The Battle of the Century: UFC vs. 1,200 of Its Own Fighters

The company helped turn mixed martial arts into a global sensation. According to a $4.8 billion class-action lawsuit filed by fighters, it’s also an illegal monopoly paying them far less than they are worth.

November 8, 2023 6:26 am
Gray Maynard, a former UFC fighter, getting punched in the face during a bout in 2014. Maynard is now automatically part of a class-action antitrust lawsuit against the UFC.
"I remember being so stressed out because I would have lost money if I would have lost," Gray Maynard said of his first UFC championship fight.
Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty

Chris Brennan got his nickname “The Westside Strangler” because of his fondness for choking adversaries into submission. When he fought a newcomer named Joe Stevenson in 1999, in a mixed martial arts bout put on by King of the Cage, he used a triangle choke to force the 17-year-old to tap, an action that admits defeat. But Brennan held his right leg locked in place around Stevenson’s neck even after the fight was over. The referee jumped in to intervene, untangling Brennan’s stranglehold before more damage was done.

Six years later, Stevenson signed a contract with the Ultimate Fighting Championship, more commonly known as the UFC. The MMA promotional company, which owners Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta had discussed selling after years of financial losses, found a pathway to profitability in The Ultimate Fighter, a reality competition show that dominated the ratings on Spike TV, and Stevenson had won the second season. Now, to make his proper debut in the UFC, the company wanted him to fight Brennan, one of the few fighters ever to beat him.

Brennan was interested, for the right price. By this time in his fighting career, he had competed in over 25 professional fights put on by a number of promoters in locations as far-flung as Japan, Mexico and Brazil. But when the UFC’s longtime matchmaker Joe Silva called, Brennan was offered $3,000 to show up and fight, and another $3,000 if he won (a typical pay structure that’s still in place today), as he has detailed in interviews. After some back and forth, the company reportedly increased the offer to $4,000 and $4,000. 

Another promotion, Gracie Fighting Challenge, offered Brennan a separate bout a month before this potential rematch in the UFC. It would pay $20,000 flat — five times what the UFC was guaranteeing. When Silva and president Dana White found out about it, Brennan says they gave him an ultimatum: give up your Gracie fight, or we’ll ban you from the UFC. Brennan asked them to match the $20,000, but they refused. So the Westside Strangler hung up the phone, took the Gracie fight and went public with his story of the UFC’s dismal fighter pay and strongarm negotiating tactics.

On February 17, 2006, soon after Brennan’s comments started circulating online, a thread appeared on the Underground, a popular MMA forum. It was titled, “hey chris brennan.”

“[C]hris, you are a liar, a crybaby and a punk. Jo silva is to good of a guy to tell you in public. i’m not!” [sic]

The person behind that post, as he later confirmed, was none other than Dana White.

His post set off a firestorm of comments. When the original Underground thread was frozen, other threads were created to discuss it. (It has since been deleted from the website.)

The most interesting response in the resulting torrent was not from Brennan, who ended up chiming in, but from a commenter using the handle Macedawgg.

In his comment, posted just three minutes after White started the thread, Macedawgg took the UFC president to task for intimidating fighters, writing that it’d be in the company’s best interests for him “to, politely, STFU.” His most salient point was his recommendation to establish a fighters union, which could guarantee things like health insurance, minimum pay, a split of licensing revenue and the freedom to fight elsewhere.

He ended his comment with this ominous note: “The UFC will ignore this at their own peril.”

The user behind the handle Macedawgg is the lawyer Robert Maysey. In December 2014, almost nine years after he warned the UFC to treat its athletes better, he brought an antitrust lawsuit against the MMA promotion and its parent company Zuffa. The complaint alleged that the UFC “engaged in an illegal scheme” to gain monopoly and monopsony power, which resulted in fighters being “paid a fraction of what they would earn in a competitive marketplace.” 

Earlier this year, the lawsuit was granted class-action status. A trial date is currently set for April.

If Maysey wins the case he’s been working on for years, the UFC could face as much as $4.8 billion in damages, a radical change to how they do business and potentially an end to their domination in the world of mixed martial arts. 

