By: Rich Bergeron
You know the Reebok battle is getting heated when people are trashing the terms of the deal both figuratively and LITERALLY:
UFC Lightweight Contender Myles “Fury” Jury really threw his Reebok gear in the garbage recently to make a point in a Twitter post that had UFC Head Honcho Dana “The Baldfather” White crying foul.
What was more telling about the incident, though, was “Uncle Dana” not stepping in to punish the frustrated fighter for his blatant disrespect of a major UFC business partner. This was a watershed moment for the “Reebok Rebellion.”
What could Dana do, after all? Myles was actually pulling a page right out of the UFC President’s own marketing handbook. Jury was being in-your-face offensive to sell his argument. Dana does that every day.
Higher-profile fighters are consistently rubbing Mr. White the wrong way these days when it comes to the Reebok deal, and though he gave Jury and Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone a pass for their recent criticism, he bit back against the likes of Brandon Schaub.
There may be a different kind of fireworks in July when this raw deal officially takes effect and all the fighters who don’t agree with Schaub and Jury start to realize their shortsightedness. Some of those UFC fighters might even regret not joining their peers on the unofficial public picket line when it might have actually mattered.
The worst part about this whole fiasco is the timing. The Federal Trade Commission is once again reportedly investigating the UFC in the wake of a series of high-profile Class-Action Anti-Trust complaints winding their way through the civil courts.
It’s hard not to question whether the world’s most powerful mixed martial arts promotion is overstepping its bounds in the way they are trying to control every aspect of a fighter’s career. It seems like a really bad deal to exchange a little bit of money and the right to fight under the UFC banner for the blood, sweat and tears it takes to stay at the top of the MMA game these days. Even to be at the middle of the pack in the UFC is a heck of a challenge. Fighters have to be starting to ask themselves when the accumulated bumps bruises, dislocations, torn ligaments, broken bones and concussions become so bad that the money doesn’t matter anymore.
What will happen when a tidal wave of former UFC fighters find out that the glory of having fought their hearts out for the fans isn’t paying the bills and/or sending their kids to college? What happens when the cushy medical coverage expires and your legendary fighter status means nothing to the doctors and the hospital billing you outrageous and astronomical fees to keep you healthy enough to live to old age?
Ask Marc Coleman. It’s not pretty.
The more the UFC fight or flight equation turns toward having no freedom to be an entrepreneur and no ability to build your own brand, the more Scott Coker’s phone is going to continue to ring off the hook. At least in Bellator, fighters can still have their own personal sponsors on their shorts.
They don’t throw all their fighters out for losing a few fights in a row, either. They don’t publicly berate their fighters at post-fight press conferences for not putting on a show. They pay what they can, and they do their best to just be considered a UFC competitor.
Phil Davis may be the first of many UFC defectors that could begin to trickle in if this Reebok deal eliminates as much income and opportunity as it sounds like it will.
I am actually disappointed that Viacom isn’t making a bigger push to acquire more UFC fighters with more lucrative contracts, but no business wants to lose money. It’s harder for Bellator to gain massive revenues in return for their investments in their fighters due to the overhead of doing their own production for free television. Yet, at the same time, Coker and Bellator’s current management seems to actually care a little more about the people who do battle under their banner. They know better than anyone that your sponsors can really keep you alive.
Fighters who value their freedom and want a little more control over their careers might start to see the only UFC competition as a much greener pasture in the wake of this sneaker giant’s exclusive apparel contract. What is supposed to look like a major step forward for the UFC might actually represent three steps back for this organization that is already struggling with cancelled and postponed fights due primarily to an increasing amount of training injuries to top fighters.
Of course we can’t forget Former UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Jon Jones allegedly crashing a rented SUV into a pregnant woman’s car and breaking her arm before fleeing the scene on foot. This is yet another unfortunate example of the UFC not caring enough about their fighters. How could they not recognize this guy had a problem that needed to be addressed a long time before this tragic incident unfolded? How can the UFC justify not having their own random drug testing in place like other professional sports? How are illegal drugs OK for a fighter to do out of competition in the first place? Who made the rules with that gaping loophole in them?
