The news came in sparingly and very vague on Monday, but here’s what we know so far - Fighters Georges St-Pierre, Cain Velasquez, T.J. Dillashaw, Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone, and Tim Kennedy will join former Bellator founder and CEO Bjorn Rebney on a conference call this Wednesday. The group promised in a written release that they would announce “industry re-defining news” during the call.
St-Pierre is the former two-time world welterweight champion, perhaps the best fighter in MMA history, and has been in contentious negotiations with the #UFC to come out of retirement in a way that doesn’t cost him money and allow him to keep his existing sponsors happy in the era of the promotion’s exclusive uniform deal with Reebok. #CainVelasquez is currently a top heavyweight UFC contender, and a two-time world champ.
Dillashaw is the bantamweight division’s top title contender and immediate past former champ, while the popular Cerrone is a top contender at both lightweight and welterweight and has been vocal about the need for UFC fighters to form a union. Kennedy, a decorated war veteran has also called for fighters to begin bargaining collectively, and has been very critical of UFC pay and policies.
Rebney helped create and boost #Bellator to perhaps the number two spot, globally among MMA promotions behind the UFC. In 2014, he was let go by Viacom, which had purchased Bellator.
It remains to be seen how this may play into the coming news or not, but it is also worth noting that all the above fighters except for Cerrone are represented by Creative Artists Agency, whose primary Hollywood rival is WME-IMG. This past summer, WME-IMG purchased the UFC, automatically creating a serious conflict of interest for the new owner, since it manages the likes of Ronda Rousey, while also now becoming her promoter.
That dual managing/promoting role was made a federal crime by the Ali Act of 2001 for the sport of boxing. As of now, the Ali Act does not cover the sport of MMA, but there are efforts to expand the act in such a common-sense way. The UFC is fighting those efforts with lobbyists, paying big money to lobbyists to make their case to the U.S. Congress.
Dillashaw recently spoke out worrying that his not getting another title-fight despite being ranked as the top contender by the UFC’s own rankings was due to his being managed by WME-IMG’s rival CAA.
Until Wednesday afternoon, we are left to speculate what these major names will have to say and to what end, exactly, they will be unified. Will these top UFC fighters join with Rebney to mount a new promotion, all but ensuring legal war with the UFC?
We’ve assembled a crack-team of Champions analysts to give their takes. So, read on, below, to see what Jared Jones, Jason Nawara, Steph Hayes and Justin Golightly have to say, then let us know what you think in the comments section!
What are you all expecting from Wednesday's call, gents?
Justin Golightly: Has Bjorn Rebney sat down in a giant computer like Professor X in Cerebro to gather the forces of some of MMA’s biggest stars to form a union? That’s the first thing I can even think about, but if it is a league of super heroes to defend us against threats both domestic and intergalactic, we’ll be ready for sure.
Jared Jones: Really, Justin, you want the guy who once drove a railroad spike through the head of a competitor’s dog spearheading (pun most definitely intended) our modern day Justice League? Who would you like to be his #2? ROBOT HITLER?
JG: I either want a fighter’s union or a mega-organization created using all the spare parts from other federations called: Rising Strike Ultimate Force...Bellator not included just because I always thought that wasn’t a cool enough name for an MMA company. Either way, Georges St-Pierre needs to be second in command of whatever happens. He’s got the power, name, money and the charming French accent which lubricates business deals.
JJ: Can we resurrect this gem to use as the theme song for Ultimate Dreamforce Super Strike League? If so I’M IN.
All kidding aside, I don’t see how this call can be anything other than the announcement of a fighter’s union. Considering that more than half the players involved in this supposed game-changer are current, “loyal” UFC employees (to varying degrees), it’s not as if Rebney’s going to double-time us and announce he’s forming a new MMA promotion where the fighters compete over Sarlacc pits while wearing taser-equipped gloves.
I mean, you don’t think he’d do that, right guys?
Jason Nawara: If he did do that, I’d watch, but I think this is simply a power move between talent agencies the likes of which we haven’t seen since Entourage was a thing (season 1 and 2).
So realistically, this is it. The union many have wanted for years. But that doesn’t solve GSP’s supposed free agency. Is he just done with his career? There have been rumblings that if he didn’t fight in 2016, he was done with the sport. And Mystic GSP has also foretold the coming of USADA, walking away from the UFC in his prime due to concerns of drug testing (amongst other things). It’s definitely interesting, and perhaps we could see a strike of sorts?
JJ: I’d say a full-on strike is pretty ambitious given both the UFC’s insanely inflated roster and how many members of said roster seem relatively content with the place they're in -- or at least, that’s what they’re willing to say in interviews -- but really, it would only take a handful of the promotion’s upper talent to really make some headway towards that goal. I mean, we’re talking about a promotion that just stripped their biggest star of a title, promoted the guy he KO’d in 13 seconds to “undisputed” champion, and appointed another fight with an entirely meaningless interim title in order to add maybe 20 thousand buys to UFC 206. Can you imagine what Dana...er...Ari & Co. would do if they lost four or five of their biggest draws at once over something as petty as PRINCIPLES?
