Major Press Conference Live Coverage – GSP, Tim Kennedy, Cain, Cerrone, Bjorn announce launch of Mixed Martial Arts Fighters Association, seeking collective bargaining agreement with UFC

By Wade Keller, MMATorch editor

Photo Credit Wade Keller © MMATorch

Five major name fighters – George St. Pierre, Cain Velasquez, Tim Kennedy, Donald Cerrone, T.J. Dillashaw, flanked by former Bellator promoter Bjorn Rebney – have come together to form a Mixed Martial Arts Association, whose expressed goal is to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement for all UFC fighters to provide compensation to past fighters who have suffered from their time in the Octagon, current fighters to get 50 percent instead of 8 percent of revenues, and set up pensions and medical coverage and a safety net for current and future fighters. The following are notes from the live press conference typed in real time during the media call which took place at 4 p.m. ET on Wednesday, Nov. 30 and ran longer than an hour.

After an introduction, Tim Kennedy starts

-Says they are going to change the face of an entire industry and spot today.

-Cites his beginnings rushing to bank to cash check.

-Says MMA has grown to the most valuable sports commodity.

-Says the fighters drive the buyrates, they should be benefiting more. “We’re the ones who pack the stadiums. We’re responsible for the hundreds of millions of sponsorships. We should have gotten our share. We should have been protected. When we get hurt, when we retire, when we’re damaged, there should be a safety net. It’s not there.”

-Says we’re here to make sure nobody is left behind, no MMA fighter is left behind.

-Calls UFC’s system one-sided. New owners plan to keep in place. “It will get changed and changed immediately.”

-He said this is about making sure everybody is taken care of. There are too many disregarded fighters. Instead of having to worry about brains, knees, shoulders, back, they are going to fix that.

-Says a legal team is with them, including Jim Quinn – a renowned sports athlete lawyer. They have a training staff present. “People at this table were hand picked and chosen. They have the knowledge to have the sport get better.”

-Says they are announcing the launch of the Mixed Martial Art Athletes Association. “We are changing the face of the sport starting today.”

George St. Pierre takes over…

-“We are here today to talk about a problem… and to make the situation better.”

-He talks about the bond he has with training partners.

-He said UFC will see him as a villain like when he took a stand on the performance enhancing drug problem, but that problem has been rectified. “I want this to be rectified and everybody to be happy on both sides.”

-He said he is a rare fighter who has come out of MMA healthy and wealthy. “I can’t say that about most of the guys.”

-He said in most sports, the athlete/management split is 50/50, it’s 92/8. He said even Conor McGregor doesn’t get his fair share.

-He said he wasn’t born with a silver spoon. He worked three jobs, went to school, and trained for a fight. He said he made $3,000 in his first UFC fight. He says he worked very hard for his position he’s attained.

-Says they are there to stand up for fighters who were intimidated and bullied, who fight when they should be retired, who have brain injuries and need care. “Fighters that I personally met at the beginning of their career were not even the same person at the end of their career. I’m not talking about trauma and memory problems, I’m talking about personality issues. They are not the same guy. They have family. Most of the time it creates a lot of problems because you aren’t the same person. They have no care to help them. To me this is unacceptable. Things have to change.”

-He says he’s not the only one who sees this as a problem.

-“UFC without fighters is just three letters of the alphabet. It’s time for us to make our voices heard and make change happen for the best of UFC and also the fighters.”

“Cowboy” Donald Cerrone

-Says he didn’t write a speech, wishes he had like the other two. He said he’ll speak from the heart.

-He said years ago he’d fear being benched by UFC, but sitting next to Kennedy and GSP makes him feel safer.

-He said health care and pension and what are we going to next, that needs to be heard. He said they get paid per fight, but then have $10,000 taken out for medical. He said with surgeries, expenses can stack up.

-He said he there to stand with the 500 fighters.

T.J. Dillashaw

-I’m here to speak on what’s right and what needs to be done.

-The highest high and lowest lows are part of MMA. The lowest low isn’t losing but being cut and having nothing to show for it.

