Contentious congressional hearing on Ali Expansion Act

Friday, November 10, 2017

Markwayne Mullin, retired MMA fighter, successful entrepreneur, and congressman (R) representing the 2nd District of Oklahoma has introduced H.R. 44, Federal legislation amending the Ali Act, so that it expands to cover professional MMA, and even kickboxing.

On November 9, the Committee on Energy and Commerce’s Subcommittee on Digital Commerce and Consumer Protections held a hearing on “Perspectives on Mixed Martial Arts”. The text of the bill was considered, and several witnesses were heard including:
•Randy Couture, President, Xtreme Couture MMA;
•Marc Ratner, UFC Senior Vice President of Government and Regulatory Affairs;
•Greg Sirb, Executive Director, Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission; and,
•Dr. Kristen Dams-O’Connor, Associate Professor of Rehabilitation Medicine and Neurology and the Director of the Brain Injury Research Center of Mount Sinai.

The sometimes contentious hearing saw conflicting opinions on whether the Federal government should be in charge of matchmaking in mixed martial arts, or not.

“This legislation is about protecting the fighters and sustaining a sport which I love, which I have given blood and sweat,” said Mullin, as transcribed by James Tennent for IB Times. “We want to see this sport sustainable for future generations and the Muhammad Ali Act does just that.”

Jan Schakowsky, ranking member of the subcommittee on digital commerence and consumer protection, argued that fighter negotiating power and safety are interlinked, as a fighter with a low income might take an unsafe fight to make enough money to get by.

UFC Hall of Famer Randy Couture argued that “unlike in boxing and kickboxing, MMA promoters do not, and have not been required by the athletic commissions to utilize independent or objective ranking.” ‘The Natural’ argued further that without merit-based rankings, fighters are unable to “obtain title bouts that they may have earned.”

Mullin then argued at length that Dan Henderson didn’t deserve a title shot at then-middleweight champion Michael Bisping.

“If the UFC is considered a professional sport, then it should be on a merit-based rankings system, when the fans know the No. 1 contender actually has a shot at the title,” said Mullin, as transcribed by Steven Marrocco for MMAjunkie. “Because we haven’t seen that at [middleweight]. How did Dan Henderson – and I like Dan Henderson, this is no knock on him – but he wasn’t even in the top-10, and when was he last in the top-10? He got to fight Bisping for the title shot. Did the [#] 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2 and 1 [ranked contenders] refuse?”

It’s a little bizarre to see a congressional hearing on a subject the hardcore MMA fanbase gets excited about, like whether GSP deserved last Saturday’s title shot. Perhaps the future holds a passionate debate in Congress on the merits of Conor McGregor’s chest tattoo. However, Ratner remained calm.

“When Dan Henderson fought Michael Bisping, it was a natural rematch from a fight four or five years ago,” he explained.

Mullin was not convinced.

“But then it wasn’t a title shot, but yet it was for a title shot,” Mullin retorted. “Then that means the world championship belt that the UFC has isn’t really a world championship belt. It’s really what [UFC CEO] Lawrence Epstein personally told me: It’s simply an award they bestow on the best fighter that night. That’s insulting to every professional athlete. How did [Georges St-Pierre] get a fight for the title when he hasn’t had a fight in four years, much less at 185 pounds, where he never fought for the belt?”

“St-Pierre hadn’t fought in four years, you’re absolutely right,” replied Ratner.

“So how did he get a title shot?” asked Mullin.

“St-Pierre was a former champion,” Ratner explained, “a former pound-for-pound best fighter in the world, according to our. …”

“So he still didn’t fight for a title,” said Mullin, cutting off Ratner. “He fought for an award bestowed upon the best fighter of the night.”

Ratner offered a simple explanation.

“We put on the fights that fans want to see and they want to see competitive fights,” he explained. “Fighters, fans and sports reporters keep MMA promoters honest and the success of these promotions, including UFC, is a testament to the fair way these enterprises are managed.”

At one point Mullin compared the UFC to Don King, who was charged with two murders, and alleged ties to organized crime.

“There is no backstop for MMA fighters, it’s take it or leave it and that’s why I say the UFC has become the Don King to MMA,” said Mullin.

At another point the argument descended into the surreal. Mullin argued that the UFC ranking system is unfair compared that used in boxing. The ranking system used in boxing is a dog’s breakfast. It has the accuracy of a five-year-old’s drawing of a cat.

The way boxing works now, a sanctioning body has a title, and a list of the top contenders. Then promoters essentially bid against each other to promote that title fight. Unfortunately, boxing sanctioning bodies only get paid for title fights, so they make up a lot of titles, including Super, Undisputed, Unified, Regular, and Interim. And there are a lot of boxing sanctioning bodies, including the WBA, WBC, IBF, WBO, IBO, and WBF, among others. Where once boxing had eight weight divisions, with one champion in each, there are now likely over 100 world champions, maybe more – no one knows for sure.

In Mullin’s vision, the UFC would still have its champion, and Bellator would have its champion, and sometimes, if the rankings dictated it, they would have to fight each other. Mullin has previously suggested that the rankings might come from the commissions.

Ratner argued that forcing, for example, UFC champion vs. the champion from another organization represented a health and safety risk for UFC fighters. UFC athletes are protected by USADA with random, comprehensive, out-of-competition anti-doping tests, while fighters from other organizations are not.

Other changes the bill would lead to include limiting contracts to one year, promoters disclosing earning to fighters, and prohibiting promoters from managing fighters.

The Ali Act expansion is one of the central elements that Robert Maysey’s MMAFA has been working on diligently since 2009. Another is the anti-trust lawsuit underway against the UFC.

If the bill comes out of the committee, it will be voted on in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. If it passes the house, it will be voted on in the Republican-controlled Senate. If it passes in the Senate, it will be sent to President Trump, who reportedly speaks regularly with UFC president Dana White, asked him to speak at the Republican National Convention, and was voted into office on a platform of freeing business from regulation. The President can veto the bill, sending it back, where it will need a 2/3 majority vote in the House and Senate to become law.

Further, the UFC has hired a lobbying firm to fight the Ali Act expansion.

In short, the bill faces a fight.