MMA went to Washington yesterday, continuing its long march toward cultural legitimacy in the eyes of America’s most vaunted institutions. First the sport seduced Madison Avenue. Then, with the sale of the UFC to WME-IMG in June for $4 billion, it checked Wall Street of its to-do list. And as of yesterday, mixed martial arts started inching its way into the good graces of the U.S. Congress, slowest and most deliberate of all our country’s kingmakers.
The introduction of cage-fighting into the halls of the Capitol came in the form of a 90-minute hearing of the Commerce, Manufacturing, and Trade Subcommittee of the House of Representatives’ Energy and Commerce Committee—not exactly a mention in the State of the Union, sure, but still a good first step for a sport born in controversy, raised in shame, and still looked at sideways by much of mainstream America.
Though titled “Mixed Martial Arts: Issues and Perspectives” and promoted as a strictly informational meeting designed to bring committee members up to speed on this strange new sport and to, as subcommittee Chair Michael C. Burgess (R-Texas) put it in his opening statement, “understand if there is a role Congress should be playing in this multi-billion-dollar industry,” the hearing was actually much more about Oklahoma Representative and former MMA fighter Markwayne Mullin’s efforts to move his Muhammad Ali Expansion Act out of committee and onto the floor of the full Congress in the upcoming legislative session.
The Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act, which was enacted on May 26, 2000, was written to protect professional boxers from exploitive and unethical business practices and coercive contracts, create an “objective and consistent” system for ranking boxers, force promoters to disclose contracts to athletic commissions and the revenue they expect to make off each fight to fighters, and build a firewall between the roles of promoters and managers in order to prevent conflicts of interest detrimental to boxers. In May 2016 Mullin, who retired from professional fighting in 2007 with a perfect 3-0 record, introduced a bill that would extend the Ali Act to mixed martial artists. That bill, co-sponsored by Democratic Rep. Joseph Kennedy III (Massachusetts), has been sitting in committee ever since and in the meantime become a sort of litmus test in the burgeoning fighters-rights movement. Expansion of the Act has become a rallying cry for the fighters associations formed in the last few years, while the UFC has reportedly spent hundreds of thousands of dollars lobbying against it.
So, yesterday’s hearing, while informational in nature, also gave Mullin and supporters of the expansion both in the committee and at the presenters’ table to lay the groundwork for a future debate. And while presentations were made on health and safety issues by a professor of neurology at Boston University and the strides made in anti-doping practices in the sport by Jeff Novitsky, the UFC’s vice president of athlete health and performance, the focus was clearly on the testimony of Lydia Robertson, the treasurer of the Association of Boxing Commissions and Combative Sports, whose authority would grow to include MMA if the expansion bill passes, and Randy Couture, the former UFC legend who has fought the UFC numerous times on numerous issues related to fighters’ rights and has been a vocal proponent of expansion of the Ali law. Anger between Couture and the UFC runs so deep that Rep. Mullin claimed earlier this week that the UFC threatened to not take part in the hearing if Couture was on the panel. The UFC had no comment on his allegations.
In her opening statement Robertson was full-throated in her support of the Ali Act, saying it has “greatly contributed to competition standards in title fights and altered the way contracts are entered into between managers, promoters and athletes.”
“The simple fact is,” Robertson said, “if a bill will reduce MMA fighter exploitation, enhance fighter safety, and is something the fighter are ready for, the ABC will probably support the bill.”
Couture assured the committee that fighters would be ready for such an expansion, that because of a lack of “competitive architecture” “independent or objective rankings” and the prevalence of exclusive, long-term contracts, fighters are “removed from the competitive marketplace.”
“Fighters are hamstrung in their ability to negotiate fight purses as promotions, unlike in boxing, are not required to disclose to fighters the revenues earned from such bouts,” Couture said. Such a system, he went on, “allows the UFC to solely determine merit, which enables [it] to dictate terms and obtain contractual subservience. The UFC has used this structure to coerce, bully, and ensure that its brand remains paramount.”
Rep. Kennedy then asked Couture to expand on why fighters don’t have more bargaining power when they enter contracts with MMA promoters.
“They control the rankings and who gets a shot at the titles,” Couture said. “An independent ranking structure would create an open market where promoters from whatever promotion could then bid on making … those top fights for those best athletes happen. It would eliminate the exclusivity of the contracts. Now every promotion is forcing athletes to sign a contract that’s exclusive to that promotion. What if Wimbledon forced all the top tennis players to sign an exclusive contract to compete at Wimbledon for that title? That’s in essence what the UFC does right now.”
Rep. Bobby Rush, a Democrat from Illinois who supports the expansion, asked Robertson what she and the ABC are seeking from the bill.
“The ABC welcomes the idea of having more authority or aiding in the enforcement of proper regulations,” Robertson said. “We already passed minimum standard rules for MMA … we’re there. We just don’t have any teeth to do any other kind of enforcement. In boxing the ABC recognizes the sanctioning bodies. The fighters know what the standards are. We don’t have those kind of teeth in the MMA industry.”
Robertson went on to say the Ali Act had gone a long way toward clearing up conflicts of interest in boxing, something MMA could use.
Not everyone was signing the praises of the Ali Expansion Act, however. When subcommittee Chair Burgess asked if anyone on the committee thought Mullin’s bill could be detrimental to MMA, UFC VP Novitsky spoke out.
“I have a concern about the open-ranking system that involves other promotions as it relates to health and safety,” he said. “If a UFC fighter, who is under the most stringent, comprehensive, robust anti-doping program in professional sports in the world, is forced to fight a fighter from another promotion that may not have any out-of-competition anti-doping program, that’s clearly a health and safety risk to our fighter, and a competitive disadvantage.”
The 115th United States Congressional session is set to convene January 3.
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