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Gut Check: A glimpse into MMA from the inside looking out

Fasten your seat belts and get ready because I am about to go old school 5 Oz. and write an article rife with first-person prose.

For one night and one night only, I am going to interject myself into an article. I feel compelled to do so because I am starting to become very concerned about the direction in which MMA is headed. Seeing the sport I love go down its current path is hurting me because just like most of you, I love it dearly.

But our sport is at a crossroads. Within the next 16 months, MMA is either going to truly become mainstream and emerge as the true fourth largest sport in America, or it’s going to follow in the footsteps of poker and go down as yet another fad sport.

I’m not writing this piece to be overly negative – I am writing from the heart. I am truly concerned that MMA is becoming less and less about the fights and more about the lifestyle that’s been built up around it. I’m seeing more people at fights that are more concerned about being seen than by what’s actually taking place inside the ring or cage. I’ve been doing a lot of traveling in recent weeks and have been able to watch the industry from the inside out – and I’ve got to tell you, MMA is degenerating into nothing more than an extension of show business.

MMA offers such a dichotomy: some of the coolest people I have ever met happen to be full-time employees in the industry while some of the biggest scumbags I have ever been exposed to happen to reside in this sport. If you become immersed in the industry, you will meet some of the most sincere and forthright people you will ever encounter. At the same time, you will also meet some of the most fake. You know, the kinds of people who will tell you to your face that you’re great and then start bad mouthing you the minute you walk away.

There are a lot of people in MMA that will try and hustle you and tell you whatever they can just to make a buck. These people are remorseless and they feel no guilt about those that are a victim of their misdeeds. Once one well dries up, they start looking for the next person they can take advantage of.

I believe that I have made some true friends in MMA during my brief time covering this sport. I’m well aware that are lot of people are nice to me right now because I’m a writer and their hope is that I will write something nice about them. But there are some people I’ve met that couldn’t care less what I write about them and would still talk to me if I left MMA tomorrow. These are the people that make MMA worthwhile, because there is a very unseemly side to this industry.

Before anyone that I happen to know that might be reading this is wondering whether I am talking about them, understand that I’ve either told you how I felt to your face or I simply am no longer talking to you. The unseemly element consists of people who are involved with MMA for all the wrong reasons. They don’t see the fighters as real people and they see them as commodities. It disgusts me to no end to see these people out in public walking around as if they are bigger than the sport. The reality is that we’re all here because of the fighters: the men and women who sacrifice themselves just so that our lives are a little less boring.

I never got into comic books and really am not a huge fan of super heroes. Growing up, my super heroes were real: “Dr. J” Julius Erving, Charles Barkley, Randall Cunningham, Reggie White, Mike Schmidt, Lenny Dykstra, Kirby Puckett, and Tony Gwynn. My goal in life growing up was to be able to earn a living in professional sports. I got that chance in 1993 when I started my own website dedicated to fantasy football. Unlike FiveOuncesOfPain.com, my first web company, FFInsider.com, actually was a money maker and was acquired by a bigger company in 1998 that is now known as Fanball.com.

Unfortunately, as I got more and more involved in sports, I actually got to meet some of my heroes. However, more often than not, I learned the harsh reality that my heroes were actually human and prone to having the same flaws and making the same mistakes that many of us make on a routine basis. And the sad reality was that fame often magnified their shortcomings and turned them into people really not worth caring about. Kirby Puckett got accused of doing some weird stuff to a woman; Dr. J had a love child that he never spoke to; and Dykstra got into a car while drunk and crashed into a tree and was later accused of using steroids.

But after following MMA off and on for years, I became hooked and had new super heroes to follow. When I started training and saw exactly what it took to be a professional fighter, my admiration only increased. And unlike the sports figures I grew up idolizing, the fighters I’ve met rarely have disappointed.

And that’s exactly why it’s sad to see fighters being treated the way they are being treated. I’m not directing my comments at any single specific group of people, as there are guilty parties across all lines, whether it they’re promoters, managers, members of the media, and fans. But let me be clear, this is not a blanket indictment. As I stated early, there are some really great people involved in MMA. I do not believe all promoters, managers, members of the media, and fans are bad – just some of them.