Dana White [right] and Ari Emanuel, CEO of TKO and Endeavor, outside the New York Stock Exchange for the TKO listing on September 12, 2023.
Dana White [right] and Ari Emanuel, CEO of TKO and Endeavor, outside the New York Stock Exchange for the TKO listing on September 12, 2023.
Michelle Farsi/Zuffa LLC via Getty

The $12 Billion Business

The UFC has spent its entire existence attempting to win people over. In the ‘90s and early 2000s, they had to convince Americans that mixed martial arts was not, as Senator John McCain famously said, “human cockfighting.” Then they had to convince all 50 states to legalize the sport, which didn’t happen until 2016 when New York became the last to capitulate. Now, the promotion is attempting to find legitimacy on the global sports stage, hoping to be considered in the same breath as the NFL, Premier League and Formula 1. 

To the average person who knows the UFC from the high-profile fights of its biggest stars like Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey, it seems that the company is taking a victory lap. 

This Saturday, the UFC is marking a milestone anniversary with a fight at Madison Square Garden — 30 years after they held their first competition in Denver on November 12, 1993 — but this night of fights is only a warm-up to an even bigger affair: UFC 300, a long-awaited pay-per-view event, which will take place in early 2024. These celebratory bouts come on the back of the UFC merging with the WWE, both of which are owned by the conglomerate Endeavor, into a new publicly traded entity called TKO. 

In that merger, the historic American wrestling juggernaut was valued at $9.3 billion. The MMA promotion was valued at $12.1 billion. The UFC’s time, it seems, has finally come. 

But humming beneath the surface is Le v. Zuffa, the class-action antitrust lawsuit that is now representing over 1,200 of its athletes. To say this is the biggest fight in the history of the UFC would be an understatement. 

The named plaintiffs in the case are all former UFC fighters, including Cung Le, Nathan Quarry, Jon Fitch and others. They say that Zuffa, the UFC’s parent company before the sale to Endeavor and the formation of TKO, didn’t become a mixed martial arts powerhouse because it was better, smarter or more exciting than other promotions putting on similar fights; they allege that “Zuffa’s widespread success and dominance in MMA is due to anticompetitive behavior,” as detailed in the class certification order.

Not only has the UFC illegally become a monopoly, the plaintiffs argue, where they own the market for selling mixed martial arts fights to viewers, but they also have illegally become a monopsony, where they own the market for buying the services of MMA fighters. 

The result of this so-called “scheme” is that the UFC was allegedly able to “establish such overwhelming market dominance that it could pay its fighters substantially less than what they would have been paid in a competitive market for their services.” 

After filing an initial complaint almost nine years ago, the plaintiffs, represented by Maysey and others, won a procedural victory in August when United States District Judge Richard Boulware granted class-action status to a part of the lawsuit called the Bout Class, which includes every athlete who competed in at least one UFC-promoted fight between December 16, 2010 and June 30, 2017, with some exceptions. He also denied a second part of the lawsuit, called the Identity Class, which focused on image rights.

Soon after, the UFC filed an appeal of the class certification with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, taking issue with the plaintiffs’ “unprecedented” wage share theory. In essence, the fighters are arguing the UFC’s actions suppressed pay for its athletes as a group, as a share of the company’s revenue; the UFC wrote that this theory “targets firms because their increasing success in the marketplace outpaces the increases in compensation they pay, without regard to whether such amounts are anticompetitive.” The UFC’s appeal was bolstered by an amicus brief that the Chamber of Commerce filed in their favor, which asserted a “flawed analysis” was used to certify the class. 

But on November 1, the Ninth Circuit denied the appeal, citing a 2005 ruling in Chamberlan v. Ford Motor Co. that such class certification reviews “should be a rare occurrence.” Later that same day, Boulware confirmed that the case is now set for trial on April 8, 2024.

As Eric Cramer, chairman of law firm Berger Montague and a lead attorney representing the plaintiffs, told InsideHook, the trial will focus on the issue of damages and liability, and the jury could potentially find the UFC on the hook for $1.6 billion. But because this is a federal antitrust lawsuit, those damages could be tripled to $4.8 billion. After that would come a ruling on injunctive relief, as determined by the judge, where the fighters are seeking changes to how the UFC does business, specifically in athlete contracts that the judge noted in his order “bound fighters for, essentially, their entire professional careers,” despite them being classified as independent contractors.

In response to the Ninth Circuit ruling, the UFC released a statement from William Isaacson, lead counsel for the company and a partner at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison.

