The Ultimate Fighting Championship provides a $100,000 insurance policy on each fighter during one of its cards to cover any injuries the athlete sustains in a match. Most state athletic commissions require $50,000 worth of coverage and some require as low as $25,000 per athlete.
But the worst-case scenario for a mixed martial arts fighter is to suffer an injury days before a fight that requires him or her to pull out of a scheduled bout. That means no paycheck, as well as a stack of medical bills, because the event insurance only covered injuries suffered during a match. As independent contractors, the fighters are only paid if they compete and, until now, the UFC has not been responsible for paying for out-of-competition injuries.
Zuffa LLC, the company that owns both UFC and Strikeforce, is taking steps to erase that problem. Lorenzo Fertitta, the UFC's chairman and chief executive officer, said the company plans to offer accident insurance that will cover approximately 350 athletes in the event of out-of-competition injury, effective June 1.
MMA fighters and boxers are not employees. They are independent contractors and thus aren't eligible for things like health-care coverage.
But injuries to fighters, either in the cage or during training, can be disastrous. That's why Fertitta said he and UFC president Dana White began looking into the potential of offering the fighters accident insurance nearly three years ago.
Zuffa will pay 100 percent of the premiums, Fertitta said, and will have a full-time employee who will coordinate the claims process.
"We looked at this as a necessity for the sport and something that needed to happen," Fertitta said. "We have talked about this for a long time and we have always had the same position when asked how fighters could have insurance outside of the fights. Like we said, it's tough enough to get insurance just as a business, in and of itself, with how expensive it is.
"When you go to an underwriter and say, 'Hey, we potentially want to insure 400 ultimate fighters,' they pretty much close the door on you pretty quickly. We didn't just give up, given the responses we were getting and the answers we were getting from a lot of these carriers. We continued on and it has been a 24-to-36-month process we have been going through to do it. We were adamant we were going to find a way to put this together."
Fertitta said Zuffa has paid expenses for fighters who suffered training injuries previously, but noted that by getting a carrier – Houston Casualty Insurance Company, an A+ rated carrier by A.M. Best – the new plan will guarantee that all are covered.
The insurance the fighters are being provided is separate and distinct from health care insurance many workers get through their employers, which pays for things like doctor's visits, hospitalization and prescription drugs. Zuffa is not offering the fighters that type of coverage.
But the accident coverage would have been helpful to former light heavyweight champion Tito Ortiz several years ago. He injured his back in a fight and filed a claim under the UFC's plan. But because Ortiz had done an interview in which he said the injury occurred in training, the insurance carrier denied the claim.
With the policy Zuffa is providing its fighters as of June 1, the injury Ortiz suffered would have been covered. And because it is accident insurance, the plan will cover a fighter if, for example, he slips while walking on ice and sprains an ankle.
"This will cover accidents that occur while a fighter is under contract with us," Zuffa general counsel Lawrence Epstein said. "Those accidents could occur in training or it could also be something like an automobile accident. A fighter could be driving to the grocery store and gets involved in an automobile accident and has an injury. This policy would cover him.
"It's not a policy you would typically see in an employer-employee relationship. It's more akin to an auto insurance scenario, where any acute injury is going to be covered. Training injuries, a guy falls down the stairs, an automobile accident, those would be covered, but it wouldn't be something like the flu or some disease or illness. It would only cover accident-related injuries."