There are just some people in this industry who are nothing more than parasites; they see the fighters and all they think of is what a fighter can do for them instead of what they can do for a fighter. They’re like vampires, as they force their way in and then suck the life out of the fighters until there’s nothing left. It’s a constant “take, take, take” and not enough giving back to those that provide them an ability to earn a living.

The worst thing I’ve seen in recent months was a so-called manager who took his 20% cut of the sponsorships he generated for a group of fighters that competed on a major fight card. Doesn’t sound too nefarious, right? Well, it just happens that a major sponsor that was secured only paid half of the sponsorship money up front and still hasn’t gotten around to paying the other half. To this day, the fighters haven’t received all of their money even though the manager got his full share off the top. Instead of getting a 20% commission, the fraud actually walked away with a 40% cut.

You want to know the scary part? What I just described to you is the type of ordeal that happens all of the time in MMA. If you truly knew the kinds of things that were going on in this business right now you probably wouldn’t be able to watch fights with the same passion that you have for them now.

The fighters deserve better. They deserve people in their lives who will treat them the same when they lose as if they win. They deserve representation that truly has their best interests in mind at all times and not someone who wants to milk them for all they are worth. They deserve promoters who are committed to working towards offering them greater health insurance coverage, a 401K, and the freedom to use their likeness in the manner in which they best see fit. And they deserve writers and reporters who take treat the sport as a profession and not a hobby. This sport is in a major need of more writers and reporters who aren’t using sports writing as a conduit to hobnob with athletes.

The sport itself deserves better. Enough with the arrogant rich guys in MMA who think that just because they conquered one business venture that everything they touch turns to gold. It’s downright condescending the way some people treat MMA. They see MMA as some little niche fad and believe they are truly above it and think that the sport somehow can’t grow without them. If you’re reading this article and thinking about starting your own promotion, do yourself a favor and hire someone who knows the industry to run the company for you. I’ve watched too many friends and former colleagues get sent to the unemployment line this year due to gross negligence, excess, and arrogance exhibited by their bosses.

Understand this anonymous rich dude: MMA doesn’t need your charity. This industry is a lot more complex than you realize. The people you think are making money probably aren’t. It just seems that way and the only reason why they subject themselves to 70-80 hour work weeks for little pay is because they truly love MMA. And that’s what outsiders like Gary Shaw will never understand; MMA isn’t full of haters, it’s full of people that are truly passionate about the sport and don’t want to see it follow the same footsteps as boxing.

MMA is in great shape but is underachieving thanks to so many failed well-funded ventures. By running their companies into the ground, they left a taint on the sport that will make it next to impossible for entrepreneurs to secure funding.

Things are going well for MMA in many aspects yet it finds itself in a time of transition. The UFC continues to grow and we might find out this year whether the company hits a plateau or can breakthrough as a real mainstream company. We’ll also see the launch of the Bellator Fighting Championships on ESPN Deportes, a company with management that I believe truly “gets it” that will emerge as the true number two promotion in MMA. I also believe we’re going to see whether Affliction was just a t-shirt company that put on some really cool parties with some great fights or a real promotional fight company that has legs. And hopefully in the next few months we’ll get to see the fates decided of all the current ProElite contracted fighters that are mired in a state of purgatory. Either an acquisition will finally be completed once and for all, or the company’s current management will suddenly develop a conscience and decide they can no longer look themselves in the mirror as they continue to take food of the fighters’ tables.

Sometimes it’s hard to know what I would truly like to see for this sport. There are days where I think everything is just fine and I don’t want to see if grow any bigger out of fear that more people will come aboard looking to exploit the fighters. And then there are days where I want to see it kick the collective asses of football, baseball, and basketball so that mainstream America can be truly exposed to athletes truly worthy of their admiration.

21 COMMENTS
  • truth says:

    The Gary Shaw dig gets me, I miss eliteXC, alot of great fighters got television time, some great fights,I miss seeing womens MMA which they promoted so well.

  • Brendhan Conlan says:

    Well said, Mr. C!

  • ken says:

    Great artical, I couldn’t agree more!