“This is just one step in a long legal process,” Isaacson said in the statement. “UFC has spent many years and invested billions of dollars building the sport of mixed martial arts and fueling a global industry that has benefited millions of people, including thousands of athletes. UFC pays its fighters more than any other MMA promotion and has created countless opportunities for athletes to achieve success with UFC or grow their careers with competing promotions. The market for mixed martial arts has never been healthier or more competitive as evidenced by the rise of well-financed competitors and the success of former UFC athletes in other organizations.  We strongly believe in the merits of our case, and we look forward to presenting it at trial next year.”

Besides the trial, the UFC still has other hopes of prevailing. The company has filed a motion for summary judgment, a process which would allow Boulware to toss the case if he believes no jury would ever side with the plaintiffs. They’ve also filed a motion to reopen discovery, in which more evidence could be submitted and the trial could be delayed. There is also the slim chance the company could reach a settlement with the plaintiffs, though Isaacson’s statement suggests that will not happen.

If the trial proceeds, Cramer is confident he’ll be able to convince a jury of what he sees as the UFC’s many transgressions.

“We’re going be able to put on a trial and point the jury to all of the abundant evidence that the UFC is a monopoly and a monopsony, and that it used its market power to buy out and kill its competition to lock up all the fighters into long-term deals to make it so that they had nowhere else to fight,” he said. “As a result, instead of getting paid 50 or 60% of the revenues, like in most other major sports, or 70% of the revenues, like in boxing, the fighters in the UFC get below 20%.” John Nash, an MMA business reporter, estimated that this share of revenue dropped even lower in 2022, to between 13% and 14.5%.

To put this in perspective, for athletes who are competing in one of the most dangerous sports in the world, where blows to the head aren’t simply part of the game, like in the NFL, but the explicit goal, those in the UFC are getting paid, according to Cramer, like mere NCAA athletes. 

“They’re getting [name, image and likeness deals] and they’re getting scholarships and a little bit of extra money,” he said of the current landscape for college athletes, “and that’s essentially the percentage of the revenues that the UFC fighters get.” 

In its defense, the UFC’s lawyers point not to the percentage of revenue paid to fighters, but to the overall amount paid, which they say has increased as the company has grown. “Increasing the number of bouts UFC promotes (i.e., increasing output) and increasing the actual pay it provides fighters is the opposite of what one would expect if UFC was a monopsonist,” Isaacson said in a written response to questions from InsideHook. 

“We’re going be able to put on a trial and point the jury to all of the abundant evidence that the UFC is a monopoly and a monopsony, and that it used its market power to buy out and kill its competition to lock up all the fighters into long-term deals to make it so that they had nowhere else to fight.”

Eric Cramer, a lead attorney for the plaintiffs

There are other MMA promotions where these athletes could theoretically go, even though the UFC has taken over a handful competing companies over the years, such as Strikeforce and Pride. Currently, there is the Professional Fighters League, based in the U.S.; One Championship, based in Singapore; Invicta, an all-women promotion; and Bellator, which has been around since 2008, but is currently on unstable financial footing and could soon be sold by parent company Viacom. 

According to Maysey, there’s one glaring problem with telling fighters to take their talents elsewhere. 

“In order for you to be legitimate, you’ve got to beat the people at the top,” said Maysey, the plaintiffs’ lawyer who forecasted this lawsuit on the Underground forum and then led its development. “Well, there’s only one place to do that. Only one. It’s no secret what [the UFC] did. This has been done before. This is exactly what the [International Boxing Club] case was about in the 1950s. If I control the champions, I dictate sport. I will require anyone else who wants to compete for that title to sign this deal. That’s what the promoters were doing. Literally that…the UFC just perfected it.”

According to Fight Matrix, a fighter ranking website that includes all MMA promotions around the world, of the 11 weight classes that the UFC actively participates in, the company recently had under contract 79% of the top 15 fighters across the divisions; and only one other organization, Bellator, had a fighter currently ranked in the top 5.

Despite being the only place to watch the Bradys, LeBrons and Messis of MMA, the plaintiffs argue most UFC fighters are receiving inadequate pay in comparison to other professional sports leagues. The tactic of keeping fighter pay below 20% of the company’s revenue, at least, is not a secret. In a company overview from 2016, submitted as evidence in the lawsuit, the UFC projected that its athlete costs would increase from $113 million in 2015 to $235 million in 2020, but that the percentage of revenue would never rise above that threshold. For 2019 and 2020, they estimated it would come out to 19%. 

