Should there be a fighter’s union?

April 27, 2011

In a recent interview with ESPN, Randy Couture voiced his concern for fighters to receive health benefits. These comments raised the issue of whether there is a need for a fighter’s union. While Couture is against a union, he endorsed the need for fighters to receive some type of medical coverage.

Via ESPN:

Couture isn’t interested in spearheading a war for fighters’ rights, but he said there are issues that absolutely need to be addressed. His hope is that Zuffa and the fighters will come together with open minds before a war is the only option left.

Couture points out health insurance when not competing and the need for a pension as two issues he would like to see addressed to take care of fighters. However, Couture does not think unions are always beneficial. He points to the recent NFL labor issues as an example.

The Score disagrees with Couture’s comments:

The disagreement I have with Couture is that he believes that, without any leverage, Dana White and Lorenzo Fertitta will bow to the fighters command and do this. Why would Zuffa invest millions of dollars into fighter safety away from the cage when there is no pressing need to do so? The last line of Couture’s interview says it perfectly “There’s got to be a way to come together and meet on ground that everyone can live with.” This is why Unions exist, so that two parties can come together, on equal footing, and negotiate a common ground.

Whether it’s Couture’s political ideology or the fact that his retirement is imminent and needs to be in the good graces of hte UFC so he can receive a Chuck Liddell-like position in the UFC, Couture believes that Zuffa and fighters would come together to address concerns. While I do not believe there will be a Norma Rae moment in the UFC or Strikeforce, it begs the question of the need for insurance coverage for fighters. Its not clear whether Couture actually thinks that Zuffa and fighters would actually sit down and talk about these issues…let alone think that the discussion would be amicable. Bear in mind, Couture and Zuffa have been involved in litigation. Perhaps Couture is painting a rosy picture on this issue as he fades into retirement.

While there is speculation that some fighters are covered by Zuffa in their contracts, others are not. For an up and coming fighter at the bottom rung of the card, it would be hard to request in their contract a clause for insurance. The fighter market is so competitive that if a fighter is injured, its easy to find someone to replace the injured fighter. There have been instances of fighters going into fights with known injuries but doing it because they need the money to feed their family.

There are distressing stories out there about fighters not being covered by insurance. Former TUF welterweight winner Joe Stevenson had to go to Mexico for x-rays due to the fact that he could not afford it in the U.S. This was after Stevenson had won the six-figure contract as the TUF winner. Then there is the gruesome injury (don’t click on the link if you have a weak stomach) suffered by Corey Hill in 2008. Dana White indicated that the UFC paid for Hill’s medical treatment and rehabilitation. Even though Hill’s medical bills were paid, Hill still had financial problems. Obviously breaking a leg when your profession is being a fighter hurts you financially. One may argue that the individual should be held accountable for their financial fate. But, most fighters give up other careers to focus on their dream of fighting in the Octagon.

For the UFC’s part, it has conducted seminars for its athletes to educate them on the need for coverage. If nothing else, this can provide the necessary information on what is and what is not covered in terms of health insurance coverage. Then, it would be up to the individual fighter to determine whether to purchase insurance.

With no health or disability insurance offered by Zuffa, fighters are left to make the decision on whether to purchase it themselves or roll the dice and hope that they are not seriously injured. Certainly, insurance premiums would be high considering the nature of the work.

Although it would be prudent for an agent or manager to persuade their fighter to purchase insurance, it would be up to the fighter. With all the other expenses in training for a fight, paying for insurance might seem excessive at the time.

Zuffa could provide some sort of fund that would pay for health and/or long-term disability coverage for fighters suffering injuries while under contract with the UFC. But, a foreseeable result of something like this would be lowering fight purses and fight bonuses. Essentially, if money is taken from Zuffa, it would likely find another area to recoup the money.

Moreover, this could lead to the potential for lawsuits if a fighter is denied coverage.Then there is the logistic question of which fighters are covered and if there should be a threshhold of fights an individual must compete in to be covered.

