boxers make more than all MMA fighters. Most, in both sports make very little. But for boxers at the top of the sport, champions as well as those ranked by sanctioning organizations, the difference in earnings in noticeable. For an example look at the most recent purses for the boxers listed on Ring Magazine’s featherweight (126 pound) top 10 rankings.

  1. Leo Santa Cruz – $750,000 vs Chris Avalos 10/14/17

2. Gary Russell Jr – Not available for his bout with 5/20/17 bout with Oscar Escandon. It was reported he had received a $420,900 offer to fight Vasyl Lomachanko, but it was not accepted. On his previous bout he reportedly earned $800,000 vs Patrick Hyland 4/16/16

3. Carl Frampton – No purse info on Saturday’s bout but for his previous bout he earned $1 million vs Leon Santa Cruz 1/28/17

4. Lee Selby – $450,750 vs Victor Barros 7/15/17

5. Abner Mares – $700,000 vs Andres Guitierrez 10/14/17

6. Oscar Valdez – $400,000 vs Genesis Servania 9/22/17

7. Joseph Diaz Jr – $200,000 vs Rafael Rivera 9/16/17

8. Jesus Cuellar – $700,000 vs Abner Mares 12/10/16

9. Scott Quigg – No purse info for his most recent bouts. His last reported purse was a split of £5 million vs Carl Frampton 2/27/2016

10. Jesus Rojas – Requested by have not received yet from the Nevada Athletic Commission.

The question though is the current model in MMA “detrimental to the sport?” For some, the loss in control and income by fighters would lead them to saying yes. For others, a de facto UFC monopoly not only makes the sport easier to follow, and therefore more enjoyable to fans, but also leads to improved drug testing and safety standards. For them any potential loss in income by some fighters is a worthwhile tradeoff.

None of this means that the Muhammad Ali Expansion Act will actually do what proponents and opponents say it will do. Later this week we’ll examine how top boxing promoters, managers, and attorneys think the Ali Act might impact MMA.


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