Dana White himself has openly talked about the company’s reluctance to pay UFC fighters as much as boxers a number of times over the years, including in a 2022 video from GQ Sports.

“You always have to have something to bitch about, I guess,” the current UFC CEO said when confronted with a question about fighter pay. He added, “Boxing has absolutely been destroyed because of money and all the things that go on. It’s never gonna happen while I’m here.” (“It,” he later clarified, is “the things that happened to boxing.”) 

“Believe me, these guys get paid what they’re supposed to get paid. They eat what they kill,” he said of UFC athletes. “They get a percentage of the pay-per-view buys and the money is spread out amongst all the fighters. If you don’t like it, there’s a simple solution to this problem: go start your own MMA organization. No barrier to entry. Knock yourself out, pay them whatever you want to pay them. It’s been done before. How’s it worked out for other guys? Not well. Mind your business.”

It’ll be difficult for fans of the UFC, and the public at large, to mind their own business for much longer. After keeping a tight lid on contract terms and business practices for decades, details have been leaking out, and the progress of this lawsuit is set to unleash a deluge of texts, emails and other previously inside information on how the promotion deals with its athletes. Court records that have so far been kept from the public will soon be unsealed, as ordered by Boulware. Additionally, a second antitrust case, Johnson v. Zuffa, is also moving along, covering similar ground and fighters who fought in the UFC from July 2017 on, where Le v. Zuffa left off.

That deluge is in some ways unnecessary. The court documents that have already been made public include scandalous details about the way the UFC handles fighter contracts. As for the athletes themselves, even those who aren’t directly involved in the lawsuit are ready to speak out.

Gray Maynard at UFC 125 as he faced off against Frankie Edgar in the UFC lightweight championship. Maynard is now part of an antitrust lawsuit against the UFC.
Gray Maynard in the middle of his championship fight against Frankie Edgar at UFC 125 on January 1, 2011.
Donald Miralle/Zuffa LLC via Getty

Wrecked, Concussed and Broke

When Gray Maynard entered the UFC in 2007, after competing in the fifth season of The Ultimate Fighter, he knew the introductory pay wasn’t great. In fact, it was much worse than his day job in real estate, where he was making close to $100,000 a year in his 20s. But he knew there was the possibility of a financial windfall down the line.

“It wasn’t really like, ‘Oh my God, I’m in the UFC.’ It was just more, ‘Let’s speed this process up to get the belt,’” the 44-year-old said from his current home in Lansing, Michigan, where he owns the gym Primed Combat. “By the time I got in there, I knew the only way you’re going to have a little bit of leverage and get paid pretty decent…is if you have the belt.” 

The two-time Ohio state high school wrestling champion and three-time All-American at Michigan State was confident in his ability to quickly achieve that title shot. He was an elite wrestler who tried out for the 2004 U.S. Olympic team, and many MMA fighters at the time weren’t prepared to defend against that type of skill set. 

On New Year’s Day 2011, Maynard found himself fighting for the UFC lightweight championship. Despite making it to the top of the division, headlining UFC 125 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, the payday he had been waiting for wasn’t panning out.

“I walked into the main event only guaranteed contractually $26,000,” he said. “At that time, walking into that cage, I remember being so stressed out because I would have lost money if I would have lost.” 

By proving himself in The Ultimate Fighter reality show, the UFC offered him what was then a standard nine-fight contract, Maynard explained, starting with $8,000 to show and $8,000 to win, then increasing by $2,000 if he won, which he did eight times in a row before facing Frankie Edgar in the championship fight. In the middle of that undefeated run, when he fought just two to three times a year, which is average for UFC fighters, he said he “had to basically beg them” to increase his pay, which led to the contract for $26,000 to show, $26,000 to win. 

But because of the financial costs of preparing for that bout against the current champion — his training camp, coaches, nutrition and recovery, among other things — if he didn’t win, he would be sunk.

“I remember just walking in there, like, ‘Fuck. The fuck is going on? If I lose this fight, after taxes, I’m in the hole,’” he said. 

After five rounds, the fight ended in a draw. It was also given the accolade “Fight of the Night,” which the UFC doles out to the most spectacular bout at their events. Maynard was not only awarded his additional $26,000 despite not emerging victorious, but he was also sent a check in the mail for another $100,000.

