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UFC Vs. ESPN 2: Did Chris Lytle Permanently Harm His Health For Fight Night Bonuses?

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In this video blog, SB Nation editors Luke Thomas and Nate Wilcox discuss ESPN's report on UFC fighter pay, who is right, if the report was fair, whether UFC's response was over the top and more. In part 2 they discuss which fighters should be paid more, the plight of Chris Lytle, what it would take to form an MMA union and the need for transparency in the MMA business.

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In the aftermath of ESPN's TV and online series about alleged lacking fighter pay in the UFC, Luke Thomas and I discuss the story, fighter pay and the UFC's aggressive media response. For those that missed part 1, you can watch the video or reach the transcript here. Video and transcript as it relates to this part of the discussion below.

In today's discussion, we consider a number of new points but focus on the career of now-retired UFC welterweight Chris Lytle. For a fighter of considerable but not championship ability who admits to wrecking his body to win bonuses (bonuses, mind you, that will put all of his kids through college and then some), did the discretionary bonus system serve or hurt him? We consider the difficult situation:


Nate Wilcox: I'm gonna segue right to the online response, though. It's just totally predictable. Dana White gets into a conflict with another public figure, of course Dana White's audience is gonna root for Dana. Dana knows how to set up a conflict such that his audience perceives that as a big win and they had the thing about ESPN paying fighters which is all kinds of a misnomer.

They conflated a number of things. ESPN is the TV channel, not the promoter so it's kind of like blaming Spike TV or FOX for the UFC's business practices which is neither fair nor reasonable. Nevertheless, that went over huge with the UFC's online fanbase and it's always entertaining seeing a master lion-tamer at work and Dana knows how to wind up his audience, how to throw them some red meat, how to give them something to cheer for. Dana's their boy and the masses were roaring in approval.

Luke Thomas: Dana White knows his audience better than anyone knows their audience really. It's kind of impressive. I have to admit, he's got them down. The one thing I would say, though, is I don't know to what interest it serves to rally your own base but it's kind of instructive to think about the UFC fanbase, I think they're, someone said this online and I can't remember how it was but it was a very interesting and clever point, but UFC fans, they rally around the UFC like Dallas fans rally around the Dallas Cowboys.

It's the hometown team and someone on twitter didn't say this but this kind of occurred to me when I thought about that, when James Toney fought Randy Couture in Boston, UFC 118 I think, when Couture was pounding on him, hadn't quite finished him yet but was pounding on him, you could hear people in the crowd chanting, "UFC! UFC!" That was crazy. It was crazy. Even if a major MMA fighter in his prime crossed over to boxing, you wouldn't hear people go, "Boxing! Boxing!" They're not loyal to boxing in that way or maybe they are but they don't conceive of themselves.

I describe it all the time but there's a UFC club. There's an MMA club and there's a zeitgeist and it's a counterculture thing and you're either in it or you're not in it. You and I are kind of halfway in and halfway out but it was really interesting to see how easily the UFC could, and let me be clear about this, that isn't to say they don't have some good points. They've got some great points. I thought the ESPN Friday Night Fights thing was a very bad point, but I think some of their other points are pretty great if for no other reason you can say, "If you wanna get paid, pretty easy to figure out where you want to get paid." I don't mean that they're talking meritoriously and convincing people with snake oil arguments, I just mean that, and someone told me this too, a television executive.

Do you remember the first time, the very first time out of nowhere the UFC had their prelims on ION? Do you remember that? I think it was when Phil Baroni fought Brad Tavarez. A television executive told me, How many did they pull for that? They pulled between 700,000-800,000? He goes, "Let me explain something to you. You can look at that number, 700-800 thousand and go, ‘Wow, UFC really pulls how many millions on Spike normally, that's a pretty low number.' That's the wrong way to look at it. The right way to look at it is ION is a place no one knows about and they got 700,000 people to tune in like that on a channel that they may not even have, that may not even be in HD."

They have an incredible grip on their own audience and I think you saw that reflected in the online response but again, that goes back to the question of, it's something you said, how will state senators in New York look at it. I'm assuming by the freedom of expression thing, you're not looking at them but the larger opinion influencers and people like that, I don't know how much it reached them to be perfectly honest. For example, Deadspin covered the Edson Barboza spinning back kick, they didn't cover this. Sports by Brooks, Big Lead, those are blogs but what about the other ones? New York Times, LA Times, Washington Post, nobody, there wasn't a scandal here which is why the UFC acting like this is a scandalous article just seemed to me out of bounds. Your take?

