Even though the UFC has been back on its live events schedule for exactly one month, it seems as if big-named fighters voicing their displeasure over their pay has been at the forefront of the MMA world in recent weeks.
UFC president Dana White appeared on ESPN’s First Take on Tuesday to discuss UFC 251, Fight Island, and other topics, including the ongoing “beef” (as ESPN’s chyron put it) between the UFC and Jon Jones, Jorge Masvidal, and the re-retired Conor McGregor. Guest host Domonique Foxworth took White to task about his promotion’s historical treatment of its fighters.
Here’s the transcript of this gripping exchange. You can watch the full video at the top of the page, with the meat of the discussion starting roughly three minutes in.
White: “Jon Jones just signed a new deal less than a year ago. He’s got eight fights left on his deal! What do you want me to tell you? The guy’s got a deal. Same thing with Masvidal. [He] just signed a new deal seven months ago. These guys [Jones and Masvidal] both have brand new deals that they were more than happy to sign less than a year ago.”
Foxworth: “I think that Masvidal and Jones are interesting cases that I think you’ll probably explain away. My history in labor unions in sports in particular makes me a little biased on this particular side. If it were just those two guys, then I feel I can get on board and understand your explanation. Obviously I understand how businesses works, but there’s a long history of issues with the labor in UFC not feeling that they’re getting just payment or the treatment that they deserve. Can you speak to the long history rather than specific individuals?”
White: “Does anybody feel like they make too much money? Nobody does. Listen, if we were talking about a thing where these guys had old contracts from three years ago and it’s like ‘c’mon, that was three years ago that I did this deal,’ they signed these less than a year ago! This was months ago. By the way I don’t know if you’ve noticed, we’re in a pandemic right now and no other sports are going. Oh, by the way — every other sport is arguing over money right now. I haven’t laid off one employee, I haven’t asked any of my fighters to take less money. You don’t hear me out here crying about ‘I don’t getting any gates, I don’t have this, I don’t have—-’ you don’t hear me crying about anything!
“I’m running my business, I’m paying everybody. Right now, if you think it’s easy to be a business owner right now here and today, you are right out of your mind. Okay? There’s never been a harder time to do business than right now. Guess what? I’m pulling it off.”
Foxworth: “You can’t say you’re not crying anymore, you just said it’s the hardest time for business owners. I do think that it’s important to understand—-”
White: “Is that me crying? That’s not me crying. I was just explaining to you!”
Foxworth: “The point I’m making is that the leverage is different. Saying that they just signed contracts doesn’t speak to the leverage that they have in negotiations. Just because they signed contracts doesn’t necessarily mean that the contracts are fair or not. I’m not informed enough to know whether the contracts are fair or not, but I understand that when there’s a track record of a number of athletes over a period of time having an issue with someone or a company, then that seems like a group that needs unionization in order to have the leverage to get the things that they want.”
White: “Welcome to the fight business my friend. Right now we’re in a pandemic and all this stuff is going on. We just signed a contract eight months ago. You see me saying ‘oh no no this is going on and that’s going on, I have to pay you less money’? No. I’m paying them exactly the same amount of money no matter what’s going on. In the history of this company, I’ve never asked a fighter to go backwards ever.”
Foxworth: “You could argue that that suggests that maybe they weren’t making enough if their pay is not an issue. I’m not saying that you’re having trouble — that we should applaud you. We should certainly applaud you for keeping your business running and not letting any people down. I certainly wasn’t looking to fight you like Dan Le Batard, I’m not looking to fight you at all. I’m just bringing up the idea that there’s another perspective that makes perfect sense to me.
“Given my background, I understand how difficult it is to run a business right now, so we applaud you for all that, we applaud you for not taking their money down But just because you’re not doing anything bad, doesn’t mean that the situation is fair for them. And again, I’m not trying to be confrontational because I don’t know the ins and outs of this business, but I do know the ins and outs of sports labor and I know that when you have a bunch of angry, upset athletes there’s normally a reason why they should be angry and upset, so I was just speaking to that.”
White: “Again, I have 630 fighters under contract and we’re talking about two.”
Foxworth: (laughs). “Right now.”
From there and not shown in this video, Max Kellerman chimed in by saying that the UFC has a large middle class that boxing doesn’t have, and that UFC fighters at the top are upset because they see the money that Floyd Mayweather and Canelo Alvarez can make. Foxworth said “that’s fair context” and reiterated that he wasn’t fully informed on the topic, but felt that these were important questions that couldn’t be brushed away by discussing just Jones and Masvidal. He finished up by saying “Maybe I should’ve done more preparation, that’s on me.” Molly Qerim brought the segment back to fights and that’s that.
For those who don’t know, Domonique Foxworth played seven seasons in the National Football League as a defensive back, and served as president of the NFL Players Association. Since his retirement, he’s graduated from Harvard Business School and was briefly the Chief Operating Officer (COO) for the NBA’s Players Association. In other words, he’s not your typical ESPN hot take specialist, but rather a very thoughtful analyst whom in this case was more than willing to push back on White’s answers. It’s not often you see that type of conversation between White and someone from outside the MMA media, let alone inside it.
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