Georges St. Pierre has been one of the UFC’s most vociferous critics on the PED-testing front. The former champion continues to sit on the sidelines after one of the most punishing fights of his career led him to announce his retirement with the door left open only a crack. Only a broad, comprehensive drug testing program can bring him back now, St. Pierre maintains.
Even fighters like Ronda Rousey are getting a little upset with the career control measures being wielded over them by their bigwig bosses. The UFC will not even let Ronda appear in a few scripted WWE events. Just because these skits last longer than some of her actual fights doesn’t mean they are much different than what she does in her movie career. Her UFC bosses are fine with her pursuing action movie roles, so why not a little fake wrestling? Maybe it’s the fact that WWE stole the Tapout brand and took it right out of the cage and into the wrestling ring. Maybe it’s jealousy that WWE has the kind of fan base that makes them a legitimate threat, and it’s the kind of fans the UFC desperately needs. Maybe it’s the fact that the UFC lost their chance at retaining Brock Lesnar’s services again and they are still getting over it.
Whatever the reason, the UFC is clamping down more and more on what fighters can and can’t do inside and outside the cage, and it goes far beyond fake wrestling. Contracts are becoming more and more restrictive in every way.
The UFC also used to foster a climate where no fighter would dare speak a foul word about management or any business deal management put in place. The punishment would be worse than a fine if Dana decided to give you the Brendan Schaub treatment in the press.
Complain, and you’d be called a coward or a bum. You’re not a team player, some ignorant fans will still say when you stick your neck out while under UFC contract. Yet, this climate is not enough to stop this new little wave of protest that might grow to a frightening crescendo just before or after this Reebok deal officially becomes reality.
The mindless minions who criticize fighters for speaking out for their own best interests just eat right out of Dana White’s hand, even when he’s passing out rat poison. It is disgusting to hear and see so many people agreeing with a guy who never even fought an official amateur bout of any kind instead of listening to someone who actually put in the effort to compete in even one professional cage fight.
When it comes to matters of what it really means “to be a F#$%ing fighter,” Dana can give all the foul-mouthed speeches he wants, but it’s the actual fighters who bled for years under the UFC banner who gave that speech real meaning and resonance to the fans who now worship the ground Dana walks on. For the most part, these fans only like White so much because he talks and cusses just like them. Still, one UFC fighter I interviewed years ago told me there is something wrong with the sport when the most recognizable figure in MMA is Dana White. I couldn’t agree more.
Freedom is not a word to be taken lightly, and free speech is not as free as it used to be. You sign on the dotted line to step in the UFC cage, and you have to play by their rules, even the ones you don’t like or don’t agree with. That was bad enough when that was the only problem fighters faced. Now, it’s much worse because of the Reebok deal and the ramifications and ripple effects it will cause.
Some people forget this deal also alienates other long time sponsors of the UFC and its fighters. Think of all those apparel companies who will not be able to sell their products now in association with any official UFC event. The upcoming UFC Fan Expo situation is a prime example of how the UFC just doesn’t seem to care about the businesses and backers that helped put them on the map in the first place.
The people behind this powerhouse MMA league will alienate anyone or any group of people to make a buck off the backs of better men than themselves. This Reebok deal is living proof of that. Even if all the money from the Reebok partnership does go to the fighters, all those businesses that end up locked out of fighter sponsorship deals will have to line up to sign exclusive contracts with the organization itself. Either that, or they will convert to Bellator supporters and follow burned UFC fighters to that organization.
Suddenly that second fiddle is sounding like it could steal the show, and my prediction that Bellator could fail looks premature and presumptuous now.
“So you want to be a f$%^ing fighter?”
Let me give you Scott Coker’s number.