Nate Wilcox: I'd have to agree with that but again, it goes into my parallel channels thing. You've got to remember in today's information economy, you've got different audiences in different channels. It's not like they took out TV ads on ESPN to slam ESPN. They weren't going after their television audience to counter, they were going to their own online audience. People that don't know the UFC that saw that story, they're not going to go to MMA Mania or MMA Fighting or whatever to go look for Dana's response. They're not following Dana White's twitter account so it didn't happen in those universes to those people. I think it's good to rile up your base to be honest. It helps people stay loyal and gets them to pay attention. It certainly didn't hurt them with their own fanbase.

One other point I want to make, who is the UFC competing with for their fanbase? Fighters. And so who are they fighting over money with? Fighters. I think it's very important to continue that dominance and say, "We are the stars with this audience. This is our audience." If Jon Fitch wants to have a war with us over video game rights online, we're gonna crush him and humiliate him and his own fans are gonna turn against him and root for us so I think that's of some value to the UFC.

Luke Thomas: Well weigh in on the claims then. I'll ask you up front. I've already stated mine. I do believe, mostly, there's not a big story here. I think most guys get paid well but we don't really know because there's no numbers but I'll ask you, are UFC fighters paid appropriately?

Nate Wilcox: I think some are and some aren't and some of that has to do with their management, their persona, their marketing and their fighting style and to some extent that's fair. Jon Fitch isn't worth as much in the marketplace as GSP because he's got this reputation as a boring fighter so I think that's fair.

On the other hand, I think your point about Jon Fitch or Thiago Alves or Shane Carwin that fought for the title but never got the title, never became a big star but competed with the big stars, I think those guys are coming out on the short end of the stick. I'd like to see those guys get paid more so that they, someone like Jon Fitch can retire in relative comfort after sacrificing his body for a number of years to advance the interests of the promotion.

Those are the guys I think that are getting screwed. I think your point about the low paid fighters is absolutely right. These are not quite entry level fighters but some of them are semi-pro. It's entry level going full time and so let more people try and let more people sacrifice. You can't tell musicians, "Oh, you can't live in your car and move to New York or LA and try to make it as a big star," that's part of the deal. I don't see people picketing South by Southwest here in Austin going, "Oh, you're not paying the talent! You're not paying the talent!" People figured they paid the talent when they paid the ticket and it's up to the talent to negotiate with the promoters and so people never have a great deal of sympathy from people they see as entertainers or stars whining about money.

The substance of the story, I think they misfired with what they were trying to do in so many ways. It's hard to respond to it on the substance. I've turned in proposals to prospective clients before that had massive math errors in them and I can tell you I've never gotten a deal one time when I've done that so when Gross turns in this story and botches the median income of the UFC fighter, the difference between per fight and per year is so huge. That's like saying the average American income and giving the per month figure instead of the per year figure and it's just terrible. It's hard to respond to the substance because there wasn't a lot of substance to the story.

Luke Thomas: I would say like I said before, certainly the guys at the top are getting paid. There's no doubt about it. Georges St. Pierre is certainly the top of the top but 4-5 million per fight? Listen, you're doing alright and even guys making a million to fight or $750,000 to fight, that's still, you're fighting 3-4 times a year, you're making great money. There's no doubt about it and obviously, the health insurance is another issue that I think certainly helps all fighters, even if it's only accidental. That is a ways you can keep more of your disposable income and worry less about your health both short and long term. Again, we don't know the numbers.

My sense, I think the overreliance on discretionary bonuses, listen, any kind of financial or economic arrangement has a lot of benefits and some costs. No system is going to be perfect. There's a lot of benefits to the discretionary bonus system even to the fighters. You can make a lot of money just by going out there, you can promote the fight, you got the fans interested, you did all that you were asked to do, maybe you said some crazy things, maybe you were fired up anyways and you let your personality show, it wasn't even an act. You go out there and bomb on this guy, it was a huge event, you made a status as a contender and you got paid for it, God bless that guy. That's a great thing and he should be paid as much as the UFC's willing to pay him.

That discretionary bonus is what saved Pat Barry. Remember after the fight with Antoni Hardonk? Guy's eating rice with ketchup? Has the performance of his life at least in the UFC's eyes and hey, he goes to the bank with a six figure big ass check that saved him. That's a great story too but I think a guy like Chris Lytle is kind of interesting.

So here's Chris Lytle, a guy who's won more bonuses than anybody else and the good side of that, I spoke to him before his fight with Hardy and he got a bonus there too by the way. He had two homes, not big homes, but two homes, he was gonna put all his kids through college and I think he bought himself a tiny, tiny boat. Middle class, upper middle class life but not driving around in a Mercedes or anything like that. He's still a guy with Midwest appeal but here's the reality.

