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Like a Contract, But Not Exactly: Why Long Term Deals Are Terrible For UFC Fighters

(Sanchez’s contract is officially for eight more fights, but the UFC reserves the right to take him out behind the shed at any time and put him out of his misery. / Photo via Getty)

By Jon Mariani

With Daniel Cormier and Diego Sanchez both inking new eight-fight deals with the UFC recently, following an eyebrow-raising 10-fight contract extension for Anderson Silva earlier this year, long-term contracts have become a disturbing trend in the UFC. And it begs the question: “Why everybody’s doing that? Why?

MMA contracts are unique among professional sports, in the sense that long-term agreements aren’t necessarily beneficial to the athletes. The deals that Cormier and Sanchez signed with the UFC bear absolutely no resemblance to the 15-year, $67.5 million dollar “lottery ticket” that NHL goalie Rick DiPietro signed in 2006. After failing to live up to expectations, DiPietro’s contract was bought out in 2013, at $1.5 million a year for the next 16 years.

That’s what a contract is, after all — an employer’s obligation to pay a certain amount of money for services rendered. What the UFC offers its fighters is something different. It’s like a contract, but not exactly, and it results from the uniquely lopsided power structure in this sport, where there’s essentially one major-league team and no player’s union.

In MMA if you fail to live up to expectations and lose fights, your contract can simply be terminated at any time, and for a variety of reasons. When Eddie Alvarez‘s contract was made public, outsiders got a chance to see the long list of scenarios in which the UFC can cut an athlete loose. As the article’s author Jonathan Snowden notes “So, all those UFC contracts that claim to be for eight or 10 fights? That’s only true if you keep winning. Otherwise, the contract is only as long as the UFC wants it to be.”

A quote from that article, from Northwestern University labor law professor Zev Eigen, shows how imbalanced contracts are for UFC fighters:

“The term unilaterally benefits the employer with no reciprocal benefit to the fighter. It’s completely one-sided, completely unfair and seems to suggest that any term is a material term for purposes of the employer. Every breach could be a material breach for the fighter, but nothing is for the UFC.”

So when 38-year-old ex-champ Anderson Silva signs a 10-fight contract after his first loss in the company, we shouldn’t interpret it as a show of good faith or support from his bosses. That’s just the UFC saying, “We’ve got you until you decide to retire, and if you try to work for a competing promotion after you leave, we’ll sue you just like we sued Randy.”

But what if you keep winning all your fights? In that case, you are locked into the pay scale that you agreed to at the beginning of your contract. Presumably your market value will go up as you win fights and challenge for titles, but if your market value exceeds what you are currently getting paid, you can’t really capitalize on it. You can try to re-negotiate your contract, and maybe the UFC will agree to it. Or maybe Dana White will tell everyone about your ridiculous request and publicly trash you during one of his media scrums.

The value of having another high-paying organization in the MMA landscape like Bellator (or OneFC, apparently) is that you can use their offer to leverage a higher paying contract out of the UFC. However, if you are tied to a long-term deal, you can’t take advantage of it. As Cage Potato writer Brian D’Souza pointed out, if UFC fighters are tied up to long-term deals, “No other promoter can enter the big leagues of MMA unless they build their own stars or wait 3-4 years.” Having fighters sign long-term contracts is really only a benefit to the UFC, and it’s a massive benefit.

So was Tito Ortiz right in having Cristiane “Cris Cyborg” Justino turn down a deal with the UFC? One of the major reasons the contract fell apart was the UFC’s insistence that the contract be for eight fights. Cyborg instead decided to ink a deal with Invicta FC. Having won both of her Invicta fights, as well as a perplexing Muay Thai fight in the middle of Fremont Street in Las Vegas, Cyborg has increased her market value. When initially negotiating with the UFC, “their negotiating leverage was taken away by Cyborg’s inactivity and positive steroid result,” according to Primetime 360 partner George Prajin. With a fair amount of recent competitive activity and the failed drug test a distant memory, Cyborg is now in a much stronger position to negotiate with the UFC than she was before. It’s hard to admit, but this may have been Tito Ortiz’s most brilliant move, apart from installing security cameras inside his house.

An eight-fight contract for Daniel Cormier, Diego Sanchez, or any other UFC fighter is not job security, even though it may sound like that to people who don’t follow the business of the sport. We’ve racked our brains trying to think of another professional entity with a similar employer/employee dynamic, and the closest example that comes to mind is the military, where they can give you a dishonorable discharge if you screw up, but you can’t just leave any time you want like a normal “at will” job.

That’s just something to keep in mind for all you MMA fighters out there. If the UFC offers you a long term contract, you’re not being hired — you’re enlisting.

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