During a web chat in leading up to UFC Fight Night in Seattle Dana White was asked about whether fighters should unionize, Dana White responded that it was up to the fighters. Despite being a neutral answer during the web chat, it’s probable that he would oppose fighter’s unionizing. In fact, he would probably hold a personal vendetta against those attempting to unionize. If you thought denying a media credential was bad, think of what Zuffa would do to fighters attempting to create a union.

9 Responses to “Should there be a fighter’s union?”

  1. Machiel Van on April 27th, 2011 10:20 AM

    Legally speaking, would it effect Zuffa’s status as an “independent contractor” to offer fighters out of competition health insurance? Or would it be as simple as attaching the coverage to their existing individual contracts (which would therefore tie it to the expiration of the contract)? Also, are there any estimates as to how much this would cost? Premiums would have to be incredibly high for anyone who lists “professional fighter” as their occupation, and they would be paying for coverage for HUNDREDS of such individuals. It seems pretty unrealistic at this point. It might also cause fighters who are prone to injury to be cut from the roster more easily, which would not be a good thing at all.

  2. BJ on April 27th, 2011 10:38 AM

    As long as Zuffa continues to put a stranglehold on the MMA Industry the fighters are going to have no choice but to form some sort of a Union.

    In may be a huge undertaking with lots of work but it’ll have to be done as long as things keep progressing the way they are in the MMA business.
    Unless of course some other entity emerges as a viable alternative to Zuffa giving the fighters other avenues to go and earn a good buck and get viable sponsors.

    Otherwise you’re going to have tyrants dictating every move fighters make financially.
    As far as salary, sponsors, you name it.

    Kicking Jon Fitch out of the UFC for refusing to sign over his likeness to a Zuffa Video Game deal won’t be a big story because things like that will end up being the norm.

    Zuffa will run MMA with an iron hand and if you don’t like it they’ll toss you aside and bring in someone else.
    Remember it’s all about the brand with them has nothing to do with the fighters.

  3. BrainSmasher on April 27th, 2011 1:06 PM

    Have we not learned that Unions kill industries? They have good intentions to start. But typical greed gets in the way. When business is up they want their share when business is down they refuse to take cuts or give back. The card industry saw this when they boomed in the 80′s only to be forced to pay wages they could no longer afford when sales declined which caused lay offs and put the industry in bankruptcy.

    Look at the NFL. The Owners over extended themselves and want more money than the last agreement and the players want more also. Fans are at risk of losing the sport because both sides are not rich enough.

    The NBA players association got enough signatures today to decertify the union because there is going to be a players lockout after this season. The experts says its 100% going to happen. It is believe Baseball will after this season.

    what we are seeing is the colapse of the sporing industry because Unions have leveraged themselves into deals the teams and league can no longer afford and the players unions never accept less.

    How would this work in MMA. Should the UFC pay health insurance for noobs who they bring up and go 0-3 and leave the UFC and maybe MMA for good? Fans need to worry about the entertainment value of the sport and quit worring about fighter finances. The higher expenses get for the UFC the shittier cards have to become. I like the fact that i knew every single fighter on a fight card and have seen each fight many times. Also like that there can be more than a half dozen top 20 fighters on the card. If you want MMA card to be reduced down to 5 total fights with only 1 big fight and the rest filler. Keep wanting fighters who already make more than most of us to get even more money.

    Fighters come and go. People need to stop idolizing these guys to the extend they choose an individual over the sport itself.

  4. BrainSmasher on April 27th, 2011 1:08 PM

    typo
    *The car industry

  5. Steve on April 27th, 2011 3:34 PM

    “Former TUF welterweight winner Joe Stevenson had to go to Mexico for x-rays due to the fact that he could not afford it in the U.S.”

    Sigh.

    I’m all for fighters getting insurance, but I really hate hearing that Stevenson story used as a reason for it.