In that interview, I asked him "how much longer are you going to do this?" He hadn't indicated at the time he was gonna retire and he was talking about just how difficult it was just to get out of bed. He had to go to the chiropractor consistently because he was constantly in pain. The guy has wrecked his body and he wrecked his body because he had an incentive to wreck his body. Now the health insurance is great because when you're fighting you're covered at least for many things. It's not comprehensive but it's good, but what about later?

Fighting, to compete at the highest level, fighting requires an intense focus. Some guys can develop multiple skills at once. They can learn to be a self promoter. They can learn how to fight. Some guys have natural acumen to deal with long term issues and the UFC does some stuff at those Fighter Summits once a year to be like, "Hey guys, you've got to think long term," no doubt about it but that's just not sufficient and I wonder, maybe Chris Lytle will be just fine. It sounds like he's got his on his shoulders, like he's already talking about paying for his kid's colleges, that's okay, but his quality of life at 65 is gonna be fantastically diminished.

There's a local radio show here called ‘The Junkies,' and they've got a bit, every week there's a new athlete, not even boxing and MMA, there's a new athlete declaring bankruptcy and you look at the guy's initial contract, it's 150 million for six years and the guy is now completely broke. This happens all the time and that's after 150 million. Maybe the argument is it doesn't matter how much you give ‘em, they go broke, but I just wonder, this incentive model, guys will grasp for money that they wouldn't be able to get through ordinary achievement and by ordinary achievement, I mean, "I'm gonna work my way up to contender status, fight for a title and do that."

Lytle knew he was never gonna fight for a title so he decided to just sling the dogs and it made him a lot of money but it cost him big time and I think that incentivizing performance is great. I just wonder if the current way we do it is the best way and the one final note on that, look at these twitter bonuses and stuff, another great way to get fans connected with their favorite fighters, to get fighter's names out there to help promote the fight, no doubt about it but listen, some of these guys aren't gonna have these skills and they're not going to develop them, they're not going to know anybody to help them develop them, it's just not gonna be there and you can say, "Well you've got to learn and it's no different than the fight game." It is different than the fight game.

They're fighters. Their object is to win. They could be the best fighter in the world or a really talented fighter and not have the time or really the skills or the help to develop that other side of the business. They're gonna naturally be discriminated against by someone who's just amiable and jovial to begin with so again, I think a lot of benefits to the discretionary bonus structure but a lot of downsides. Last thing I'd say about, "Do you think fighters make enough money?"

It's kind of funny, we just had a Josh Gross piece and an Outside the Lines piece with not a lot of figures in them and Zuffa comes back and they say, "These figures are right. These figures are wrong," but they don't want to tell us, they don't show us the papers . Zuffa may be right about everything.

Everything that Lorenzo Fertitta may have said on that show was correct, everything, but if we live in a world where we don't have transparency, I think people including fighters are always gonna be inquisitive. If you close off the wall, people are gonna wanna know what's behind door number two, even if behind door number two is an ass-kicking. You can't shut that off. That is a natural human instinct. I understand why Zuffa wants to keep their company private. They have many reasons to do that but just like I told you before, any kind of arrangement, if that's your arrangement, okay, fine, but you have to deal with the consequences of people like ESPN and fighters asking, "Hey, I may make $150,000 a year and that's pretty great, but aren't I supposed to be making $500,000 a year?" They're always going to want to know if they can make more and why aren't they making more?

Nate Wilcox: Can't argue with that. I think your point about Chris Lytle is excellent. I feel like the NFL, someone like Jim Otto, a famous Hall of Fame Oakland Raiders center who ended up with his leg amputated in his late 60s I believe. The guy had so many knee surgeries, so many hip surgeries he lost his leg. This is a guy who's never going to carry his granddaughter to bed again. That's a big deal.

That's a huge cost and it is kind of a sick system to some extent where you're incentivizing these guys to do even more damage than necessary for them to win their fights to thrill the crowd, take more brain damage, break your hands more, break your knees, break your feet and the training these guys undergo is so brutal. It's the most intense for any sport and I have no reason to doubt it. Look at guys like Shogun Rua with multiple ACL replacements, GSP goes from a strained MCL to a torn ACL, from one leg to the next within six weeks. A lot of back injuries, a lot of nasty stuff.

Shane Carwin's on his third back surgery in the last two years and this is a young guy, a 30-something guy. That's not setting him up for a life of great health down the road. Wanderlei Silva, would you like to give him a life insurance policy? This dude is not set for long term health. Admittedly, the UFC is better than their competitors. Dana White has been a very vocal critic of the way the Japanese basically killed Kazushi Sakuraba in the ring and here's a guy who's just turning 40 and already visibly diminished and he's still out there fighting.