-He said it’d be nice to have pension and a plan after he retires so he doesn’t have to struggle and can care for his family. He said he has to pay for his health insurance himself. He said the hours in the gym lead to injuries that he has to pay for.

-He said it’s crazy they only make 8 percent of revenue brought in instead of 50 percent in other sports.

-He wants to pave the future for fighters to come, not just stand up for current and past fighters. He said this is exciting stuff and he’s glad to be sitting next to such great guys.

Cain Velasquez

-He said since 2008 he’s had seven surgeries on his knees, shoulders, elbow, and back. He said he is fighting December 30th, and then is already scheduled for his next surgery. He said other UFC fighters go through this. “For us in the future there is no post-retirement health plan. That’s why I think it’s important for what we’re doing now, fighters come together, and have the rest of the UFC roster come together to make out lives better now and in the future.”

Bjorn Rebney

-He said the numbers paint a crystal clear picture of what’s been going on more than a decade. “The numbers are the evidience of the wrong, the outrageous one-sided way UFC has treated its athletes.”

-He said there are over 100 media members on the conference call.

-He said it’s outlandish what the WME-IMG conglomerate is not doing to take care of and give a fair share to fighters.

-He says MMA is dangerous. He said they knowingly assume that risk and they should have the right to do that. He will defend that. “But when the group that controls every aspect of MMA in this industry is making hundreds of millions of dollars in profit year after year after year, making higher margins than any sports in history – and it’s proven they are the most valuable sports property in history – yet when the athletes responsible for the over $4 million purchase price – when the WME-IMG conglomerate asks them to put their futures on the line, just human decency asks that they’re paid fairly and taken care of. These athletes are risking more for less than any professional athletes on Earth… They’re paid pennies on the dollar of what’s there. Those aren’t assumptions, those are facts. The structure the UFC has employed for over a decade … is outrageous and unfair fro the very athletes responsible for driving UFC’s business, and that’s what we’re going to change.”

Media Q&A

-CAA is not backing this venture, but they’re supportive. He said agencies like CAA and WME-IMG are supposed to scratch and claw to get their clients a fair cut. He said WME-IMG should have flown the fighters to a conference and apologized for how they’ve been treated and offer them the pension plans, medical coverage, and safety net they deserve. He said WME-IMG said explicitly they are going to do business as usual. He said it’s essentially sucker-punching fighters to make more money.

-Is Bjorn the right person to do this since he’s been criticized for his treatment of fighters? He says he paid 53 percent to fighters, and if WME-IMG does that, they will all be happy.

-Kennedy said they’ve been looking for the best horse to get behind them. “No horse is perfect, but this is the best horse we had. There is no one from CAA here right now. It’s just fighters who 100 percent want to see change.” He said this isn’t a conspiracy with competing agencies. “It has nothing else but to do with the fighters,” he said. “Something has to f—ing change.”

-They’ve been working on this for over two years. He said this is his focus now and will be until the guys who sit on the board want him there.

-GSP said this is a different kind of fight. He knows some fighters are afraid. He said he is in a much better position than he was several years ago. He said even though you’re afraid, it’s time to step up and do the right thing. He said everybody needs to do it.

-Dillashaw said they are there because it’s right and needs to be done and he’s going to feel right about doing it, but he’s nervous.

-Is this setting up a class action lawsuit and a temporary money grab, but it won’t truly allow the fighters to get back what they need? It’s a great question and open-ended. He said a class action lawsuit was filed a couple of years, but why would you want to give away 33 percent of what you’re going to get to attorneys who don’t know anything about MMA when you can get 100 percent of it going this route. He said litigation could be the end result at some point, but the goal is to fight like wild guys up front so 100 percent can go to the fighters. He said this structure is by no means a money grab. He said they want to get an enormous settlement that will get a big settlement to past fighters. Also, drive 8 cents to 50 cents on the dollar. Then negotiate an agreement between fighters and management that matches what major league athletes in other sports get. He said there are baseball players who have a pension that beats what the average MMA fighter makes. Three goals:

-Compensate past fighters
-Drive 8 percent to 50 percent
-Negotiate terms going forward for pension, medical, safety net

-“A lot of these guys are going to walk out of fighting for UFC 10 or 12 times with nothing but having fought in the Octagon.”

