In U.F.C., Retirement Threats Are the Fighters’ New Leverage

After dominating the light-heavyweight division for 10 years, Jon Jones is moving up to heavyweight. That is, if he doesn’t retire from the Ultimate Fighting Championship first.

Jones tweeted last week that he had had a positive conversation with the U.F.C. about negotiating to move up from the 205-pound division to heavyweight, where fighters can weigh as much as 265 pounds. But his optimism came only hours after he said he had vacated his light-heavyweight belt and would be enjoying the U.F.C. as a fan because there had been “no negotiating” about his salary.

It has been that kind of summer for the U.F.C., where in addition to figuring out how to stage events in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, two of its biggest stars retired and two others openly considered it.

Henry Cejudo, who held belts in both the flyweight and bantamweight divisions, retired in May but seemingly left the door open to return if he were paid more, saying the U.F.C. president, Dana White, “knows the number.” The U.F.C.’s best-known fighter, Conor McGregor, retired in June, for at least the third time. Jorge Masvidal also threatened to retire, before accepting a fight on a week’s notice at U.F.C. 251 in July.

Perhaps all four fighters started thinking seriously about retirement at the same time. More likely, however, is that they all recognized the power of retirement as a negotiating tactic. Because of the long, exclusive, ironclad contracts fighters must sign with the U.F.C., threatening retirement is one of the few leverage points star fighters have.

“The U.F.C.’s business model, the genius of it, is that in combat sports you are made by who you beat,” said John Nash, who has covered the business of mixed martial arts for almost a decade. “The only way you can become a made guy is beating guys who are already in long-term contracts in the U.F.C., and the only way you get to fight them is to sign a long-term contract.”

The U.F.C. did not make an executive available for an interview, and representatives for the fighters did not respond to a request for comment.

While these are not the first U.F.C. fighters to threaten retirement in the middle of negotiating a contract, the sheer volume suggests something has changed. The U.F.C. makes a lot more money than it did several years ago, especially after securing a big new television agreement with ESPN in 2018, and is now owned by a much larger corporate entity, Endeavor.

It knocks them down quickly, too. After a decisive loss to Kamaru Usman in July, it isn’t clear whether Masvidal can quickly challenge for a belt again. Ronda Rousey was one of the most famous athletes on the planet when she took her first two losses in 2015 and 2016, and then decided she had better career prospects in professional wrestling and in Hollywood.

The best chance for fighters to gain negotiating leverage to carve out longer and more lucrative careers is most likely a lawsuit that was filed against the U.F.C.’s parent company in 2014. The lawsuit accuses the company of having both an illegal monopoly and monopsony power, which is when a buyer of services — in this case, a buyer of mixed martial arts fighting services — faces little competition. While other mixed martial arts organizations exist, like Bellator, the U.F.C. has most of the world’s top fighters.

The federal judge overseeing the case is expected to rule soon on whether to grant it class-action status, which would make around 1,200 fighters claimants against the U.F.C. If granted, the fighters could win billions of dollars, as well as structural remedies like a ban on long-term contracts.

That would most likely tamp down the retirement talk within the sport.

Sahred From Source link Sports

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