Luke Thomas: Health insurance is a great thing. It's a very good thing. There's no criticism in that sense.

Nate Wilcox: Sure, but it certainly could be better and it's not everything. One of the good things about a union is, and I'm not endorsing unions but one good thing that unions do is provide pensions and health care for older members of the union. I think that would be a good thing. What's the dude's name, Rob Maysey? I think if this Rob Maysey were trying to form an organization that basically was just like a life/health insurance policy for retired fighters. I think that would be of immense value.

You could even partner with the UFC on something like that. If you just set up a fund and the fighters contributed to it, you got a partner that's an insurance company or a life insurance company that cuts the deals and everybody could make money and the fighters would be better off. That would be a win-win. I'm not quite sure what his agenda really is because he's taking on, it's like the WAMMA belt. You can't declare, "We're gonna have a fighter's union," with no buy-in from any big name fighters and active opposition from the UFC. It's hard for me to fathom what his agenda is which makes me question his credibility.

Luke Thomas: Let me make one point about unions and we'll close the show here in just a few minutes but the one thing about unions, everyone's like, "Oh fighters should unionize. That's what needs to happen," and there's a lot of different ways why it won't happen on of which was laid out today by Ben Fowlkes, guys like Rashad Evans and guys like GSP and Brock Lesnar's gone but guys who are super well-compensated, these guys have insurance, they have comprehensive insurance because they can afford it out of pocket or they're married or whatever and they've got great suits and great cars, great lives, great homes and great fans, whatever. They don't really have an incentive.

They don't need a union. They're well taken care of so why do they risk their neck out for somebody else and I did Jordan Breen's press row and I said, "You know what it would take for the situation to change? It would take the level of which Tito Ortiz was disgruntled but they'd all have to be champions and it would have to be across many weight classes." That's the kind of atmosphere you'd have to have and we're not even approximating anything like that but the one thing I would say is that there's a little bit of unrealistic like, "Fighters should unionize."

Professional unionization is a skill. There are people in this world, SEIU, Teamsters, they know how to rally people, organize labor. If you look at the history of baseball, baseball players didn't know how to unionize. It was actually guys who had been helping other unions and run their own unions come across to baseball and say, "Guys, you're getting taken for a ride here," and guide them through the process of unionization and collective bargaining and the rest. That's what's gonna have to happen here. If you go to court, you need a lawyer.

If you want to unionize, you need to have people who know how to have union work so it's not just the fighters being like, "Hey, we want more money. Hey, we want pensions," it's them also finding people who have vast, deep experience with unionizations guiding them through, coalescing and putting this in motion and I think if you're asking fighters with or without incentives, even if it were the situation like I described before where it's like five Tito Ortiz's and they're all champions and they're all super unhappy which we're not even close to.

Even if that were the case, they wouldn't know how to unionize. You would need that plus professional help from people who know how to do this kind of stuff and until we have that, it's a pipe dream. Before we close the show, any final thoughts about the future of fighter pay? Will it change and if so how? How do you see the next five years in terms of fighter compensation and the way in which this issue moves forward?

Nate Wilcox: I think you'll continue to see, those that do well will do better and those that aren't doing particularly well will continue to struggle. I think low entry pay will go up some and the top, any pay-per-view stars that emerge will be very well compensated and will break records as far as being the best paid fighters ever. As far as the middle, I'm not expecting to see get a lot of bump and especially things like ancillary rights in terms of video game licenses. I think they'll still continue to get screwed over in those ways.

I did want to, I had to comment, the idea of Tito Ortiz forming a union, like Tito could call in Jenna Jameson for a weekend. They could probably totally write some union rules and I'm sure they're both big parliamentary procedure buffs, that's some rich stuff right there. That is an amusing picture.

Saturday Night Live, if they bothered with MMA fighters could do a lot of sketches on MMA fighters trying to organize a union. Could you see Tito, Rampage, Chuck Liddell, Ken Shamrock, Frank Shamrock all in one room trying to get their union on, that would be something.

One last thing about unions, a lot of these fighters are not politically disposed to be sympathetic to unions in the first place. Plenty of them would do anything if it's to their advantage regardless of what their ideology is, but if you're Matt Hughes or Pat Miletich, some right wing guy from the Midwest and you've heard stories all your life about these corrupt unions, are you going to bring in some sharpie from the SEIU to organize how your shit's gonna work? I don't see it happening and there's good reasons to be leery of unions. Would you call in somebody from the Teamsters to help you organize your pension fund? Like really?