In the battle between MMA fighters and their promoters over compensation, it can only help the athletes when the big guns get involved.
That’s how Leslie Smith views the situation. The 11-year veteran and Project Spearhead founder has long been working to help fighters wield more negotiating power at the bargaining table, though her efforts have yet to bear significant fruit at the highest levels of the sport, which includes her forming stomping grounds, the UFC.
However, there’s evidence that the UFC machine isn’t running as smoothly as it has in the past. Recently, main event stars Jon Jones, Jorge Masvidal, Conor McGregor, and Henry Cejudo have all brought the issue of insufficient fighter pay to light in their own way, with Jones and Masvidal loudly voicing their displeasure on social media, and McGregor and Cejudo announcing retirements due to their own feelings of disillusion.
For someone like Smith who has been fighting this particular fight for years now, she’s not worried at all about these marquee names being late to the party; rather, she’s encouraged that they’re finally making their voices heard.
“I think it’s wonderful,” Smith told MMA Fighting. “I think it’s beautiful and it’s great and it’s exactly what needs to be happening. They are the people that everyone’s going to listen to. The ones who are the main eventers, the needle movers. For them to be talking about it, it’s the best thing possible. The very next step—in order for that to be the best step possible—is gonna be for them to take an actual step to get the other fighters together. To get some kind of communication, to plan some kind of collective action.
“I’m incredibly excited to see it starting and I hope that they get to the next phase. I very much hope so. And I believe that they can. I believe that if they decide that they really want to make changes inside of the UFC—not changes for themselves, not a new contract, not some discretionary bonus that’s just gonna make them be quiet—if they want to make real changes, then they need to talk to the other fighters and say, ‘Hey, we shouldn’t do this. We need to hold out. We should not fight on this next show.’ I think that that would be one of the most powerful ways that the fighters could come together and take a collective action.”
Smith even had a radical suggestion as to how fighters could make their intentions loud and clear.
“Wouldn’t it be neat if everybody on one card got together and then they said, ‘Hey, let’s make weight,’” she continued. “‘Let’s do everything, let’s get ready for this fight. And then on the day of the fight, none of us are gonna fight. We’re all gonna protest this.’
“I think that that would be an incredibly effective way of communicating what the message is, which is that fighters need to be treated with dignity like the responsible adults that they are, and that it would actually affect the UFC in ways that no other action would because it affects their money.”
Jones, Masvidal, and the rest aren’t the first main eventers to challenge the UFC. Former light heavyweight champion Tito Ortiz had an adversarial relationship with UFC President Dana White for years while simultaneously headlining shows and two-division champion Randy Couture famously left the promotion 2007 over disagreements with management. Even though Couture later returned for another run with the UFC, his relationship with White remains acrimonious to this day.
In both Ortiz and Couture’s cases, their disputes resulted in short term gain for the fighters themselves with little leeway made in terms of widespread reform. So how effective are these public spats if they’re not followed up on with deliberate and organized action?
“It’s definitely still helpful,” Smith said. “Everything is progress right now. Every single thing is progress. It’s not like we’re an established union that’s at the bargaining table working on which concessions we’re gonna make if we let someone talk. Totally not the situation. The more awareness that there is and the more that the young fighters who are coming up right now see the established fighters talking about the issues, the more that they’re aware of it, the more that they understand that this is not happening, the more likely that they are to make a difference …
“It’s a great thing and it is a possibility that it won’t turn into anything. I hope that it will, but it is a possibility. Even then, it’s still just adding more fuel to the smoking pile and eventually it’s gonna light and eventually the reforms are gonna come. But until then, the more that anybody is willing to speak up publicly then the better off everybody is.”
Smith admitted that Jones and Masvidal’s comments have not led to an uptick of responses to Project Spearhead, at least not through her. She describes herself as not being active on social media in that regard, with most of her efforts going towards spreading the message of the Black Lives Matters protests currently going on across North America.
When told about a recent survey taken by The Athletic, in which almost 80 percent of the 170 fighters polled answered that they are in favor of fighter unionization/organization, Smith takes that as a “tangible” sign of progress.
“Project Spearhead was ideally a union-organizing drive, but it was also an educational foray into the importance of collective bargaining because a lot of the people that I talked to did not know very much about it,” Smith said.” People were literally asking me, ‘What is a union?’ So being able to have the opportunity to discuss it and talk about it and share information about it. I don’t know how many fighters are paying attention to anything that I have to say, but I would like to think that some conversations have been started and that it led to what’s going on right now, this 80 percent of people.”
Smith is excited to see if any major stars actually step up to the plate, though she was amused when told of some of the names listed ahead of her on another survey by The Athletic asking who fighters thought would be good choices to lead a fighters’ association/union.
Still, if there’s anyone out their with the combination of drawing power, business savvy, and determination needed to combat the monolith that is the UFC, Smith fully supports them.
“I think that leadership is really important, so I am really excited to see if anyone who’s speaking up right now has the leadership skills and the drive to organize everybody,” Smith said. “It’s just work, it’s a whole job, but I think that the guys who are in front of the plate right now, that they can handle it as long as they just decide they want to.”
Another hurdle that those in favor of unionizing efforts face is the public sentiment that believes fighters are either asking for too much or have no right to complain because they agreed to sign binding contracts. On Twitter, Masvidal explained why his deal with the UFC puts him in a no-win situation.
Smith has an explanation as to why fans may be less than sympathetic to a fighter’s plight. She points to the decades-long decline of unions in the United States as a reason why many citizens have faltered when it comes to practicing democratic action and that has led to people becoming resigned to their situations and resentful of peers who look to better their own.
“People have to practice being in control of their own minds and in control of what they’re gonna do and people unfortunately can be very complacent when they get comfortable,” Smith said. “Now that the numbers of unions in the U.S. are so low, people just don’t practice these democratic skills. They go to work and they’re there to do whatever they need to do. We’re all familiar with somebody saying, ‘Hey man, I’m just doing my job.’ We’ve all met someone who does that and says that. That’s a lot of what’s going on is that people don’t have a say. One of the things that people have that they don’t have to work hard to exercise is this sense of equity, which is that if we’re in the same situation, we should get treated the same. Obviously, things are going on that people are realizing that there were a lot of inequities in this country and they’re changing it. But as far as the fighter contracts go, when the general public is like, ‘You signed that, you have to do that. You should be thanking the company. You should be grateful for your chance to play that,’ what they’re doing is they’re subjecting what they have had to do inside of their own situation to make it bearable.
“People were not meant to just take orders and show up every single day and work on some small part of a big project that they’re never gonna see come to completion. There’s so many needs: Needs for community, needs for agency, needs for accomplishment, needs for progress, that jobs can and frequently do fulfill, but right now the way that a lot of jobs are, things get contracted out, gig economy is huge, bigger than it ever has been, tons of people are unemployed, but before they were unemployed they just didn’t have a lot of say in anything that goes on at work. Those little habits at work they extend to everything else.”