How fighters are like fashion models, and what that means for MMA union dreams
I'd like to take credit for this article, because I sen Ben Fowlkes a link to the MMA Uncensored video on twitter. Clearly he never would have seen this without my intervention. You're welcome, internet.
From MMAJunkie.com (written by Ben Fowlkes):
There's a lot to absorb in ESPN's recent look at what MMA fighters really think. Or at least, what they say they think when they've been assured that they don't have to put their names on it.
I know, because I've been sitting here most of the day, staring at the numbers, just straight-up absorbing.
"MMA Confidential" by ESPN the Magazine compiled answers to various questions from 38 MMA fighters, "most of them from the UFC." The answers revealed online and discussed by ESPN the Magazine editor Ryan Hockensmith on "MMA Live" are intriguing, and even a little surprising.
According to ESPN, 75.7 percent of the fighters who answered said they'd be in favor of a union, while 24.3 percent were against the idea (according to Hockensmith, not all 38 fighters answered every question, although, as he wrote in an email, "most of the questions received between 34 and 38 answers").
Obviously, we don't know who the fighters in this study are, or where on the totem pole they fall. What we do know is that, according to ESPN, they reported an average wage of $70,307 from fighting last year. Assuming that's accurate, it lets us know we aren't dealing entirely with scrubs or only with the UFC's elite. There's a mix, as indicated by Hockensmith's claim that some of the fighters he talked to made around 25 grand last year while others were clocking a quarter-million. And that mix? Yeah, they mostly want a union.
Of course, 38 fighters is not a huge sample size. With close to 400 fighters on the UFC roster alone at any given time, it offers us just a peek at prevailing fighter attitudes. At the same time, it's something, and three-quarters is a pretty strong majority. So what's stopping them?
For one thing, it's easy to talk union when it's anonymous and hypothetical. No one has to actually do or risk anything. It's like the difference between talking with your friends about how great it would be to open an Italian bakery together some day, versus actually taking up a collection for the ovens and permit fees. That's when the dreamy talk gives way to very practical concerns. Suddenly everybody has somewhere else to be. And besides, who among us really knows how to bake focaccia, anyway?
With fighters, however, the fear of repercussions and the dread of doing stuff may not be the only obstacles to something as ambitious and game-changing as a union. I'm reminded of this recent op-ed in the New York Times, in which former model turned actress Jennifer Sky reflects on how terribly she was treated in one industry versus how great she had it in the other. As a model, she was screamed at, drugged, and coerced, she said. As the Amazon warrior Amarice on "Xena: Warrior Princess," she was cared for and looked after by the show's crew.
"Perhaps the main difference, then and now, is that actors have a union and models do not," Sky writes.
Good for the actors, but fighters have more in common with models.
Think about it. Both fashion models and professional MMA fighters compete viciously with each other for a small number of well-paying spots. They both work in industries that treat those who aren't on the highest rungs of the ladder as if they're disposable and interchangeable. Neither can afford to be content with second place, and both have to look out for themselves first and foremost. Both are highly individual endeavors.
Actors, on the other hand, have to be part of a team. There are small roles and big roles and non-speaking roles and roles as Drunk Frat Bro #3, but if you don't have everybody on the same page nothing gets done and nobody gets paid. Unions come easier in team sports.
Fighting, by its nature, is all about being the last one left standing.
It might be more exciting to imagine that the UFC is involved in some union-busting campaign of coercion and intimidation – and you know the anti-MMA Culinary Union, what with its bitter battle against the Fertitta-owned Station Casinos, would love to run with that narrative. I'm just not sure it's accurate. If there's something stopping that 74 percent from banding together to form the union they say they want, it's probably themselves.
After all, the fighters at the top? They don't need a union. Looking out for themselves has paid off so far, so why buck the system now? And the fighters lower down, well, they're usually convinced that it's only a matter of time before they're on top. That's how it goes in brutally individual pursuits. Nobody gets in it to be supporting cast.
Fighters can say they might favor a union, and it might even be true. But there's a big difference between being for something and being willing to make it happen. Unions aren't formed hypothetically or anonymously. And pro fighters aren't always known for working well with others.