  • Jonathan Snowden says:

    The fighters are also grown men and women who are responsible for looking out for their own best interests. I think this editorial is heartfelt, by why the assumption that the fighters are children who need someone’s protection? Health Care and retirement options are readily available to people in most fighter’s income brackets. Because they aren’t provided for by the company directly, doesn’t make them unavailable.

    As for reporters treating the sport as a profession and not a hobby: that will likely be the case when there are legitimate opportunities for MMA reporters to make a living. Be careful what you wish for too-some of the very worst reporters covering the sport are the full time guys from mainstream publications and websites.

  • House says:

    Hey Sam,

    I wonder if the smaller local promotions are as real as it gets. I fought at Mohegan Sun in ct over the summer and had the opportunity and yes it was definitely an opportunity to compete at Battle of the Sun. I was 25, finishing up grad school and this was probably my one chance to go all in. For two months I trained, ran, slept, ate, practiced learned and improved my mma. I was happy to not worry about money (although it would have been cool to walk out with an oversized check worth 20,000,000,000 like in pride) but it was me vs him. No one to blame but myself but everyone to thank for getting me there. I lost (hey it happens, next time I will keep my left hand a little higher) but damn if I thought people around me were taking something that wasn’t there’s. The scary part is that these “business professionals” are on the podium because it’s their podium. It could very well be the blind leading the blind. As much as the UFC is the judge, jury and hangman of the industry they allow fighters to build and grow. If what you say is true, I hope enough of the lovers can engage and talk to the newer fans. New fans are ok as long as they get a small intimate history lesson in how it got to where it is. Just my thoughts.

  • Sam Caplan says:

    Jonathan, not everyone is good with money. Some fighters, such as Rich Franklin and Dustin Hazelett, have financial planners. They are not only budgeting for the present but are planning for the future. However, as someone who is an independent contractor, I can tell you from first-hand knowledge that when you have little job security and receive infrequent pay, planning for the future often takes a back seat to paying off the bills in front of you.

    Additionally, an independent contractor has to pay their own social security tax. When you work for a full-time employer, they legally have to pay half your social security tax. An independent contract acts as his own employer so he or she must match his own SS tax, hence the double tax.

    Not to mention, an employer usually helps offset SOME of the costs of health insurance (and can sometime get you a better rate because they are buying in bulk instead of buying policies on an individual basis) and sometimes matches your 401K contributions (although this is being phased out by major companies on a daily basis).

    Comparing fighting to other professions is truly comparing apples to oranges. To be an elite fighter, you have to put in more than 40 hours a week. And anyone who is a fighter finds themselves in a profession where they are at a high risk for injury. Furthermore, their career lifespan is rather short. You and I can write until we are of retirement age (and hopefully beyond). A fighter is luck if he’s competing at the age of 35.

    Yes, they are adults and they make their own choices and have to take responsibility for themselves. However, we are either making a living off their sacrifices and or deriving entertainment from their work so I think it’s only fair that we be mindful of how the industry treats them.

  • Guy Gaduois says:

    Very well thought out . . . I wonder though, Sam, if having access to fighters that we, the average bears do not have means that you might have to do more than make a first person entrance into a report like this, but become part of the story yourself. Since you have access and concern, you might have an opportunity (without becoming what you despise) to inform and direct fighters about how to look out for their own interests.
    If so, strike while the sport is young and the iron is hot and get some names together and make teaching and instructing these fighters on how to manage their own lives and to think about tomorrow. Don’t create a union with union bosses who want to stay bosses; don’t create another level of bureaucracy, make a place that doesn’t feed off of the fighters, but takes care of them.

    When folks start caring more about securing their place than caring for their people, things go haywire. There’s a way to do both that won’t victimize anyone. That’s the problem with all sports management and leadership: People become a commodity, and hell is born.

    The only way to truly serve these athletes and this sport is to make sure you never feel the fighters or the sport owes you anything. Once you feel ‘owed’, you’ll do anything to make sure the invoice gets paid.

    Great thoughts, Sam.

