MMA’s Norma Rae
Photo by Esther Lin (MMA Fighting)
Leslie Smith is a mixed martial arts (MMA) athlete and a former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) top-ten fighter. But the biggest fight of her career isn’t in the octagon — it’s the fight to unionize the sport she loves. Smith is interim president of Project Spearhead, a fighter-driven effort to organize the UFC. CD sports writer Simon Black’s interview with Leslie printed here has been edited for length.
At what point in your career did you realize that fighters needed a union?
I’m managed by Team Diaz, which represents some of the best fighters in the sport, including Nick and Nate Diaz. Nick and Nate always seemed to get the short end of the stick in contract negotiations with the UFC. I thought that it was just our team, but then I went to a meeting with a bunch of other fighters and I realized we were all getting the short end of the stick. It’s just that other fighters didn’t speak up. So I joined a couple of different efforts at organizing a fighters association, but they didn’t work out. I started to become increasingly vocal about the need for a union, and realized that the time on my UFC contract was running out. I was worried, because I had already been so vocal that it was unlikely that I was going to get signed again, and then I’d lose my opportunity to talk from a place where it mattered. Retired fighters talk, but not fighters under contract! I felt like it was important for me to make a big deal during my fighting career in order to have a bigger impact. When I was approaching the last fight on my contract, I realized it was time to pull the trigger.
For those not familiar with the UFC, explain why fighters need a union.
The UFC is a promotion company and the leader in MMA. The UFC calls its fighters independent contractors, but they are employees. Once signed with the UFC, a fighter cannot fight for another promotion company. The UFC is a $7 billion company, but they don’t pay the fighters more than 15% of their revenue. Unionized pro athletes, like NBA players, get approximately 50% of revenues. 41% of the UFC roster makes less than $40,000 a year. That’s not the kind of money that athletes who are the show for this $7 billion company should be making. Without our labour, there’s no UFC.
What about benefits, such as health insurance or mental health supports?
Right now the fighters are in a situation where if they get hurt and have to pull out of a fight, they could get cut. A fighter could get hurt on the job, training for the job, and then the UFC can say, “okay, we can’t use you, so we’re going to send you home.” The UFC is not invested in the recovery, in rehab, in reintroducing somebody to the normal functions of their daily lives once they are fixed up.
What about the UFC contract itself?
The contract holds the fighter to the UFC. The UFC can release the fighter at any point in time for any reason, with no penalty and no explanation, and that’s their prerogative, according to the contract. When the fighters sign the contract, they sign away rights to their image in perpetuity — so they don’t get paid for being featured in the UFC video game, for example. It’s also totally the UFC’s discretion to decide when and where and how often to give a fighter a fight. And if a fighter pisses off the UFC in any way — maybe by talking about a union — then there’s a good chance that they are not going to get a fight for a very long time.
Did you grow up in a union household?
No, but we did read a lot, and there’s a book by the Welsh author, Ken Follett, which starts with coal miners forming a union. It was one of my favourites. While I’ve never been part of a union, I’ve always recognized that unions are about giving the power to the people in all situations of life, whether it’s at work or in the community. There’s a division of people throughout history — there always has been. Like the Occupy Movement said, now it’s the 1% and the 99%. I have always thought that unions were the way for people to come together to get power, because no one is going to give them power in any other situation. It’s crazy that in the United States that there is so much anti-union sentiment at a time when the division between the “haves” and the “have-nots” is growing. I wish more people would recognize that the way to improve their lives is to join their voices with others, so that they have a better chance of impacting their future than they do speaking on their own. Collective bargaining just makes so much sense. It’s mind-boggling to me that the anti-union corporations and the anti-union propaganda have been so effective that they have scared people from claiming their own power. Well, fighters have decided it’s time: we’re claiming our power.
Simon Black is a writer, activist and academic living in Toronto. He is also a former NCAA athlete, playing soccer for the University at Buffalo Bulls after a professional trial with Watford FC of the English first division. He has played competitive cricket, rugby and American football. Black has been CD’s sports columnist since 2006.