-What is the plan for those who are under contract to UFC on board? This is the beginning. He said every fighter who is going to read about this, contact them. “We have four of the five biggest gyms represented at this table right now.” He said you are going to get nothing but straight honest truth from those sitting at the table. He said Cain, GSP, Cowboy are going to give them the truth because it’s right and what has happened so far isn’t right. “We aren’t recruiting. Do you want to make 8 percent or do what’s right for your future and past fighters who can barely walk and need surgeries. … Come to use, come talk to us. You are empowered. This is the best team to make this come to fruition. We will talk to people, but come find us. Get behind it.”

(Note: It isn’t always clear when Bjorn Rebney, Tim Kennedy, or Tim Quinn is talking, so double-check when crediting quotes to any of them.)

-They are focused on UFC, no other MMA organizations. “Our efforts is focused on the WME-IMG UFC conglomerate.” He said the settlement will take care of past and current fighters, including the Jens Pulver types. The increased comp for current fighters. He said they are infinitely more valuable than Manchester United and the New York Yankees. “This is a monster, enormous conglomerate.” He said WME-IMG is valued at over $6 million. “It is time to step up,” he said.

-To Bjorn, are there any fighters also on board other than the five present? Bjorn said they’ve had a lot of conversation, and they wanted to keep things quiet. He said nothing much leaked among other fighters they did talk to. He said more names will come out.

-Did anyone there reach out to UFC? “No, there’s no reason to. Our structure and what we’re doing and our plan of attack do not include us reaching out to UFC.” He said they are using strategies designed to achieve certain goals. He said at some point they are sure their phone will ring.

-How does this get done? There’s no benefit to lay out their comprehensive strategy “so that WME-IMG UFC conglomerate” knows what’s coming. He said they’re not going to show their hand.

-Is this a trade association or a union? “Great question. Simply put a union is the worst possible option today for UFC fighters because it delays everything another four to five years.” He told UFC fighters not to form a union because it’s an option under the law that allows employees to pursue agreements with employers, but UFC fighters are independent contractors. So if a union were formed, the UFC would walk into court the next day and enforce the independent contractor provision with every fighter and then the court battle would take years to resolve whether UFC fighters are employees or contractors, and he said there’s a better than 90 percent chance they’d be designated as independent contractors. So they are an organization, not a union.

-What power does a trade association have, especially for the fighters on the call who are under contract to UFC? They are 100 percent under contract. “The power that we have is the power of the voices in the room and the megaphone that most of the athletes in this room speak from and the coming months and the chorus you’ll hear from a media perspective  … and a series of additional steps.”

-He said what scares every major network is a potential labor strike. “This group has significant power,” he said. The implication being fighters could refuse to fight, and that could scare away the next TV deal.

-How do you price such a thing as compensating past fighters? The wrongs they’ve outlined have been perpetuated by the new group that purchased UFC which is shocking and heart-breaking, because WME-IMG was built on representing entertainers and fighters. “It will be large and it will be comprehensive and it will address wrongs that have been perpetuated against past and current fighters.”

-What will the structure of the association be and who represents fighters moving forward? Kennedy said the most important piece of this is fighters are running the association, “period, end of story.” There are five board members that will exist initially are at the table. “We make the decisions,” he said. He clarified Bjorn is not on the board and cannot make the decision. He said it’s going to be the five of them, the fighters at the table, who should be the targets of any criticism. The power comes from unity. “We have been for a very long time struggling with what is not just, what is wrong,” he said.

-Bjorn says he’s a strategist and advisor, nothing more. He doesn’t have a role on the board, but will help with agendas. He said they have an office open and people who will be assisting and helping design a pension, health care, retirement, and those issues look like. He said every fighter will have input, but it’s decided by the fighters on the board.

