Democrat Andrew Yang on UFC’s hypocrisy and ’systematic exploitation’ of fighters

Ever since announcing his intention to participate in the 2020 Democratic Party presidential primaries back in November 2017, Andrew Yang has proven to be…

By: Karim Zidan | 3 years ago
Democrat Andrew Yang on UFC’s hypocrisy and ’systematic exploitation’ of fighters
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

Ever since announcing his intention to participate in the 2020 Democratic Party presidential primaries back in November 2017, Andrew Yang has proven to be one of the most unique voices ever to campaign for the United States presidency.

Initially viewed as a long-shot candidate, Yang developed a loyal and devoted online fanbase and gained significant support for his universal basic income (UBI) concept, which was central to his campaign. Dubbed “The Freedom Dividend,” Yang championed a monthly UBI of $1000 to every American adult regardless of employment status as a way to alleviate the economic pressures facing most Americans. Yang was also the first presidential candidate to speak in favor of empowering mixed martial arts fighters working for exploitative organizations such as the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) — a topic that he believes is even more timely amidst the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

“I think fighters have been exploited for years and years and that exploitation becomes more apparent in this environment when the fighters aren’t able to compete and their entire livelihood has dried up,” Yang told BloodyElbow.

In 2018, Yang announced that, if elected as president, he planned to work with Congress to extend the Mohammed Ali Boxing Act to MMA organizations, have the National Labor Relations Board treat MMA fighters as employees rather than independent contractors, and help them organize into an association or union. He argued that MMA “doesn’t have a strong private sector organization” to establish ethical standards or business practices.

Yang believes that since the balance of power is tilted in favour of the UFC, the promotion is able to control fighters through exploitative contracts and limited revenue sharing.

“I’m a numbers guy,” Yang said. “In every other sport, athletes are receiving anywhere between 47-50% of the sport’s revenue. In the UFC, the estimates are that fighters are receiving anywhere between the 10-15% range. And that’s not surprising when you look at the payouts for fighters, or even if you look at a major PPV card — those fighters are getting paid 25, 30, or 35,000 to fight, and these are fighters who are at the top of the industry. Meanwhile, these fighters generally only fight a couple of times a year and have to pay coaches and many of the expenses.”

“You have a major sport with billions of dollars of value, where the athletes often can’t afford to fight full-time, and it is only because the UFC systematically squashed any effort for fighters to be treated the same way athletes are in other sports,” he added.

The UFC is able to maintain its stranglehold on fighters, Yang says, because of its union-busting tactics that ensured that fighters who attempt to organize labour movements would be fired or retaliated against. While the vast majority of MMA-related labor movements featured fighters who no longer competed for the UFC, there are several examples of UFC fighters campaigning for collective action during their stints with the promotion, including Leslie Smith.

Smith, a former UFC bantamweight with an 11-8-1 record, competed for the promotion between 2014-18. Ahead of her final fight in April 2018, Smith’s opponent Aspen Ladd missed weight and Smith declined to fight her at a catchweight, which prompted the UFC to pay her her full show and win purses — a sum of $62,000. Yet when Smith attempted to extend her contract, the UFC declined her counter-offer and released her unceremoniously. At the time, Smith had already founded Project Spearhead, a fighter-led MMA association that advocated for collective action.

Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Smith’s release foreshadowed what would occur to other fighters who supported the Project Spearhead cause. Kajan Johnson, a Canadian who grew up as part of the Ts’il Kaz Koh First Nation around Burns Lake in Northern British Columbia, was also let go when the UFC showed no interest in renewing his contract following a loss to Rustam Khabilov in 2018.

“[Smith] was a top 10 fighter in the division where the UFC needed talent,” Yang said. “And she is an action-friendly fighter. Then the UFC cuts her when her opponent misses weight. So you know that every other fighter saw that, and saw clearly that if you push for a union, they’re going to punish you or fire you.

Smith did not go away quietly. She filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) arguing that the UFC’s decision not to re-sign her was retaliation for her organizing effort. Attorney Lucas Middlebrook, who has been advising Project Spearhead, was initially informed that a regional NLRB office found merit in Smith’s case. However, when the case was sent to Washington, D.C, it was dismissed.

At the time, Middlebrook accused the UFC of pulling “political strings” to get the case dismissed — a statement that Yang also believes to have been the case.

In September 2018, Yang tweeted that “UFC fighters are getting totally screwed” and that “one fighter tried to stand up, got fired, and now Trump is involved in blocking her petition.” He posted a video explaining the incident and Trump’s alleged involvement.

Given the UFC’s strong ties to the current administration and its stranglehold over the entire industry, Yang sympathizes with individual fighters who are just trying to make a living doing the thing they love. In the current climate, being outspoken could signal the end of your dreams, “There is a massive collective action problem. Many are rightfully concerned that what happened to Leslie will happen to them,” Yang said.

For his part, Yang continued to maintain a relationship with Smith. During the height of his campaign, Yang invited Smith to speak at one of his rallies in San Francisco — an association he viewed as “100 percent natural.”

“I think Leslie Smith is a great American role model and I don’t think her [labor] fight got enough attention. The fact that she supported my campaign is something that I am proud of and honoured by.”

Beyond the UFC’s political leveraging tactics in employment matters, Yang found himself frustrated by the ongoing hypocrisy of actors and celebrities investing in the promotion through parent company Endeavor, which also owns the William Morris talent agency. He called out celebrities such as Mark Wahlberg, Charlize Theron and Ben Affleck, all of whom own shares in the UFC while also being card-carrying members of the Screen Actor’s Guild.

“So you had major celebrities — who benefit from being in unions themselves — now profiting from the systematic exploitation, and even the firing of someone like Leslie Smith. Everyone ignores it because it’s fighting. They say ‘fuck it, they deserve what they get.’

“The whole thing is insane.”

The UFC’s exploitation of its fighters ties into the promotion’s decision to host events amid the coronavirus pandemic, which has already claimed the lives of more than 68,000 Americans. The promotion is scheduled to host UFC 249 in Jacksonville, Florida — the same state that deemed the WWE and other professional sports “essential” services. Yang revealed concern over the UFC’s lack of transparency and the fact that their low payouts for fighters means that many on the roster will be desperate to compete in order to make ends meet. However, he also added that — assuming the UFC takes all the necessary medical, ethical and socially responsible approaches during the event — the promotion is in the best position to pull off such a feat during the pandemic because of its limited athletic competitors and officials.

“If you can imagine a sport that can continue in a pandemic, the UFC would be relatively high on the list because you don’t have massive teams.”

And yet, Yang — a self-professed “fight fan” who celebrated his bachelor party at a UFC event — admits that it is frustrating to watch fighters continue to be exploited by the leading MMA organization, and admits he would be an “even bigger fan” if he knew that fighters were being paid what they are worth.

“UFC fighters are role models to millions of Americans, myself included, because of the discipline and perseverance and courage that they display. it is really unfortunate that they are working in an industry that doesn’t properly reward their athletic talent.”

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About the author
Karim Zidan
Karim Zidan

Karim Zidan is a investigative reporter and feature writer focusing on the intersection of sports and politics. He has written for BloodyElbow since 2014 and has served as an associate editor since 2016. He also writes for The New York Times and The Guardian. Karim has been invited to speak about his work at numerous universities, including Princeton, and was a panelist at the South by Southwest (SXSW) film festival and the Oslo Freedom Forum. He also participated in the United Nations counter-terrorism conference in 2021. His reporting on Ramzan Kadyrov’s involvement in MMA, much of which was done for Bloody Elbow, has led to numerous award nominations, and was the basis of an award-winning HBO Real Sports documentary.

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