To an up-and-coming MMA athlete looking to follow in Maynard’s footsteps, that may seem like the moment he had been waiting for his entire fighting career. But for him, the experience of being forced to worry about his financial situation while competing for a title in a professional sport — the fact that he could have lost money while fighting for a championship belt, if a lucky punch or kick had knocked him out — signified something completely different. 

“After the title fight, it was more like: this is a game I’m not going to win,” he said. “[Whether] I get the title or not, it’s just not a long-term game.” 

Maynard climbed to the top of the sport in the largest MMA promotion in the world — and he saw how it operated. In his experience, the UFC was loath to offer pay increases even to a fighter on a winning streak; for a second title shot against Edgar, Maynard said his manager was only able to negotiate a bump to $42,000 to show and $42,000 to win with the promotion’s matchmaker Joe Silva. He eventually found himself working other jobs while training for tough opponents like Nate Diaz, because he started to rack up losses and could no longer count on the second half of his potential fight purses. 

“You’re talking about a guy that fought two title fights, dedicated his whole life to this, made a couple hundred grand in the title fights, barely made above median wages probably the rest of the time,” Nash, the MMA business reporter, said of Maynard’s career, “and it’s all because the UFC had the leverage of saying, ‘If you want to prove you’re the best in the world, you’ve got to take these shitty contract deals that we offer you.’”

Nash, who writes for the website Bloody Elbow and hosts a podcast about the business of combat sports called Hey Not the Face, was quick to point out that the UFC isn’t the only MMA promotion that offers what he sees as bad contracts, but he said there’s an important distinction between them and other organizations. 

“They’re all terrible. [MMA contracts are] basically imitations. They rip off each other, they tinker slightly,” he said. “But the big thing is, the UFC has market power, and when you have that, the contract is there to restrict the fighters from leaving, and everybody wants to come to the UFC because that’s where all the top fighters are. It’s the ability to prevent them from leaving which gives you the power. No one’s flocking to Bellator or One or PFL.” 

“I remember just walking in there, like, ‘Fuck. The fuck is going on? If I lose this fight, after taxes, I’m in the hole.’”

Gray Maynard, former UFC fighter, on his pay for a title fight at UFC 125

Over the years, the UFC has included a number of specific provisions in their contracts that the plaintiffs in Le v. Zuffa see as harmful, some of which they’re seeking to eliminate or revise through injunctive relief. 

As detailed in the class certification order, some of the most concerning contract stipulations from the class period called out by the plaintiffs include the exclusion clause, which prohibits UFC fighters from working with other MMA promoters; the cut clause, which allows the UFC to cut a fighter that loses one bout, even if they were under contract for more; the champion’s clause, which allows the company to extend a contract for a year or three bouts if the fighter becomes a title-holder; the promotion clause, which allows them to extend a contract should a fighter refuse a bout with a certain opponent; the right-to-match clause, which allows them to match a competing promotor’s offer, and then forces a fighter to accept the UFC’s contract; and the retirement clause, which allows them to suspend contracts indefinitely in retirement, meaning fighters can’t retire and then return to compete in rival promotions. 

“There was just no way out of the UFC’s kind of legal maze at that point for most fighters,” said Michael Thomsen, author of Cage Kings, a definitive history of the UFC. “It was really kind of a hostage situation.”

According to evidence submitted as part of this lawsuit, the UFC was aware its tactics were having this “anticompetitive effect.” “Emails by Zuffa personnel indicate that Zuffa understood its contracts with fighters prevented other MMA promoters from gaining ‘traction’ by keeping fighters ‘locked up’ or ‘tied up’ and unavailable to other promoters,” as the class certification order noted. 

When the company was faced with the real prospect of losing top talent, despite its tight contracts, additional evidence shows how they were focused not necessarily on retaining athletes, but on denying them to competitors.

In 2014, when the fighter Gilbert Melendez’s contract with the UFC was ending and he was negotiating a deal with rival promotion Bellator, Lorenzo Fertitta — who owned Zuffa, with his brother Frank, before they sold it to an investor group led by Endeavor in 2016 — sent a text message to Dana White.

“We gotta keep taking these fuckers oxygen till they tap out,” Fertitta wrote. “We have sacrificed too much to let anyone get traction now[.]” 