-GSP said fighters will receive threats from the UFC, but he wants people to know this is his personal fight and they won’t be bought to shut up. “We aren’t going to let any fighters down. We are here to stay. This same thing that is happening now has happened in every other sport – NFL, NHL, NBA. It is happening to UFC whether they like it or not.” He said fighters want to remain anonymous, “but come see us and let’s stand together.” He said this is the most solid team, a very solid team that they can trust and will make a difference.

-Ali act or anti-trust lawsuit? Bjorn said there is a better approach than those avenues, and they’re taking it.

-What about Pro Fighters Association launched a few years ago? It takes the right team and the determination to fix what’s wrong. He said this isn’t an attempt to get a settlement and make a quick buck. Kennedy: “That’s not what this is.,”; he said. “This is five dudes and 500 fighters that are standing up to see change. We came together to back the right horse. This is the first time we had the right team with the right athletes and the best minds. We are here to change the sport forever so the fighters who have fought and continue to fight will be compensated for the sacrifices they’ve made to the spot.”

-Will association negotiate pension on behalf of all fighters, or will each independent contractor negotiate separately? Ultimate finalization will be the manifestation of a collective bargaining agreement that will cover all of those issues. There will be disability benefits, too. If you get hurt before your fight, you receive nothing, whereas a baseball player who gets hurt at the start of his contract gets millions.

-Does a strong second promotion like Bellator give them more leverage? And how long has this been in the works, citing some domain names that were registered years ago?

-GSP gave an impassioned speech to fighters not to listen to people saying its in their best interest to stand on the sidelines. He said he knows how that goes, to have a friend of a friend advising you and giving bad advice. He assured fighters they have their backs and they have their best interests in mind and they can trust that now is the time to take a stand and make things better for themselves and everyone else from the past and future from UFC.

-A media member asked a question in French and GSP answered it in French. It will need to be translated later in case it included vital information. GSP did not translate in English for us.

-Why is Cerrone scared? He said he is scared because he doesn’t know what’s next, but he’s less scared now. “I don’t know what’s going to happen. I’m still under contract. I have a fight next weekend. F—, yeah. I don’t know how to answer that. It’s going to take a lot of time and a lot of work.”

-How about assuring most deserving contender gets title shots? Dillashaw said UFC can do what they want and book fights they want, but he believes they should use a ranking system. He said this is bigger than that, though.

-What’s worst that can happen? Bjorn said there are tons of laws preventing employers from taking action against anyone doing this. He said with WME-IMG on board and 50 or 60 lawyers in their offices, they can’t retaliate. “As counter-intuitive as it sounds, if you talk to top lawyers about what’s going on here, it provides an additional layer of protection to fighters who do speak up here.” He said if UFC cuts them or teammates from a retaliator perspective, it’s deep trouble for them from a legal perspective. He said the ability to act a certain way three or six years ago when it was the wild, wild west has been reigned in.

-Kennedy adds that in addition to compensation, health care, helping past fighters, “it’s also to professionalize this sport.” He said politics have played into title shots, when you fight, who you fight, if you’re going to fight – that’s all subjective to match-makers who work for UFC. He said they can’t penalize them overtly, they can give them bad matches or no matches or no title shots they deserve and give it to “another steroid using guy.” He spoke out against their subjective ability to give title shots to fighters who have failed steroid tests because it’ll sell PPVs isn’t professional and outrageous. “We have grown up,” he said. Fighters haven’t been left behind. He said fans should back this. He said as a fan it’d be hard to watch MMA and enjoy it knowing how fighters are treated.

-Could Randy Couture’s fighter’s association group be brought into the fold? And do they plan to reach out to Conor McGregor? GSP said for Conor, he cannot speak for him, but hearing what he said in his interview, it sounds like he is aware of what is going on. He said Conor is the best paid fighter, but he still doesn’t have his fair share of what he should have. He said some fighters are bitter about Conor’s pay and might be jealous. He sells himself very well and does very well for himself, “so I am very happy for him.” He said he’s met Conor a few times “and he is someone, you have the Conor McGregor the human being and Conor McGregor the business.” He said the Conor McGregor human being knows what’s right. He said Conor is not a coward and he knows what is right. “Everybody knows what we are doing is right, so of course we’d like on board the biggest name in the sport, and UFC will do what it came to make it not happening.” He said they want the biggest draw to the smallest fighter. “Every voice counts. It’s important every voice comes on board. We will hear what you have to say and we will protect you.” Bjorn says they’d like Randy on board. Says reiterrated that a union would be a disaster for fighters.