  • seth b says:

    Good article Sam.
    About the Hollywood comment, of course the fights have become the place to be seen. They are marketed as such and prices for decent seats are sky high. I compare it to the Super Bowl, but without the buildup of a regular season and playoffs to build anticipation. To become mainstream and compete with the “big 3” more accessibility is needed. TUF and UFN go a long way towards introducing this sport to the masses and EliteXC had the right idea with their Saturday Night Fights. Make fans out of casual observers by getting them hooked with free or affordable action. That will make more fans willing to shell out for the PPV’s and live shows.
    As to the parasite comment, unfortunately greed is not just alive and well in MMA. Spread the word about the bad ones and hopefully they go out of business.
    Good thoughts about a different side of MMA.

  • ctownhood says:

    Gary Shaw was the worst thing for MMA Truth, he was a scumbag boxing promoter who had burned all of his boxing bridges, so he tried his hand at MMA and ran a promotion out of business. Great article Sam.

  • WebGarden says:

    I couldn’t disagree with you more, about MMA becoming less about the fights. In my obeservations, fans are thirsting for more BJJ, Muay Thai, etc. knowledge.

    I mean, anything that grows will have fans that don’t necessarily love it for the reason the “true fans” do. Know what I mean? Look at how many people [atronize the NFL and don’t know diddly about football plays.

    Stop worrying buddy, this is a natural progression.

  • Mike Wolfe says:

    Sam:

    As a frequent attender of MMA cards, you have a perspective that’s different (not worse, just different) from fans who, like me, only watch televised events. If you’re a “tv only” fan, it’s all about the fights, and that’s the way it looks. Unfortunately, there are sycophants and parasites in any entertainment business, including professional sports, show business, or music. I’m optimistic about the future of MMA because it’s evolved and grown in the five years or so since I first began to watch it. There will be winners and losers in the MMA business, but that’s to be expected in a comparatively young and rapidly expanding sport. The agile, well-managed orgs and businesses will succeed, and those who are not will fail. Kinda like fighting in the octagon.

  • Cathedron says:

    The way I see it, these are just normal “growing pains” for a sport that’s destined to be mainstream. It’s a good thing… or at least it will be a good thing eventually. Hell, look at the history of football as it became a mainstream, professional sport. It was a hell of a lot messier than what we’re seeing in MMA (sad as it is).

  • Esther says:

    I agree wtih Cathedron that these are “growing pains” — I’m already seeing professionals come in more and more. Next to me at Affliction was someone shooting from ESPN and a photo wire service and those guys are already replacing most MMA pubs around the UFC cage. I hear these new to the sport but seasoned sports photographers growing more interested in MMA and becoming fans with each show they shoot.

    Though, I am a photographer way before I am an MMA fan.

    I hope you’re right about Bellator. When I was first recruited I was given a very hopeful speech about doing what’s good for fighters and all that and I think I was duped. So, I’m skeptical, but hoping for the best.

  • htown-chris says:

    snowden you are right technically the fighters are grown. however there are those of us out there who are young and just like anyother sport, are looking to make it out. we love the sport no doubt with all that we have. and many would fight for free. but when some young athlete shows promise theres always someone waiting in the wings to take advantage of them. you can be a grown and responsible man, but when someone throws you a couple bucks and tells you the skys the limit 9 times out of 10 youre going to listen. and there are alot of people out there telling these young fighters “this is a fad sport it aint gonna last so get it while you can”. and then they take the kid for everything he is worth. ive seen a big name in this sport, one who if you even half way pay attention to mma you would hav heard of, take a kids sponsorhip money just like described in the article, at the weigh ins, and then the night of the fight wasnt even there to watch his own fighter. and i know about what the money was and who it came from because the fighter is a friend of mine. it happens but we will survive. the sport is not a fad. i dont know if it will rival baseball football, or basketball, anytime soon but its not going anywhere anytime soon either. there are enough good people in mma to outnumber the bad.

  • Cory B. says:

    Fantastic article. I abolutely love it when someone is able to convey so many of my thoughts in print. I agree with most of everything that was said.

    We’ve all seen what money hungry leeches like Don King and countless others have been able to do to boxing and it hasn’t been good. MMA seems like it’s heading down the same road with countless Johnny come lately’s trying to cash in at the expense of the people that truly have a deep felt passion for the sport.

    The dream is that the one’s that are trying to make a quick buck in this industry will eventually be weeded out and replaced by those that are in the business for all of the right reasons: To promote the sport and to better the lives of the fighters that put their health on the line for the sake of the most amazing game in the world.

