Before a recent career change, I was an operations manager for 14 years. I hired people, fired them when necessary, motivated, disciplined, planned, and led staff meetings, explained and implemented all sorts of sweeping changes, set budgets and controlled costs, and so on and so forth. And if I do say so myself, I was pretty good at it. I’ve also watched from afar the UFC’s business practices and fighter relations for most of my adult life. Now of course you didn’t come here to read an executive summary of my resume; it’s all just a bit of background to explain where I’m coming from when I say that Dana White is quite simply a bad boss in the public eye.
Maybe it’s a copout to add the “public eye” qualification, but speaking in absolutes isn’t often a great idea, and even less so when we’re talking about a situation that takes place only partially in front of everyone.
There are enough stories about White and the UFC brass paying for medical bills and generally taking care of fighters and other people inside or outside of the organization without being obligated to do so that it’s not fair to paint with a brush broad enough to cover what we don’t see. All that being said, what we do see doesn’t reflect well on the UFC President when it comes to fighter relations.
If you spend any time on websites directed at professionals (LinkedIn or the like,) or if you work for a large company with all their initiatives designed to reduce turnover, increase employee satisfaction, or anything else to which large companies enjoy paying lip service, you’ve likely seen lists of things that bosses can do to keep their people and keep them happy. I’ve read many of these lists and read several books on the topic as well. All the advice and bulletpoints essentially boil down to two things: pay people fairly and treat them well. And somehow, at least as it’s perceived by a majority of the public and several vocal fighters, the UFC fails miserably at both.
The subject of fighter pay has been done to death, and we’re not going to revisit that here, but essentially when you look at the percentage of the UFC’s profits that go to the fighters, it’s lower than any other professional sport, and it’s lower by a huge margin. And on a side note, for those who have read or heard several times, as I have, that employees don’t stay or leave their jobs because of money, don’t believe it.
That only begins to become true when the employees perceive that they’re being compensated fairly. For example, if an employee is making $30,000/year, loves his or her job, and perceives that to be fair pay (i.e. they don’t have friends or contacts who are making appreciably more in a similar role and/or they don’t perceive their employers as being cheap), they’re less likely to leave because of money (at least to a similar position). But if you have an employee who’s making $80,000/year and believes that he or she is underpaid, then you have a problem.
Those same articles telling managers that employees don’t leave because of money will all reveal the real issue as if it’s some sort of secret: The most common reason that people leave a job is because of their boss. This is the obvious issue in the UFC. Dana White’s burial of Amanda Nunes on the day she pulled out of a fight due to illness was only the latest in a long line of burials.
Look no further than arguably the three greatest fighters ever to step into the Octagon: Anderson Silva, Georges St. Pierre, and Jon Jones. They’ve all fallen victim to White’s tomato-faced tirades, whether by not accepting a short-notice fight, having a dull fight in a new market, or having the gall to announce they’re taking a break from active competition without consulting him.
That’s not to mention a more recent example in Demetrious Johnson, who sits atop the UFC’s own current pound-for-pound rankings and wanted to be, in his estimation, properly compensated before agreeing to a fight against T.J. Dillashaw, who has never fought at flyweight. In this case there are differing opinions on whether Johnson is within his rights to ask for more money, but even if Johnson is wrong, White handling it in a way that diminishes Johnson’s value in the eyes of the people who ostensibly pay to watch him fight is hardly justifiable.
Dana White will tell you that fighters are a different breed, that you can’t handle them the way you would handle other people. And to a certain extent, he’s right. There’s always the Rich Franklins of the world, who seem to be pretty well-adjusted people. But then you’ve got guys like Mike Perry, who… does and says the things that Mike Perry does and says. But at the end of the day, everyone wants to be treated fairly. And when you’re dealing with elite-level athletes who train for endless hours to reach the pinnacle of their sport only to have their heart called into question, that can’t sit well. And the reaction of any normal person if another viable option presents itself is to head for the door.
So where does the UFC go from here? Do they even think they have a problem in White? The evidence thus far is that they do not. Dana White has been the public face of the UFC for over a decade now, and the growth of the business during that span speaks volumes. But at what point does it become a detriment to the UFC’s relationship with its fighters, and thus to its future as the leading MMA promoter in the world?
The obvious answer is that it becomes an issue when fighters have another option. And right now, for fighters who want to show that they’re the best, there’s one promotion, and in large part one man, who can help them get there.
Shawn Ennis is a charter columnist with MMATorch.com. Listen to him this Monday night with host Mike Hiscoe (7/17) at 7 ET on the debut episode of the “MMA Talk for Pro Wrestling Fans” podcast in the new PWTorch Livecast line-up. Details at www.PWTorchLivecast.com.
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