-Is GSP giving up on fighting for UFC? Is there a formal step fighters can take? Where is backing coming from right now for all of this? GSP said for his situation, he talked with UFC several times and they were treating him fairly. He said he wasn’t offered a fair share. “Everybody, most fighters I talk do, they don’t have their fair share,” he said. “Why would I go back for a deal that is not fair to me.” He said he has to stand for something that he believes in, and he is fighting for himself and the others. “I hope you understand what I mean by that,” he said, knowing his English is a bit broken at times.

(George is the ONLY guy who is consistently saying it’s him talking, and he’s the only guy on the panel where it’s obvious when he’s talking.)

-Optically does it look bad that fighters are represented by CAA and Bjorn is associated with Bellator? Is GSP is still claiming to be a free agent? GSP says he has to be careful what he says because it can be used in court. He said his attorney James Quinn says he is a free agent, but it could be contested in court. He said his lawyer is the best and he believes he has good reason to believe that. “I am a free agent,” he said. “We have very strong evidence I am a free agent.” Regarding CAA clients being there, CAA is supporting them because an agency’s job is to look out for them. UFC has been a money-printing machine.

-What’s in it for Bjorn? He said MMA has been very good for him and he has a chance to improve the sport. He said the sport on this trajectory cannot continue. He said he hasn’t received a dime after years of working on this. He’s doing it because it’s right thing to do. He said this is frightening and not a happy ending for a lot of guys who compete. He stressed need for safety net for fighters when they are 46. “This is ultimately about fixing this wrong and working as a unified team to help UFC” make more money than ever. He said athletes should be receiving 50 percent of current revenues. He said those who love MMA won’t have MMA in ten years because the ramifications of the current conduct by ownership “is going to kill this sport.”

-More talk from Kennedy about MMA becoming biggest sport possible, want that to be their legacy. They want to empower fighters to stand together because change needs to be made and they all recognize and realize that, “and the best way for that to happen is together. What we’re talking about is an unsustainable trajectory. They (past fighters) mother f—ers can’t walk, they can’t remember anything, they can’t walk. This is unsustainable… Where we are now there may not be a sport in five or ten years. I don’t want to be in a wheel chair.”

-They say pro baseball players are helping them structure this. He said there are minor leagues, and you have to play for the Majors to get the benefits. “For this to work and come to fruition, this is the starting point,” he said, leaving door open for this to affect other promotions. “For us to a affect change, it’s UFC. Where we go from here? Sky’s the limit.” They want permanent change for the better for the sport.

-What are immediate goals? What has to be done to achieve that? Support of 50 percent of roster? Bjorn: “Again, not trying to sidestep it, it doesn’t make sense to divulge that. Part and parcel of that is organizing.” It’s about fighters reaching out to each other. “It’s a whole group of articulations of what is going on, what the long-term goals are. That will be complimented by a great deal of media.” They plan to introduce fighters to media who have suffered ailments. He talks about a “plan to win,” and they have a structure in place of what exactly they plan to do.

-Bjorn talks about a $100,000 fighter payday increasing to over $500,000. He said Major League Baseball and the NFL owners still make money, yet they pay athletes 50 percent of every dollar that comes in the door. “How does this dynamic exist today and to this point and we have stood by and allowed it to occur. The fixing of it and the remedy can be done, and still allow WME-IMG make a profit, comparable to every major league sport owner.”

-Have they consulted with NFL and MLB players’ associations for strategies? Yes, a ton of people. He touts their attorney Jim Quinn, “the Michael Jordan of athlete player association negotiations.” He said this is easy to address because the enormity of what is happening and should be happening is so massive and ugly.