  • modogg says:

    i know you couldn’t do this yourself Sam, but if there was a site or somewhere that could point out the specifics of some of these things you hint to i think progress would be made. A good example is Jerry Millen. I personally didn’t know much about the guy, and didn’t care for him much, but was indifferent. But numerous sources have come out and identified specific things that occurred that they didn’t support. I think this assisted the public in seeing some of the true nature of things that occurred and people were better able to judge for themselves. Of course it would be difficult to construct an unbiased review of some of these figures in the sport, but it would help people getting into the fray to not associate with more of the dregs in the sport for the wrong reasons. I don’t know if we will ever know the truth about Juanito and how he treated Rampage, but publicizing some of the specifics like that will weed out people involved in MMA with underlying intentions

  • JOe K. says:

    “The fighters are also grown men and women who are responsible for looking out for their own best interests. I think this editorial is heartfelt, by why the assumption that the fighters are children who need someone’s protection? ”

    Talk to Dr. Dre or any black music artist that was exploited in the 80’s and early 90’s. They had no representation and were raped by the industry.

    The fighters are not children they just don’t know their inherent (monetary) value. They need honest representation.

    Their concern should be fighting and not contract law.

  • VENOM says:

    Great article, Sam! It’s about time a reputable MMA authority said the things that noone wants to hear.
    Good work! I’ve been an MMA fan since 1993 and you’ve become my favorite MMA writer in just the last few weeks.

  • not intending to be offensive says:

    I appreciate your thoughts on the business and I’m sure most of what you said is true. I think that some of the comments have already stated how this is all part of the ‘growing pains’ of the business and also how there will definitely be parasites in every entertainment business. From my perspective – there will be leeches in any business, those who are in it just for the money.

    No doubt Gary Shaw is a total douchebag and it’s great for everyone that he’s out of MMA.

    Surprisingly – I feel that anonymous rich guys would actually help the sport – as long as they aren’t in it to make money but for the love of the sport. I love this sport like no other and if I had the means to do it I would definitely put resources in that direction.

    My number one question is – the mma blogosphere (and bloody elbow in particularly) think that WAMMA is ran by exactly the sort of people you are talking about in your artcile. Why are you still lending that organisation your credibiilty?

    Editor’s Note: Number one, I feel much of the criticism of WAMMA is unjustified, unfair, ignorant and inaccurate. I think a lot of prejudice exists regarding WAMMA. People are critical of it for no other reason than it is a “sanctioning body” and because sanctioning bodies were bad for boxing, it automatically makes it bad for MMA? Judge WAMMA by its actions and not by the words it chose to use to describe its organization.

    Second, just because you don’t consider WAMMA credible doesn’t mean I feel the same. I kind of feel you are attempting to put words in my mouth or project your feels onto me and I take great offense to that. I believe it is an extremely credible organization. I did my due diligence on both Mike Lynch and Dave Szady before joining and couldn’t find anyone to say anything negative about them. I’ve worked with Bill Goldberg and know Pat Miletich and respect them a great deal as human beings. The fact that they were endorsing the organization carried a ton of weight with me. Even before WAMMA existed I believed in the need for unified rankings and titles. I believe that there is a need for fighter benefits and a need for an advocacy group in MMA. WAMMA appears to be the only organization in MMA right now working towards those goals.

    I would ask that people do their own research and investigation into WAMMA as opposed to adopting the view of what bloggers are saying. There’s a growing trend in the blogosphere where a less people are thinking for themselves and giving too much influence over their opinions. Just because a blog says something is bad, they assume it’s bad. You’ve made a critical comment about WAMMA yet you neglected to say why you have an issue with WAMMA? Can you name one thing that WAMMA has done to hurt the sport?

    I’m not asking anyone to take my word that WAMMA is a worthy organization. All that I ask is that you keep an open mind and judge WAMMA by its actions and form your own opinion.

  • Crooklyn says:

    Excellent article, Sam. I especially like the part about the filthy agent that got his cut and then some, off the partially paid sponsor money. Something that is whispered about, yet never really heard by the masses. Thanks for having the sack to bring to the forefront, what is known in inner circles, and denied by the people committing the injustice.

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