The UFC deserves all the credit in the world for what they’ve accomplished in building the sport of mixed martial arts. When the current owners (A company named Zuffa) took over in 2001, things were bleak and the UFC was in a really bad position. The future of the UFC, and ultimately the entire sport, was up in the air. MMA was illegal in many states, and politicians were actively campaigning to keep it that way.
John McCain was a huge opponent of MMA in the early days and famously dubbed the sport as “human cockfighting“, but thanks to the tireless efforts of the UFC, even McCain is now a fan of MMA and has posed for photos with #1 ranked UFC fighter Jon Jones.
Needless to say, the sport has come a long way, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some skeletons in the closet.
13. The Dark Age
The earliest UFC events, before it was taken over by Zuffa, were marketed like some kind of barbaric death match where only one man would leave the Octagon alive. They had to do whatever they could to get attention, even if it was negative attention. Things have come a long way from the time period that fans refer to as “the dark age”, but there’s still a long way to go. It hasn’t all been rainbows and lollipops since 2001.
Even with a more professional-looking coat of paint, this is still the fight game and you’re still dealing with huge egos, incredible amounts of testosterone, and people’s livelihoods. If you can’t make an omelette without cracking a few eggs, the UFC is a wrecking ball in a chicken co-op.
12. Class Action Lawsuits
There are multiple class action lawsuits against the UFC involving former fighters. They allege that the UFC operates in a way that is monopolistic and uses that to their advantage in how they treat their fighters.
UFC President and 9% owner, Dana White, used to give very candid press scrums where he would talk about how the UFC has no legitimate competition, however now that the court cases are underway, you don’t see any of those scrums. Perhaps it’s bad for business to have countless hours of footage of the company’s president contradicting your case.
11. The Powder Man
When UFC 51 was originally broadcast back in 2005 on Pay Per View, Chuck “The Iceman” Liddell (who would go on to become light heavyweight champion at the very next UFC event, and would defend the belt 4 times) appears to inhale something from his pinky fingernail before wiping his nose and realizing he’s on camera. If the clip itself doesn’t convince you, just know that the UFC edited it out before adding UFC 51 to their Fightpass streaming service.
10. Domestic Violence
The fighting doesn’t always stay in the cage. Jon Koppenhaver (better known as “War Machine”) is the most well-known example.he was arrested for beating his ex-girlfriend Christy Mack within an inch of her life. Unfortunately, War Machine is far from being the only instance of this in MMA. Joe Son competed at an early UFC event, and he’s serving life in prison for torture and murder. Other fighters have been accused of domestic violence as well, including title-contender Anthony “Rumble” Johnson and Ronda Rousey‘s boyfriend Travis Browne.
Being accused obviously isn’t the same as being found guilty, but some people believe that the head trauma experienced by fighters can lead to things like anger issues. Which brings us to the next issue…
9. Head Trauma
It doesn’t take a genius to know that getting hit in the head repeatedly for years is not going to end well for most people.
Fighters know that this is just part of the game, they know what they’re signing up for. They’re willing to risk a tough future if it means living the glorious life of a prize fighter right now. It’s believed that most of this trauma happens in training camps, where fighters spar very hard to prepare for their fights. Fighters can get concussed or even knocked out cold in training, get up, and keep going. At least during the actual fights, it’s over as soon as they’re knocked out.
Unlike boxing, where a fighter can get a ten-count and be allowed to keep going and absorb more damage to their already-concussed brains, or football where hundreds upon hundreds of smaller hits add up to serious long-term damage, MMA is believed to be a bit safer, but there are definitely risks involved and everybody in the game is well-aware of them, but fans don’t always realize the risks that our favorite fighters are putting themselves in to entertain us.
8. Fighter Pay
Many former (and active) fighters have said publicly that they aren’t being paid fairly by the UFC. Some of the former UFC fighters have gotten together to form a class-action lawsuit, but when it comes to active fighters they’re generally pretty careful about going against the company line because the UFC has control of their careers and futures.
When you see recognizable UFC fighters on cards that air on Fox, or on Pay Per View events that fetch hundreds of thousands of viewers paying $60 each, it’s kind of surprising to hear that some of these fighters are barely scraping by. When you factor in all of the expenses for a full-time fighter to go through training camp, to pay their manager, to pay their coaches and gym fees, travel expenses, nutritionists, and the myriad of other expenses, some fighters are actually losing money. It’s an investment in their futures. If they can climb the ranks, there’s a lot of money to be earned. But most fighters don’t make it to the top, the vast majority never even make it into the UFC to try to earn a shot at breaking even.
None the less, the UFC is still the biggest promotion that reaches the most fans, has the ability to build the biggest stars, and pays their fighters relatively well compared to other MMA organizations. The problem is that these are professional athletes at the top of their sport, which just so happens to be very dangerous and violent, and we’re having the conversation about how some of them can’t even break even.
At least they can lean on their sponsors to help cover the bills… Well, they could at least, up until…
7. The Reebok Deal
After years of rumors of some type of uniform deal and the UFC denying them up and down, it was finally announced that Reebok was going to become the main clothing sponsor of the UFC and that fighters would no longer be able to have their own sponsors on their clothes.
Previously, fighters could earn very good money for having sponsor logos on their shorts while fighting, and their t-shirts and hats that they would wear immediately before and immediately following the fight. For some fighters, this sponsorship money was even more than they would get paid by the UFC for actually fighting.
6. Freakshow Fights
On one hand, we have the UFC justifying things like the Reebok deal by saying that it makes the sport more professional and more legitimate, and puts them up there with the major professional sports leagues like the NBA, NFL and MLB.