-Was this eating away at GSP during his time off? Did he feel pulled to fight for the other fighters? GSP said whether he was fighting now or not, he’d take this stand. He said he’s in a great situation today, but he couldn’t have made a difference early in his career taking this stand. He would have liked at the time if someone who was a bigger draw at the time to take a bigger stand for his sake. He said the structure wasn’t in place. He said what they’re doing has been done in every major pro sport in the past. He said NHL players used to be exploited, but not as much. He said in the Wayne Gretzky era, it was better. And today the working conditions are much better. “It has to start somewhere and that’s what we are doing today,” he said. “We are here to elevate the UFC. We want to elevate the UFC. Of course they’re not going to like it because they like power. Like every man who has power, they want more power. Now we’re taking power away from them and giving it to the fighters. It has to be done in the correct way.”

-What’s in it for them and those funding them? Those helping making much less than if they were fighting for a big corporation. Kennedy emphatically says they aren’t getting anything and it’s not a cash cow or an opportunity to rake in dough. He said nobody’s going to get limo rides to court them. This is about doing what’s right.

-Can Rebney got into more detail on how it’s being funded? Bjorn said two years of effort good people have been working toward their three pillars. “But I’m not going into specifics of the who. Good people. God willing, I’ll have opportunity to divulge them at some point because it would give me a lot of pleasure to do that.”

-How can it help a Mark Coleman or Don Frye? Bjorn said that’s what so tragic, because you could name five dozen or more names like theirs. They want to create a safety vehicle and compensation. “It’s not just about current guys, it’s about prior guys, so there’s a benefit they can derive from having fought in the Octagon” 10, 12, 15 times.

-Female board member rumors? Kennedy says it’s about getting as many passionate believers in the room at once. “This is not a convenient date for any of us,” he said. He said they will begin divulging some of more than 100 fighters backing them. “This is about fighters, and fighters is men and women and it’s all the fighters from the UFC, former and today, coming together. Are they going to be part of the board? Yes. On the front lines with us? Yes. This is a genderless thing.” He said for the five, it was happenstance who could be there today. “In the very, very near future, the biggest and most marquee names for female fighters will be part of this, I promise.”

-Why not initiate this when involved in Bellator, Bjorn? He said the role of a promoter is not one that lends itself easily to becoming a strategic advisor to a fighters’ association. They’re counter-intuitive. It’s the nature of being a promoter. He said he knows how this industry works and how the budget works for large and small scale works, and what domestic TV and PPV looks like. “I have a keen understanding of what that is.” He said a focus of a promoter cannot be this, and that’s evident from how UFC has acted and WME-IMG has continued. He said he wasn’t out of the game long before he was approached to do this. “This is something that caught my eye and told us we could make a difference and people would look across the board and say these were great changes.”

-MMAFA is a 501 C6 filed in California, tax exempt service hasn’t been granted yet.

-MLB is required to negotiate with MLBPA union as an anti-trust exemption, as is the NFL, NBA, and NHL. How can MMAFA do that without a congressional mandate that the other sports have. Bjorn said obviously at some point in the future, when negotiating a CBA deal, they’ll get an anti-trust exemption. He said huge gaps will be addressed in structure. UFC will desperately want the anti-trust exemption to create a CBA that will govern what happens over a 5-7 year period for athletes. UFC hasn’t been designated as a monopoly yet.

-Most organizations like this appoint a director to run day-to-day operations. Has this been done? Is board doing it themselves at this point? Kennedy says the board is handling the decisions and it comes down to the fighters. “The dream is we’ll be representative of the fighters as a whole. We’ll have the best understanding of what their needs are and talking to them and having great strategic advisors like Bjorn. He knows the ins and out of it. The reason people are funding this is they are brave and understand change needs to happen. We, the fighters, are in control. … This is step off point.” He said they don’t know every step that will be taken, but they know the end goal.

That concludes the call. Someone let out a Ric Flair-like “woo!”

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