JN: I think that’s the WME/IMG way now. Every event is a tentpole, and as we saw with 206, it’s just a few fighters dropping out away from being irrelevant. So the bargaining power (I think) is truly in the hands of the fighters if they can band together. Yes, this is prize fighting, but as we saw with Don Frye and so many others — the UFC is a $4.2 billion company that’s simply not taking care of its athletes in the present day or down the line. That said, it’s on the fighters to make themselves known and worthwhile, but that doesn’t mean they should get paid peanuts for brain damage.
JG: I’m glad someone threw Conor McGregor’s name into this maelstrom. The last time McGregor was asked about spearheading a union, he passed it off and said he had to focus on his many tasks at hand and that he was “blessed” while others who are petitioning for a union are some not as lucky. Since then, McGregor grabbed UFC by the balls and reached the highest of highs with his robbing of two titles. Since then though, we know he’s had one title jerked away from him in questionable business at best. So, is now the time after being burned by the UFC? Does the glass shatter, music hit and McGregor join forces with GSP and Bjorn Rebney to make this happen?! Does anyone have his number!? Does anyone have oxygen?!
JN: The boxing model is not the way for MMA to succeed, but I believe the Japanese model is. Yes, this is a “sporting event” but it’s not a sport. These fighters shouldn’t be making $10K to show with the pressure of them getting cut on their backs in a cockfighting style of promotion. We don’t need to make these guys ravenous to put on a show. In fact, they should know that they can lose a few and still stick around. The worst part of the UFC is them cutting someone, then they rack up a few wins outside the company and come back. Why can’t we see them come back and do well while in the biggest promotion? Why can’t they gain fans like that? Everyone likes an underdog, everyone wants to see a loser overcome the odds. But I digress. This is MMA fandom talk that’s been around for a decade.
JG: Speaking of MMA fandom, I really hope Bjorn Rebney has meetings at Donald Cerrone’s “Bad Motherf-cker Ranch” in Albuquerque, New MEXICO.
JN: What a strange group of people to gather and possibly change the sport as we know it forever.
Stephie Haynes: First and foremost, I always hope for a better future for MMA fighters. They deserve far more than they're paid, and the way organization contracts are currently sitting, they also have very few rights.
While I admire the efforts of anyone willing to take on the daunting task of organizing an association/union, I can't see one actually making much of a difference unless the cash cow himself (Conor "Money" McGregor) jumps on board. While the list of names currently attached to the mystery announcement is a respectable one, these are not guys that one would consider household names in the most traditional sense, with the exception of St-Pierre (who hasn't fought in three-plus years).
Basically, without a Conor McGregor or a Ronda Rousey, this will likely fizzle out before it ever gets off the ground. The other thing that I can't stop thinking about is that in an individual sport, especially one where its athletes are often grossly underpaid, it's pretty hard to make peace with giving up some of those hard-earned dollars for the "greater good." Families to take care of, mouths to feed, rent to pay...those are the chief concerns before a long-term goal like this can find legs.
Another concern is Bjorn Rebney, who happens to be a wolf in sheep's clothing. Remember, this is the man that dragged out Hector Lombard and Eddie Alvarez's contract disputes for YEARS. This is a man that had super shady dealings long before Bellator, and as mentioned above, allegedly resorts to gross criminal conduct.
One final question I have is which athletes will be covered, because as it stands, there are only UFC contract holders attached here. In light of Leslie Smith's less than amicable parting of the ways with the PFA (Pro Fighters Association), I can't help but think that prospective "helpers" are seeing more dollars than sense.
Elias Cepeda: On that note, I'll jump back in here to close. I can't add anything more vivid than the above X-Men references and the prospect of #RobotHitler, and I happen to agree with the likelihood of your all's predictions.
While we're discussing possible unionization of UFC athletes, however, I want to underscore how strange indeed the group of people we've had work on that subject, so far is. We have Robert Maysey's MMAFA, which has done valuable issue-awareness building since 2009, has conferred with large unions and is also doing legislative issue advocacy on behalf of fighters.
Despite being around for so long, the MMAFA doesn't appear to actually have begun organizing UFC athletes in earnest to do things like demand collective bargaining with the UFC. Much more recently we've seen the Professional Fighters Association pop up, led by major baseball agent Jeff Borris.
On its face, that's a bit strange off the bat because an agent's job is quite different than a union leaders'. Leaders in major unions that I've spoken to have also found Borris' presumed role as a labor leader surprising and fraught with potential conflicts of interest. Beyond that, the PFA is making headlines this week for all the wrong reasons - namely for making public on its website names of fighters who confidentially expressed interest in joining.
They may have undercut their trust with fighters, forever, with such a clueless move. If all of you are correct that Rebney has assembled these fighting legends and greats to announce the formation of some type of athletic union, then the landscape gets even more strange as a former CEO and promoter turns into a supposed labor leader.
Basically, we'd have several bad fits for union leadership leading MMA's union efforts. Beyond that, I also suspect that the announcement we get this week will end up just being a much more vague, general, and not yet formed creature.
A further confused labor scene or anti-climax, is what I fear. Call me a pessimist, but I'd love to be pleasantly surprised.