Tonight, the biggest star in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) will fight for the first time in 2017.
Throughout its twenty-four-year history, the UFC has advertised itself as a more genuine competition than boxing — “as real as it gets.” This was to be reflected not only in its allowance of kicks and grappling, but also in its establishment of a genuine meritocracy. The best would fight the best, unlike boxing’s carefully selected mismatches. It is fitting, then, that the UFC’s biggest event of the year is an obvious mismatch featuring a hand-selected star and, in a particularly unsubtle note, is a boxing match.
UFC champion Conor McGregor’s fight against boxing great Floyd Mayweather would seem to be the apex of craven ugliness in sports. Every serious analyst predicts the fight will be a whitewash — a reasonable conclusion, given that one man enters with a professional boxing record of 49-0 and the other with one of 0-0. Few even expect the fight to be entertaining.
On a four-night press tour, the men taunted each other with homophobic slurs, and McGregor (whose trash talk has always flirted with racism) declared that he was “black from the waist down.” Las Vegas sports books are doing everything in their power to lure fans into emotionally betting on McGregor. The fight is likely to sell millions of overpriced pay-per-views.
Meanwhile, the UFC is struggling. Its pay-per-view sales have been abysmal. TV ratings are also down. Seemingly every week a prominent fighter leaves, leading to long events loaded with unknowns. With the seeming retirement of Ronda Rousey, McGregor is the promotion’s only star, and he seems unlikely to step in the cage this year.
Many fans point to the UFC’s sale to Hollywood talent agency WME-IMG as the beginning of its decline. The sale, for $4 billion, was financed by substantial borrowing, and WME’s desire to quickly pay off this debt has led to substantial corner-cutting. Hundreds of backstage employees were laid off, including legendary fighters whose (mostly fictitious) office jobs were intended as a kind of retirement package.
The UFC has let top contenders like Rory McDonald and Gegard Mousasi walk to other fight promotions like rival Bellator, Japan-based RIZIN, and a slew of shady Russian outfits. The logic seems to be that if the UFC still has the number one fighter in each weight class, it doesn’t matter if they don’t have number two, three, and four. Fighters will still have to come to the UFC, and sign its onerous contracts, if they want to be recognized as the best. Filling up its events with unknowns cuts down on wages, even as it kills fan interest. Austerity has come to mixed martial arts.
Of course, being number one doesn’t guarantee you respect. When Demetrious Johnson, the UFC’s most dominant champion, recently turned down an opponent change, he became the object of public derision and mockery from the notoriously aggressive UFC president Dana White. Women’s bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes, the UFC’s first LGBT titleholder, was subjected to a similar tirade for pulling out of a fight after being hospitalized the morning of. With the exception of McGregor, who can seemingly do whatever he wants, the dominant rule of the UFC is that labor must conform to every one of capital’s demands.
The crux of White’s argument, particularly with Johnson, was the question of marketability — the idea that Johnson’s low pay-per-view sales meant that he was not in a position to make demands. When White finally gave Johnson the fight he wanted, he sarcastically supposed that “pay-per-views will be off the chart.” Johnson is one of the most skilled fighters to ever compete in the UFC, but as a soft-spoken African-American flyweight, he is the polar opposite of a fan favorite like McGregor. The suggestion is that no amount of greatness is worthwhile if it is not profitable.
Mayweather and McGregor, two men whose favorite subject is their own wealth, are the exemplars here. The discourse of marketability, loudly championed by White, has seeped into fan discussion. Pay-per-view buy rates and TV ratings are a more frequent topic of fan discussion than in any other sport, and fighters who win in an unexciting way or are not seen as major attractions are treated as at least partial failures. The UFC produces all of its own broadcasts, is very selective about the media it allows access, and is very effective in convincing fans that its own corporate priorities are paramount.
In truth, the exploitative relationship between the UFC and the bulk of its fighters is nothing new. When the company sold for those four billion, none of the money went into a fighter’s pocket. The UFC has always depended on paying its fighters, particularly the lower-level ones that make up the bulk of its TV events, as little as possible. In a once-rare loophole that has become a core element of the economy, UFC fighters are treated as independent contractors, meaning that the promotion can exclusively use their labor without extending them the benefits of an employee.
Entry-level fighters make $10,000 to show and the same amount to win, and can’t count on fighting more than twice a year. A liveable sum if you keep winning (if hardly in line with other pro athletes), but there are expenses.
Fighters have to pay for their own training camps and fly their cornermen out to whatever far-flung location the UFC is seeking to expand into this week. They sometimes operate at a loss, and several fighters have taken to GoFundMe and other crowdsourcing platforms in order to make it into the cage. Prior to a few years ago, fighters could count on making decent money through sponsorship on their trunks, but a mandatory uniform deal with Reebok has replaced this opportunity with a fairly meager regulated payout. The uniform deal was unpopular with fighters, but they ultimately had no say in the matter.
Now it would appear that the future of the UFC involves even cheaper labor. The company’s biggest success of the summer, advertised as heavily as shows involving world champions, is the laboriously entitled Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series.
Broadcasting live on the UFC’s streaming platform, DWTNCS features non-UFC fighters competing for a contract. Only fighters who produce the most exciting finishes are rewarded. On an alternate commentary track, Snoop Dogg jokes about fighters after they have been knocked unconscious. The more serious commentators constantly speculate about which fighter has done enough to catch the eye of Dana White and be rewarded with a roster spot.
It seems that this is White’s ideal form of the UFC: where the fighters are desperate and undemanding, save for their constant pleas for him to charitably improve their life. Rather than finding the best fighter, the point of the show is searching for someone who can produce the next viral knockout. Like Trump’s Apprentice, the crux of the show is a businessman making a big, overdramatized decision.
White, who spoke in support of Trump at the Republican National Convention, comes off as a more jockish version of the forty-fifth president, complete with the egomania and bullying of subordinates. He has always seemed to believe that he, not the fighters, should be the star of the show. The fighters on DWTNCS do not even get the token Reebok money, and more often than not come away disappointed.
There are lessons here that go beyond the world of combat sports. Even in the seemingly meritocratic and high-skilled world of sports, the imperative to suppress labor costs remain. Keeping workers powerless takes priority over even the good of the company. White’s mockery of Johnson, for instance, is not likely to increase pay-per-view sales — but it will make other fighters think twice before rejecting the UFC’s requests. By letting go of costly top fighters, the UFC’s profit motive actively derails its ambitions to be a meritocratic sports league.
The UFC’s claim that its monopolistic model allows it to put together the best fights has been undercut by its recent decisions. In truth, the most successful sports leagues — from America’s “big four” to tennis’s player-association-run tour — are run more as confederations of private businesses than mega-corporations. And if excellence is not rewarded in a sphere where it is so public and easily quantifiable, what does that say about capitalist companies’ ability to produce the best art, or technology, or anything else?
As for Mayweather and McGregor? They’ll both get even richer, as will the UFC, which is taking a considerable cut of McGregor’s purse. The promotion will try to brush off the implications of its biggest star having to go to another sport to make real money, as well as the image of their icon being summarily beaten. McGregor claims he’ll return to the cage, but seems more interested in setting up a follow-up boxing match with the semi-retired Paulie Maglinaggi. Fans will likely come away from the mega fight disappointed, as they did with Mayweather’s far more legitimate blockbuster against Manny Pacquiao.
And, barring a committed and well-planned effort at unionization, the UFC will continue its chokehold on its labor force.