'A rising tide raises all boats': Why haven't UFC fighters taken Kobe Bryant's advice?

Elias Cepeda
Yahoo Sports Contributor
In 2017, NBA legend Kobe Bryant told a room full of UFC fighters just how important being a member of a union was for his success. (Dave Thompson/PA Images via Getty Images)

Every rich and powerful person should have their lives and legacies closely examined. This should preferably happen when they’re alive, but all too often it does not and so all that’s left is posthumous reflection.

That may be the case with Kobe Bryant, who just over a week ago died tragically along with eight other people including his daughter Gianna. The seven individuals who died along with the Bryants were Keri, John and Alyssa Altobelli, Ara Zobayan, Christina Mauser, and Sarah and Payton Chester.

Bryant’s character and legacy are of course worth meditating on because of their human complexity and outsized influence. Bryant was a prodigy turned elder statesman of basketball.

After he was charged with sexually assaulting a 19-year-old Colorado hotel worker in 2003, Bryant and his legal team so viciously attacked his accuser’s reputation (after which she agreed to not testify and Bryant agreed to apologize during a civil suit that included his acknowledgement that he eventually realized the woman did not believe their sex to be consensual) that the state later changed its rape shield laws. Years later, in retirement and with daughters of his own, Bryant became a vocal advocate for female athletes.

Bryant was an elite athlete in terms of accomplishment and pay, yet he never forgot that athletes are best served when they work collectively for their general welfare. It might be in this way that he most significantly, albeit briefly, touched the world of mixed martial arts and its major league of the UFC.

In May of 2017 Bryant was invited to speak to UFC fighters at an athlete’s retreat and was asked by labor organizer and featherweight contender Leslie Smith about the importance of collective bargaining and labor unions to NBA athletes like him.

“How significant to you and your career, and basketball in the world, do you feel like the unity of the players represented by the association has been,” she asked to a seemingly shocked room filled with UFC fighters.

Unions are “extremely important,” Bryant plainly said, though he was signed to the owner of the UFC, WME-IMG.

“Even us as players, where we have our union meetings and things of that nature, we’re normally at each other’s throats competing against each other. But we understand completely that a rising tide raises all boats,” Bryant continued. “When you guys have this unity and you guys are operating together on the same page together, it does nothing but simply fortify the sport, make the sport better. Not just for the present, but also for future generations that are coming. So, it’s extremely important.”

GLASGOW, SCOTLAND - JULY 16: (L-R) Leslie Smith celebrates her victory over Amanda Lemos of Brazil in their women's bantamweight bout during the UFC Fight Night event at the SSE Hydro Arena Glasgow on July 16, 2017 in Glasgow, Scotland. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

Smith later told Yahoo Sports’ Kevin Iole that the question and answer were significant to her. “It was only a smattering of applause, but it was a pretty big deal, if you ask me,” she remembered.

“We were brought there by WME-IMG. It was being filmed. It was paid for by [UFC CEO] Ari [Emanuel] and the other owners. Kobe was brought there by them to speak to us. And retribution in the UFC is very real. So while it wasn’t this huge ovation, the fact that as many fighters applauded as they did is very significant to me.”

Smith was not able to unionize UFC fighters and said she felt the promotion’s displeasure at her for agitating for athlete rights before being released from her contract while on a two-fight winning streak. Smith had good reason to broach the subject of unionization with someone of Bryant’s stature and experience, and his response speaking to the necessity of athletes forming association with one another was as clear and obvious as it was important.

Unlike NBA players and athletes in other major sports, elite MMA fighters in the UFC are not unionized. So, unlike their counterparts in the NBA, UFC fighters don’t have salaries, year-round health care, the possibility of pensions, and no transparency into royalties for the way their names and likenesses are used and earn money for the company.

Athletes in the UFC also receive a smaller percentage of revenue, collectively, than do any other major American sports league. Basically, UFC athletes are in the position that workers in other pro sports were in the early parts of the 20th century in many respects.

Many of them, including UFC heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic, hold other jobs to help make ends meet. Sure, Miocic loves being a fireman and so he keeps that position as a passion project, but it’s also the only job he has that provides he and his growing family with a salary, health care and a pension.

Without a union, the type of which Bryant encouraged UFC fighters to form several years ago, these athletes’ fortunes are largely tied up with the moods and whims of the promotion’s mercurial president Dana White. Welterweight champion Kamaru Usman recently spoke to this on Joe Rogan’s podcast.

“Dana is still generous … depending on his mood,” Usman explained.

“[Depending on] how he’s feeling, still generous enough to say, ‘You know what? We’ll take care of you.’”

Needing White’s personal goodwill toward them in order to have some assurance of prosperity, UFC fighters’ positions are especially precarious. Not only are they paid less as a share of overall revenue than most other major sports league athletes, they also have no formal control over their work schedule and little to no job security.

When the call comes from the UFC to fight, regardless of the timing, one’s health, or the work conditions, Usman and Rogan explained succinctly how little negotiating power individual athletes have with the promotion.

“You get to the UFC and it’s like, ‘This is the fight. Yes, or no?’ I have gotten the call, ‘Hey, you’re going to go to Brazil and you’re going to fight this guy. If you say no, alright, we’re going to extend your contract. If you say yes, alright we’ll see you there,’” Usman detailed.

“That’s weird, right,” Rogan replied. “You can’t negotiate like you can with a normal promoter.”

“Naw,” came Usman’s blunt response.

It isn’t “weird,” per se. It is, however, wrong.

The UFC hopes to exert as much control over the lives of their workers while paying them as little as possible. This was the case with Major League Baseball, the NBA, the NFL and the NHL as well.

It still is, in fact. The difference that Bryant’s advice pointed to back in 2017 and still does today, is that in those other leagues, athletes band together to place a check on that corporate power, and together pursue their own collective interest by inserting just a bit of that radical idea of democracy into their workplace.

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