Kevin Lee: Fighter union is 'inevitable'
UFC lightweight and welterweight Kevin Lee appeared recently on The JRE MMA Show, and spoke to host Joe Rogan about the need for a union in MMA.
“I think it’s inevitable,” said Lee, as transcribed by Jed Meshew for MMA Fighting. “Eventually it’s gonna happen. I think it’s once the UFC - the UFC is gonna change a little bit, I feel like. It’s the same way I’m looking at the way Facebook has been doing stuff and all these other companies, these large private companies but they’re so big.
“The UFC is a sports organization but it’s so big now to where it’s damn near public. Once that kind of changes and once they open up the books and people really start to pay attention to it, then maybe somebody on the outside who is way smarter than anyone of us - because we’re fighting, we ain’t really worried about the legalities of it. I’m just signing a contract, I don’t really give a f***. But once somebody who is smarter kind of takes a look at it and sees what’s going on and how it is, then they’re gonna start up something. They have to. It’s kind of crazy.”
“It’s kind of a shame on our part almost. It’s the same way I said [to Rafael dos Anjos] ‘Let’s meet at 165.’ We already don’t have a lot of leverage, bro. There’s only so many things that we can do.”
However, RDA declined that offer, and 'The Motown Phenom' isn't interested in spearheading a union himself.
“Yeah. Honestly, I have no real complaints about it,” said Lee. “I’m signing on the line, I know what I’m signing up for. Anytime I do and I say I’m gonna do something, I always make sure I hold up my end and I’m gonna do it. [The UFC has] afforded me so much to where my life is so much different than I thought it would be. I truly thought that everything would just look different. It provided a better life for my family. It’s just afforded me so much that any negatives on it, I can’t really ... it’s just like grievances, almost.”
“Competition is always good. It’s just building even more and bigger and better. And it’s really the sport that we’re looking after. I’ve been in a contract with the UFC for a long while now but if another organization was to ever, you never know. I never know what the future can hold.”
Lee's ambiguity is reflective of the unionization efforts to date.
The history of fighter organization illustrates the challenges.
In August of 2016, baseball agent Jeff Borris established the PFA; he sought to have UFC fighters reclassified as employees from their current independent contractor status, and form a union. He grandly announced there would be a fighter board in place shortly, but later amended that, saying he did not want to offer names, for fear of retaliation. His most high-profile fighter, Leslie Smith, apologized for introducing him to other fighters and severed ties, over a perceived violation of privacy. His attorney too severed ties. Borris flatly denied leaking any fighter support information. But nothing has been heard from him in ages. Jeff Borris has a giant, rusty fork in him.
In November of 2016, a group of five fighters announced the formation of the MMAAA, which seeks to form a players association exclusively of UFC fighters, and then petition the league for a 600% increase in the amount of revenue that goes to fighters. The route to the raise was described as a strategy that had to remain secret. The groups funding was also described as a secret. It is widely believed that the MMAAA is financed by CAA, Pepsi to UFC owner Endeavor's Coke. And it's widely believed that the MMAAA was created by Bjorn Rebney, not known as a progressive promoter. Tim Kennedy emerged as a sometime spokesperson for the effort, but has said nothing of late. It has a fork in it.
In February of 2018, then UFC women’s bantamweight launched Leslie Smith Project Spearhead, undertaken with attorney Lucas Middlebrook, among others. The group seeks to organize UFC fighters into a certified labor union. Smith's goal is to get 30% of UFC fighters (calculated at about 150) to anonymously sign union authorization cards; the deadline was February of 2019. Smith got two fighters to publicly join the effort - Kajan Johnson and Al Iaquinta.
The league characteristically offers fighters a new contract before the old one expires. Smith said none was offered, so her scheduled fight vs. Aspen Ladd at Fight Night 128 on April 21, 2018 was to have potentially been her last.
When Ladd failed to make weight, Smith offered to fight if she was given a two-fight contract at a flat $100,000 per fight, win or lose. The UFC declined the offer, and Smith considered taking the fight without a contract, but ultimately decided against it, as she is trying to lead an effort to get better contracts. The UFC paid Smith her win and show money, and did not offer her a new contract, leaving her a free agent. She recently signed with Bellator MMA.
Smith filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board arguing that the UFC failure to re-sign her was retaliation for the organizing effort, and thus illegal. Attorney Lucas Middlebrook, who has been advising Project Spearhead, wrote the 12-page complaint, which can be found here. Middlebrook was initially informed that a regional NLRB office found merit in Smith's case, but later learned that the national office said the case needed to be evaluated further; it was sent to Washington, D.C. where it was dismissed.
Johnson was released after back to back losses, leaving Iaquinta as the only fighter on the inside. In 2018 Johnson said the effort was "nowhere close" to the 150 goal, summing it up as saying Project Spearhead was "f***ed."
And the daddy of all fighter organizing organizations remains.
In 2009 Robert Maysey founded the MMAFA, which seeks to extend the Muhammad Ali Act to mixed martial arts. Their aim is to keep fighters as independent contractors, establish an independent sanctioning and ranking system, and then let the free market do its thing. If you want to have fromer champ champ Conor McGregor rematch champ Khabib Nurmagomedov, then promoters bid for the right, and whoever offers the highest purse gets to put on the fight. A bill supported by Congressman and retired fighter Markwayne Mullin (R-OK) is currently before the house now. The MMAFA is also a force behind the massive Federal anti-trust suit against the UFC, which is ongoing.