On Wednesday afternoon, fighters Georges St-Pierre, Cain Velasquez, TJ Dillashaw, Tim Kennedy and Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone joined former Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney announce their intention to form a new athlete's association for UFC fighters with the goal of achieving collective bargaining, increasing revenue share for athletes and bettering their benefits. Their MMAAA is the newest fighter's organization on the block but the MMA Fighter's Association (MMAFA) has been generating awareness of fighter rights and bringing together fighters for years.
Former three-time heavyweight and light heavyweight champ Randy Couture has long been part of the MMAFA, and even before that, was a pioneer in terms of fighting for fighter rights like like name and likeness rights in licensing and more flexibility in UFC contracts.
Our own Elias Cepeda spoke with "The Natural" to get his take on the new MMAAA, have him compare it to the MMAFA that he's affiliated with and talk about what he believes are the most pressing issues facing professional fighters, these days.
Elias Cepeda: Randy, you’ve been working with the MMA Fighter’s Association (MMAFA) for years. Did this week’s announcement of this new MMAAA catch you all by surprise?
Randy Couture: It was a bit of a surprise. We caught wind of it this week when there was an announcement that those individuals had an announcement, and we anticipated what the announcement was going to be.
Cepeda: After their teleconference call, what is your initial reaction or first impressions of what the MAAA’s announced intentions?
Couture: Well, first off, I have a ton of respect for those five fighters, Georges St-Pierre, Tim Kennedy, Cain Velasquez, TJ Dillashaw, “Cowboy” Cerrone. They are all great fighters and I’m happy they stepped up and are using their voices to highlight some of the issues in the sport, right now.
For us at the MMAFA, however, the goal hasn’t changed. At the end of the day, what needs to be addressed is pushing through Congress an amendment to the Ali Act that incorporates and includes MMA. Amending the Ali Act to include MMA deals with the direct problem in the sport which is the conflict of interest of a promoter also being its own sanctioning body who decides rankings, champions, etc.
So, they can talk about fighter pensions, better this and better that, and many of those types of things get addressed once you have the Ali Act cover MMA athletes, but the main problem in MMA is that all the power currently resides with the promoter. Right now, promoters are their own sanctioning body, in many ways, setting rankings and title-fights, consequently forcing fighters to sign very exclusive contracts.
Sure, it’s great that they want to unite to create a better deal, but those things will really only affect fighters under contract in the UFC. At the MMAFA, we’re more interested in change for the better in the sport across the board, at every level, regardless of promotion. That’s the message I’d like to see endorsed.
Still, I can’t stress enough that I have the utmost respect for all those fighters who stood up, Wed. They raised a red flag and have drawn a lot of media attention.
I believe, however, that the real issue in MMA is structural, and so amending the Ali Act to include MMA is the true goal. When we accomplish that, it will make everything else we do as united fighters better. We will finally have an open, free market where promoters compete with one another for the best fighters, offering them the best deals to make the best fights.
Cepeda: The serious conflict of interest you describe, which is MMA promoters having complete control over rankings, title-fights and championship titles themselves would be addressed by coverage under the Ali Act, but so would the new conflict of interest that has emerged in the UFC since their sale to WME-IMG. WME-IMG actually manages some fighters, and now they also promote them.
If this were boxing, that would be a federal crime? The Ali Act mandates a “firewall” between the roles of manager and promoter for good reason, because that’s a structural conflict of interest given those roles very different duties and goals, and has resulted in so many instances of fighters getting taken advantage of throughout boxing history. It doesn’t only happen in the UFC, of course, but now it’s happening there, at the highest levels.
Couture: Yes, but combining roles of promoter and manager is actually already against most state athletic commission rules, now. So that’s a conflict of interest that can already be dealt with under current regulation the UFC is subject to.
Cepeda: That’s true.
Couture: Fighters on the board of that new association being represented by CAA is also an interesting thing in this, considering the longstanding feud between CAA and WME-IMG. So now, more questions are raised.
Cepeda: You’re saying that the goal of the MMAFA is to get the Ali Act amended to include MMA. The folks at the new MMAAA did not list that as a goal for themselves, saying instead, they want to bring about collective bargaining and better benefits and pay for UFC athletes.
So, on the one hand, that’s perhaps discouraging to you all, but on the other, perhaps that can at least mean these separate associations needn’t be working against one another. Do you see the MMAFA and the new MMAAA as in opposition of one another, or do you feel you can go ahead and continue doing what you’ve been doing as they do whatever they’re going to do?
Couture: We are certainly going to continue to do the work we are doing to support the Ali Act being amended to include MMA. I do not think we’re in opposition of one another. We’re talking about a lot of the same problems.
Only time will tell what their real motives are. Why bring Bjorn Rebney in as an advisor? It seems to me that perhaps they will be looking to start their own promotion, their own organization not unlike what professional bull riders did with the PBR, where athletes own and control it. But that doesn’t solve the structural problems at the root of what we’re fighting for in MMA.
We have a not so free market, right now, where promotions make their own rankings and decide their own title-fights without independent outside title-sanctioning bodies. In some ways the MMAFA and the new association want the same things, but they are tightly focused on the UFC whereas our motives are purely about the betterment of all MMA.
Time will tell but I believe some differences will emerge between our goals and theirs.
Cepeda: On the MMAAA teleconference I asked where their backing was coming from, where they were currently getting the money to do what they say they plan to do. No one answered me. I’ll continue digging there, of course, but while I have you, where does MMAFA’s money come from? It takes some money to do the advocacy work you all are doing, I imagine.
Couture: Structurally, we are not operating off of any income from dues or anything like that. We’re all working on a strictly volunteer basis. We have well over 100 fighters on board and supporting us and the Ali Act amendment to include MMA, and we’re trying to get more fighters on board. We haven’t put in place member dues or any of those things to create accounts to use those funds for our work. We’re all volunteering our time and effort.
We’ve got a ton of support from athletes to amend the Ali Act to include MMA, but the MMAAA may be a little bit ahead of us in terms of having financial backing considering that they are doing things like holding press conferences.
Cepeda: Clearly, you’ve stated the MMAFA’s goal - to amend the Ali Act to include MMA. What work do you all have coming up or message to convey that you want other fighters and the public to be aware of?
Couture: I want people to be aware of the MMAFA’s message and motive, first and foremost. Our first order of business is continuing to push for and garner political support to get congressional hearings to get the Ali Act amended to include MMA.
After we do that, then we can really get organized and push for more improvement.