UFC fighters form Mixed Martial Arts Athletes Association

ByBrett Okamoto ESPN logo
Thursday, December 1, 2016

For the first time in the sport's history, five prominent mixed martial artists have publicly aligned with a fighters association.

A group of athletes including former UFC champion Georges St-Pierre, along with former Bellator MMA CEO Bjorn Rebney, announced the foundation of the Mixed Martial Arts Athletes Association on Wednesday.

According to its official release, "The Association's sole concentration is to fight for the rights of MMA fighters and force UFC's ownership, [WME-IMG], to dramatically alter the company's decade plus outrageous treatment of its athletes."

In addition to St-Pierre, who retired in 2013 but is interested in a comeback, the group includes active fighters Tim Kennedy, Cain Velasquez, Donald Cerrone andTJ Dillashaw. Those five will serve as the MMAAA's board members, and they intend to recruit other UFC athletes, both active and retired, to join.

The MMAAA declined to provide a detailed outline of its plans but said its goals ideally include an out-of-court financial settlement with the UFC, an increase in revenue share and insurance and pension packages that do not currently exist for UFC athletes.

"In essence, what the association is going to achieve for the athletes is a settlement to address the past wrongs, driving up [revenue split] to 50 percent up from 8 percent, and a benefits package that provides a safety net," said Rebney, who was replaced as Bellator head in 2014.

All four of the active fighters are scheduled to compete at UFC events in December, and each admitted that adds a feeling of angst to the announcement.

"Absolutely there is still fear, but it needs to be done," Cerrone said. "Standing with the five guys here, these are big names. We just need the rest of the guys to not have fear and stand up with us. We're putting ourselves out there."

St-Pierre, who entered negotiations for a comeback fight with the UFC this year that ultimately failed, added, "This same thing has happened before in every other sport -- NFL, NHL, NBA. Now it's happening in the UFC. It's going to happen whether they like it or not.

"I know a lot of fighters want to remain anonymous, but I'm telling you guys, come see us. It's time to stand together."

St-Pierre said even a fighter at the level of Conor McGregor, who received a record $3 million disclosed purse for a fight against Nate Diaz in August, is not making a fair share.

A UFC official told ESPN.com the promotion does not intend to make a formal statement on the announcement, but respects all of its athletes and encourages open communication on how to improve the sport.

Rebney made it clear the association is not an effort to unionize -- the current landscape defines UFC fighters as independent contractors rather than employees. The initial focus of MMAAA also will be only on UFC athletes, not those signed to other organizations.

Four of the five athletes on the board are represented by entertainment powerhouse Creative Artists Agency (CAA), a well-known rival of WME. WME purchased the UFC for more than $4 billion earlier this year.

According to Rebney, CAA is not directly backing the association but "supports" the athletes' rights. Rebney declined to identify the venture's source of funding, other than saying, "Some people stepped up."

Rebney also mentioned the possibility of a "labor strike," although both Kennedy and Velasquez later stated their goal is to "work with the UFC" to resolve these differences.

This is not the first pro-fighter effort to take place; however, it is the first to feature such prominent, public support from a board of high-profile fighters. Another effort calling itself the Professional Fighters Association was announced in August, although that differs in that it seeks to unionize UFC athletes.

"We're going to change the face of the entire industry and sport today," Kennedy said.