“At his deposition, Mr. Lorenzo Fertitta confirmed that the term ‘fuckers’ referred to Bellator, while the ‘oxygen’ referred to fighters Gilbert Melendez, and another fighter, Eddie Alvarez, both of which Bellator was attempting to recruit,” the order explained. 

(When asked if the UFC sees any benefit in competing with rival promotions, Isaacson said, “As history has shown and as we are seeing today, a healthy and competitive MMA market featuring a mix of established promoters and the rise of successful new market entrants benefits athletes, promoters, and fans alike.”)

Despite all of this evidence, and the fact that certain fighters have decided to speak out against the UFC’s business practices over the years, there are some fans who believe that in the ruthless sport of MMA, athletes should be most concerned about proving themselves as the best in the world, not about the particulars of contracts, opponents and adequate pay. 

“That whole attitude just pisses me off so much when I hear people say that, because this is a business at the end of the day,” said Nathan Quarry, a former UFC fighter and named plaintiff in the lawsuit, though he will not be receiving any potential damages because he was part of the Identity Class, which was denied certification. “And if you don’t understand that as a fighter, you will be left broke and broken at the end of your career. Promoters don’t care about you.”

His advice for current MMA fighters — after starring in the first season of The Ultimate Fighter, and going on to have a professional record of 12-4 — is to treat the sport like a business, not as a chance to “prove to everybody how tough I am.”

“Because when this is said and done, your body is going to be wrecked, your brain is going to be massively concussed and you will probably have very little if any money whatsoever, and you’ll spend the rest of your days hobbling around,” he said. “And what skill set do you have that you can build off into another business? Hand-to-hand fighting in a cage really doesn’t [lend itself to other] great industries.”

Nathan Quarry [right] throws a right hand against Pete Sell at UFC Fight Night 11 on September 19, 2007. Quarry is a named plaintiff in a class-action antitrust lawsuit against the UFC.
Nathan Quarry [right] at UFC Fight Night 11 in 2007. “When this is said and done,” he said, “your body is going to be wrecked, your brain is going to be massively concussed and you will probably have very little if any money whatsoever.”
Denise Truscello/WireImage via Getty

The Coin Toss

After Robert Maysey graduated from Cornell Law School, he moved to Los Angeles, bringing with him a love of jiu-jitsu that he picked up while earning his J.D. He ended up training at 10th Planet, a gym founded by Eddie Bravo, a martial artist who developed his own system of Brazilian jiu-jitsu. (Joe Rogan earned a black belt through the gym in 2012.) “Six months in or so, one of our — we call them teammates because we’re there five nights a week training with each other — gets asked to fight on the undercard of UFC 44 against Josh Thompson,” he said. “Us guys in the gym, we thought that was cool.” 

In September 2003, Maysey and a group of 10th Planet members drove out to Las Vegas to watch their training partner, Gerald Strebendt, make his UFC debut. It was a short-lived celebration as Strebendt got knocked out in the first round. The memorable part, for Maysey at least, came after.

“[Strebendt] comes out after the fight, about 10 minutes later, comes out to the crowd, and he’s asking for money to get home,” Maysey said. “So right away I’m like, ‘What’s going on?’”

“We get back to the gym and I started asking people, I was like, ‘I don’t understand. Why did Gerald have to borrow money to get home?’” he said. “Well, he made $2,000 to fight, he would’ve got $2,000 to win. He didn’t win. He’s got to pay his brain scan, he’s got to pay medicals, he’s got a gym fee, pays the manager, he probably brought out a corner because they only pay for one. So the economics of it, they are now being explained to me very soon after, because at that time the public story was the UFC is investing millions of dollars and they’re losing millions, which is how they justified what they were paying fighters.”

That story didn’t sit well with Maysey, which led him to gather as much information as he could on the UFC’s finances, which led to him responding to Dana White on the Underground forum in 2006, which led to him being approached by fighters looking to sue the UFC, which he did on their behalf in 2014. 

It’s been over 20 years since that night in Las Vegas when Maysey got his first look at how the UFC compensates its athletes. Now, we’re just five months away from him, his larger team of lawyers, and most importantly the fighters they represent, potentially getting their day in court. 

There is one major asterisk to this lawsuit: it only deals with the UFC. They are the leading MMA promotion in the world, but there are others, and there will be more that pop up in the future. Even if the UFC is fined the maximum of $4.8 billion and forced to change its fighter contracts, what’s to stop other organizations from using similar tactics? 

