Jake Paul has crafted a career out of blurring the line between performative stunts and earnest endeavors. Along the way, however, the man who first rose to stardom as a social media prankster before a brief stint as a Disney actor has carved out a space in the combat sports world that shows no signs of going away—even as questions of his seriousness and integrity continue to dog him.
For those that thought Paul would be a flash in the pan, his dedication to boxing thus far seems largely earnest and lasting. The ‘Problem Child’ may not be any kind of elite talent (or facing any kind of elite talent), but he’s clearly training hard and getting better year after year. For all that, though, it’s still hard not to wonder if anything else Paul does can be taken at face value. The man built a fortune on being serially unserious, it’s hard to shake that kind of reputation.
Jake Paul still trying to make ‘near impossible’ fighter’s union
One of the biggest crusades that Jake Paul has attempted to lend his celebrity status to is the conversation around fighter pay in MMA. It’s a cause the 26-year-old was first drawn to as part of a feud with Dana White. A spat that, itself, evolved from Paul’s tendency to pick out washed former UFC stars to create showcase PPV boxing events for himself. What started out as an easy way to needle the UFC president has, seemingly, become a topic Paul actually cares about.
At the very least, Paul clearly cares about some segment of combat sports outside of his own success. He’s made a priority out of promoting unified featherweight champion Amanda Serrano’s boxing career. Setting her up for a massive superfight with Katie Taylor at Madison Square Garden. A major success that likely would not have happened without Paul’s continuous effort.
So, as difficult as it is to believe, it’s not entirely unreasonable to think that Paul might have some of that same drive for fixing MMA (and more pointedly UFC) fighter pay. If that’s the case, however, he’s set himself one hell of a task—as he’s very quickly finding out.
“We’ve been working nonstop on it behind the scenes,” Paul said of building a fighter’s union with Anderson Silva in a recent interview with MMA Mania. “It’s just … damn near impossible to figure this one out (laughs). It’s very difficult. Very, very difficult. We’re not shying away because of that, but it takes a lot of people, a lot of brains, a lot of money that we are funding, a lot of time, a lot of thought. So, really, we’ve been chugging along in this whole entire time behind the scenes and making slow progress more and more every single day.”
Not especially known for public disagreements with the UFC during his time in the promotion, Silva ended up roped into this project as the result of a bet with Paul; namely, if the ‘Spider’ couldn’t beat the social media influencer inside the ring he’d have to help him unionize fighters. Silva couldn’t beat Paul, so here he is—with several years worth of work ahead of him by the sound of it.
“This is a big three, four-year thing,” Paul continued in his interview with Mania. “It doesn’t happen overnight. We’ve been working and fingers crossed, man. I think it’s gonna be great for the combat sports world in general and sort of change the history of fighters being treated terribly and not having health insurance, being underpaid, the list goes on and on and on. Hopefully, that’s something we can fix in the next couple of years.”
Is it a fun, eye catching way to start a business partnership? Sure, totally. Is it a solid foundation for what could be a massively important labor movement? Well…
A fighter’s union is doomed to fail
As Paul himself noted, above, the task he’s set himself is nearly impossible. Considering how long he’s been talking up the idea, however, that shouldn’t have come as a surprise. There are multiple avenues that could be taken to potentially improve the financial future for athletes in the UFC (and, by proxy, in MMA in general). Unionization is probably the worst of them.
The first and easiest thing that should probably be at the forefront of any discussion over fighter rights and fighter pay is the Ali Act. Since the legislation already exists and has been put into action for decades in the boxing world, bringing it to MMA would be a case of a whole lot of lobbying and likely minimal adjustment. The Ali Act’s provisions about contract lengths, title sanctioning bodies, and the relationships between managers, promoters, rankings, and belts would be a huge shakeup to the industry that would see a massive increase in bargaining power for top drawing fighters when negotiating new contracts.
The second, and still fairly clear option available to Paul would be to enter the broader legal battle for clearly defined rights for independent contractors.
Industries like ride-sharing, food delivery, and other modern tech disruptions in the ‘gig economy’ have created huge gray areas in what it means to work as an independent contractor in the US, a status that the UFC has exploited for years, despite the exclusive nature of the deals their athletes agree to.
The reason independent contractor status is so important—and that the fighter’s union idea feels so seriously misplaced—is that independent contractors like UFC fighters don’t have the right to unionize. The best they could do would be to form a loose ‘association’, that would provide only the most bare bones structure for collective bargaining, and hold the UFC to no kind of legal obligation to either recognize the organization or work with its members. We already have the MMA Journalists Association for a look at just how much power that kind of thing holds.
Fighters are already pretty obviously wary about collective bargaining. Given their lack of power in negotiating with the UFC, it’s not hard to see why. Past attempts to create any group action among UFC talent yielded incredibly limited results and saw most invested parties either walk away from their efforts, or get released from the UFC altogether. If Paul is going to try and build an association of fighters in the UFC, while operating purely outside the promotion himself, it seems extremely unlikely he’ll find athletes lining up to join him for a fight he has no actual stake in winning.
Could Jake Paul take the UFC to court?
Setting lobbying and organizing efforts aside, if Paul wants to make more immediate impact without all the burden of running an union nobody wants to join—or without spending all his money trying to out-lobby the UFC in congress—it seems like there’s one other big option he could try to force change in the combat sports world. Jake Paul could try taking the UFC to court.
All things considered, it seems as though no action in the last twenty years has created more information or more potential for positive change in the UFC than the class action lawsuit filed against the promotion by a number of veteran fighters. Despite currently sitting in an apparently unending state of legal limbo, the discovery involved in that case, and the claims made against the UFC by the athletes involved, more than likely created the exact circumstances that led to the promotion losing control of their heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou.
The UFC’s past attempts to enforce things like the ‘champions clause’ and other automatic extensions that leave fighters locked in seemingly near-permanent deals, have been a major cornerstone to legal arguments against them, and were notably absent in the deal Ngannou ended up with that allowed him to enter free agency while still holding UFC gold.
Obviously, Paul not being a UFC fighter, he doesn’t have a contract to challenge. But Conor McGregor’s boxing match with Floyd Mayweather opened up some fascinating circumstances. Notably that while the UFC initially balked at McGregor’s insistance on the boxing match, when McGregor became a licensed boxer, it seemed as though the UFC’s tune had to change.
If Paul were able to find a top UFC talent that wanted to enter a boxing bout with him, he could put his financial support behind the ensuing legal battle. The case the UFC would have to stop a licensed boxer from entering into an agreement for a boxing match, simply because of an existing MMA contract could be exactly the kind of stress test UFC contracts need. If Paul is serious about spending his time battling the promotion for fighters’ rights, a case like that might be the biggest impact he could ever hope to make.
He wouldn’t even have to look that far to find someone positioned to take just that risk. Jorge Masvidal recently revealed that he’d be very interested in taking a boxing bout sometime in the future, but his current UFC contract prevents it. With ‘Gamebred’ retired from MMA, he’s got less to lose than most in battling out the details with the UFC. It’d be the kind of fight that could inform other fighters just how far under the promotion’s thumb they really are.
In the meantime, if Paul keeps up with the idea of a fighter’s union, then no doubt he’ll talk a big game. He may even seriously believe that the idea has a viable future. But more likely than anything, he’ll end up looking more like the un-serious clown people paint him as, and less like the serious fighter and businessman he’s trying to become.
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