On the other hand, they’ve signed former professional wrestler CM Punk to a contract to fight in the UFC even though he has zero mixed martial arts fights and only a year or two of actual fight training. Granted, he’s done some jiu-jitsu, but for a fighter to enter the UFC with no real experience is like if you or I picked up a basketball for the first time and were playing in the NBA a few months later.
Everybody gets what is happening, this is just a way to get attention because all of Punk’s fans are going to want to see how he does in the UFC, and everyone who dislikes him is also going to want to see the outcome.
Boxing legend James Toney also famously stepped inside the Octagon, where he was dismantled by Randy Couture almost immediately. When it comes to freakshow fights, it’s a bad look for the UFC, but there’s another promotion that has made it their bread and butter…
The UFC’s biggest competitor is a promotion called Bellator, which is owned by Viacom. Still, the UFC has a huge lead on them. You would think that if Viacom wanted to, they could just throw a huge pile of cash at MMA and become the biggest players in the sport, but in reality martial arts is just a small niche for the multi-billion dollar empire.
None the less, Viacom has been making some big plays lately. They hired Scott Coker to run the show, who is the man that built Strikeforce (before selling it to the UFC). Coker had a non-compete clause with the UFC after he sold Strikeforce to them, but as soon as it expired it was a no-brainer for Bellator to have him at the helm. Scott Coker knows how to put on fights that people want to watch, even if they aren’t the best matchups on paper (Or in reality). Case in point is the recent Kimbo Slice vs Dada 5000 fight. There’s absolutely no way that either of those guys should be co-headlining a professional martial arts show, especially not on national television with millions of viewers, but it happened! The main event on the same card was Ken Shamrock vs. Royce Gracie, two men who fought against each other at the very first UFC ever.
Bellator gets a special pass with these kinds of fights because it’s just kind of what they do. They have a roster with several big-name former UFC fighters including Rampage Jackson, Benson Henderson, Chris Leben, Paul Daley, Wanderlei Silva, and they’re working on bringing over more talent. The specticle fights allow them to keep the doors open and gets eyes on the up-and-coming talent, while trying to lure more fighters away from the UFC. The Reebok Deal is making that a lot easier, since Bellator still allows fighters to have their own sponsors. Also, Bellator isn’t as tough as the UFC when it comes to drug-testing…
Juice. The sauce. You’re naive if you believe that any professional sports are completely clean, but the UFC has actually been doing a pretty good job of drug testing lately. They are a lot more thorough than a lot of sports, but it hasn’t always been that way.
A Deadspin article called “A Sketchy Drug Test Didn’t Stop Vitor Belfort From Fighting At UFC 152” revealed that the UFC knew Vitor Belfort had failed a drug test, but buried the results, so that his fight against Jon Jones could still take place. Jon Jones nearly had his arm ripped out of the socket in this fight, so naturally he was quite upset about how things transpired when he found out years later. Who knows how many other drug test results were ignored in the name of not having to call off a big fight?
3. Angry Jonny
Jon Jones has an image problem, and the biggest issue is that he can’t seem to decide who he wants to be. Sometimes, Jon puts on his soft-spoken voice and uploads pictures of himself volunteering with kids, other times he’s partying, doing cocaine, and getting into car accidents that result in community service that has him volunteering with those kids. Allegedly, Jon Jones wanted to walk out to his own song, but the UFC pushed him to use the 1995 Poe song “Angry Johnny”, playing up the darker side of Jon Jones’ reputation.
Jon Jones is undeniably the best fighter in the UFC, maybe ever. But his actions outside of the Octagon have really hurt his career inside the cage. Even when you’re a professional cage fighter it’s a bad look to crash into a pregnant woman’s car, break her arm, flee the scene, return moments later to grab a bag full of money and who knows what else from your glovebox, then to flee the same accident a second time.
Jones has been training ridiculously hard lately, and says that he’s never been this disciplined in his entire career. He says that he has been sober for months. Jon Jones has said that he used to use his partying as an excuse, so that if he lost he could brush it off to the fact that he wasn’t really trying. That excuse is gone, and fans are excited to see Jones back in the cage soon, and hopefully behaving himself outside of the Octagon.
2. The Pride Deal
The UFC paid millions upon millions of dollars to purchase PRIDE, a competing MMA promotion from Japan. The UFC wanted to merge PRIDE under their own banner, so the real value to this deal was the archives of video footage from past events along with the current fighter contracts.
Once the UFC took over and looked at the books, they realized a lot of these contracts were very sketchy and didn’t hold water. They were essentially taken for a ride by the Japanese mafia. The UFC did manage to work out deals with a lot of the big name legends from PRIDE like Anderson Silva, Cro Cop, Wanderlei Silva, and Rampage Jackson, but ultimately they ended up paying a fortune for the video archives that are finally being put to use on Fight Pass.
1. Incompetent Officials
You know you’ve got some incompetent referees and judges when the company’s biggest mantra is “Never leave it in the hands of the judges.” The UFC can’t choose who they hire as referees or judges anytime they’re putting on a show in a city that has an athletic commission. Most of the big shows are in Vegas, and it’s the Nevada State Athletic Commission that assigns judges and referees.
There are some brilliant officials in MMA, and there are some complete bums. The problem is that you don’t need any experience to be a judge or a referee. MMA is a complex sport, there’s a lot going on that you won’t necessarily understand if you don’t know what you’re looking at. Referees have stopped fights prematurely when the losing fighter wasn’t even in danger, but having refs with fight experience can mitigate that kind of thing. Fighters are putting their lives on the line, and the ref’s number one job is to keep fighters safe but that requires a certain level of competency.
All in all, it’s better to see a fight stopped prematurely than to see a fight stopped late when one guy is clearly out of it. When a fighter’s career can be determined based on which ref or judges they were assigned on a given night, it’s time to figure out a better way.