There is one proposed solution called the Muhammad Ali Expansion Act. The bill, introduced in the House in 2017 by then-Representative Markwayne Mullin, was aimed at expanding the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act of 2000 and the Professional Boxing Safety Act of 1996 to cover not just boxers, but mixed martial arts fighters. Mullin, who has since moved up the Republican ranks to senator, has a personal interest in this legislation, having competed in three MMA fights himself in 2006 and 2007. But the bill never made it out of committee, and has not been introduced by Mullin in the Senate. 

Mullin, it should be said, is a fervent supporter of former President Donald Trump and was an early endorser of his 2024 presidential campaign. Dana White is also a Trump booster. During a speech at the Republican National Convention in 2016, White, who was invited to speak, said, “For over 15 years, Donald Trump has been a loyal and supportive friend, and I know that if I needed Donald, he would be there for me just like he was when I first met him.” In August of 2018, a year and a half after the Muhammad Ali Expansion Act was introduced by Mullin, White met Trump in the Oval Office, posing for a photo with one of the company’s championship belts.

(A spokesperson for Senator Mullin said that “the legislation is in discussion at member and committee level in the Senate,” and that he “is not holding up or blocking anything when it comes to this bill introduction.”)

The chance of the Muhammad Ali Expansion Act being reintroduced may depend on the eventual Republican nominee for president, and the subsequent election. The odds the plaintiffs in Le v. Zuffa have in a potential jury trial are, according to their lawyers, substantially better. 

“We see the light at the end of the tunnel, whereas before we were literally in limbo, just for years — nothing happened for years,” said Maysey. In looking over the class order, Cramer said, “The judge thought that the facts were nearly all in the favor of the plaintiffs. Obviously he said that for class certification purposes, but it makes us bullish and optimistic that we’re going to be able to convince a jury of these same facts.”

If a jury does side with the fighters, all 1,200 of them, Michael Thomsen believes that the UFC will not only continue on, but the company might even see some benefits in the long term. 

“Even if the UFC loses its stranglehold on fighters that they have with these punitive contracts, it’s not going to destroy the company,” he said. “It’s not this sort of apocalyptic doomsday scenario if they have to pay the fighters more. I think if anything, it’ll elevate the profile of the sport even further by helping to create new stars.” 

That’s not how the UFC sees it, according to John Nash. After the Fertittas spent 15 years building the MMA organization from a $2 million company (which is what they bought it for in 2001) into a $4 billion company (what they sold it for in 2016), and after it skyrocketed to a $12 billion valuation under Endeavor, the reporter doesn’t believe they’ll downsize quietly. 

“They don’t want to be a $10 million company, or even a $100 million or even a $1 billion company,” he said. “They want to preserve that market value, and they get that market value by controlling the market.” 

Nash, who has been following this lawsuit since he was the first to break the story in 2014, believes the chance the plaintiffs win isn’t as good as their lawyers make it out to be.

“I would give it a 50/50. To me, it’s a coin toss,” he said, adding that getting past the Ninth Circuit appeal process puts them “in a very strong position for damages.” “The harder part is getting some sort of remedy that really changes the sport, which they might get some, but it’s hard to imagine the UFC caving without more and more years of struggle because that just ruins their business model.”

Maynard, the retired fighter, is automatically part of the lawsuit because he competed in the UFC between 2010 and 2017, but he isn’t directly involved. Instead, he’s focused on running his Lansing gym along with his wife, a clinical nutritionist who oversees a companion cafe called Blend that serves smoothies and acai bowls. 

When asked if he still loves MMA, as much as he did when UFC legend B.J. Penn flew him to Hawaii to train in the mid-2000s, Maynard mulled it over. 

“I don’t know, man,” he said. He’s been approached by professional MMA fighters wanting his coaching expertise, but Maynard isn’t interested in the “grind” of travel and “passing these crumbs around” financially.

“Going to the UFC, you’ve got to travel on Tuesday, come back on Sunday, and coaching — like, fuck, I got kids,” he said. “I don’t want to miss out on my kids being raised. I already did that with my daughter at the beginning. That was hard, man. I was traveling a lot, training a lot, and I missed her growing up a little bit.”

“It’s just like, fuck, I don’t know. I don’t know, just the whole game, just the whole MMA game seems like a losing battle, all the way around.” He paused. “For everybody other than the UFC.”

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