    Stevenson earned over $250K that we know about in the year prior to that, and opted not to pay $500/month for health insurance during that time. That is why he had to go to Mexico. Fighters are contractors, and like all contractors, they have to pay their own insurance and fund their own retirement. In return, they are paid at a higher rate than salaried employees. There is no reason for a guy whose job requires him to be physically healthy to not pay for health insurance. Stevenson chose not to pay for health insurance, and he wound up getting burned.

    My question regarding health insurance and pensions is, are the fighters willing to take a pay cut to make it happen? Because that money has to come from somewhere, and expecting management to foot 100% of the bill of incredibly naive.

  6. BrainSmasher on April 27th, 2011 7:27 PM

    Agree. What happens to fighters when they leave the UFC with heath insurance? Now their insurance is probably dropped. They lose the possible company discount then are back to square one looking for their own plan at an older age with possible pre existing injuries. Its a bad idea for the fight Org to provide this. The fighter is better off getting it on his own.

  7. Nick on April 27th, 2011 7:57 PM

    I think getting health insurance for the fighters needs to be a priority. It can’t be eay to insure 350 fighters though. Maybe they could figure out an average rate and tack it on as a stipend to their show money. That’s still not going to stop someone like Joe Stevenson who makes over 300k/yr from spending it elsewhere.

  8. Jason Cruz on April 27th, 2011 8:17 PM

    Steve:

    I agree with the take on Stevenson. There is some level of responsibility from the fighter to take care of themself. As for your second comment, it would depend on how much less fighters would make. Is it $100 or $1,000 less and will the fighters know that the money is going directly toward insurance and not just taken away. Furthermore, what happens when insurance premiums rise…more money will be taken from the purse. Its a difficult question no doubt.

    When I was in my early 20s, I declined putting money into my work’s pension plan because I was young. I wish I had thought about the future..I’m sure young fighters aren’t thinking about when they are 60, but making money to pay bills for today.

  9. mbungle on April 27th, 2011 11:47 PM

    I’m trying to figure out the logistics of assigning insurance to fighters who are scheduled to fight within 2-3 months but only when training camp starts. That way they get covered for any injury that arises not just in the fight, but while training for said fight. Instead of covering every fighter on the roster, which would be both a financial and a logistical nightmare.

    There was some site a bit back, sure someone here ifamiliarar with it. Rob Massey I think his name was, had probably the best idea I’ve heard so far. Not a Union, I’m in the camp that thinks Unions only think about the ones at the top and even then it’s usually the ones running the Union and some of their friends; but a fighters association. If anyone has a link, post it so others can wrap their head around the idea. Problem seemed to be fans and pundits were more worried about debating and arguing about the issue rather than take a look at the options and the solutions. A fighters association, his especially, seem like it had the better positives and not as many negatives as a Union has.

    @BrainSmasher, you nailed it. One point I’d add is this: When the highest level boxers started getting paid 4x their worth, they started to complacentcent and now you see fighters like Mayweather, who has all the talent in the world and codevastatetate any fighter he wanted to at a time, no longer look for the K.O. They are content to just show up and dance, clinch, circle, and jab their way to a decision. Why wouldn’t they. They are guaranteed a huge cut of PPV buys and make a killing from their promoters, so much so it seems someone forgot to pay under cardcard fighters. Even the Heavyweights seem to be as content. Those guys should be knocking opponents out by the third or fourth round. I’d hate to see some of those dominant wrestlers in the UFC get paid 10 million a fight. Zero incentive to put their health, record, and I would say their careers, on the line.

    I also understand Zuffa still owes quite a bit in loan payments or something like that. That was a report I read here maybe a couple years ago. I’m sure they still owe on that debt. But UFC still makes a ton in gate receipts/ticket sales, PPV buys, merch, online, etc…Hand over fist. There is enough money for the lower totier teir fighters to get paid an extra 20-40k a fight. Give main eventers a min. of close to a million, so long as they actually show up and put on a performance. Incentives are a gmotivatorvater.

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