Knocked out at 48: Chuck Liddell and the plight of former UFC fighters

Karim Zidan
The Guardian

Despite pulling in huge revenues, the UFC provides minimal care for its fighters leading many into financial trouble

<span class="element-image__caption">Chuck Liddell (right) and Tito Ortiz fought in California last month but the bout was widely criticised. </span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Joe Scarnici/Getty Images</span>
Chuck Liddell (right) and Tito Ortiz fought in California last month but the bout was widely criticised. Photograph: Joe Scarnici/Getty Images

Last month, Oscar De La Hoya’s Golden Boy Promotions held its inaugural mixed martial arts show in California, headlined by former UFC champions Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz. Their fight turned into a repugnant spectacle between two competitors long past retirement age.

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At 43, Ortiz is hardly in his fighting prime but he is youthful compared to the 48-year-old Liddell. Liddell dominated the UFC’s light-heavyweight division more than a decade ago but the man who stepped into the cage against Ortiz was a shell of his former self. He was stiff, sluggish, and unfit to compete. The result was a knockout – Liddell has now been KO’d in his last four fights – and meant further risk of brain damage from repeated trauma.

So why was a man who will turn 50 next December still fighting? Yahoo Sports reported that Liddell “needs the money” yet when he retired in 2010, he was promised a lifetime position with UFC as an executive. The arrangement lasted until WME-IMG purchased UFC in 2016, at which point he no longer had a steady income. While Liddell does not explicitly admit that financial strife pushed him out of retirement – he recently said it was about his “personal journey” – if money troubles were in play it would mirror the plight of fighters struggling to make ends meet following successful UFC careers.

The list is long. John Alessio had a stint as an Uber driver before becoming a police officer in Las Vegas. Ultimate Fighter veteran Bubba McDaniel started a Go Fund Me to cover funeral expenses for his infant son’s death. Canadian lightweight TJ Grant went from UFC title contender to working in a potash mine in Saskatchewan after suffering a concussion that put an end to his fighting career.

It’s not just former fighters either. Although the UFC was sold for more than $4bn in 2016, dozens of its current fighters are struggling to stay afloat. Fighters such as Lauren Murphy, Nina Ansaroff, Zak Cummings, and James Krause were forced to resort to public fundraising campaigns to cover the expenses incurred during their UFC debuts. Timothy Johnson, Sarah Moras and Paul Felder have opened Go Fund Me pages despite being several fights into their UFC careers, while Jessica Andrade recently sold her own UFC gear to cover her expenses.

Retired UFC flyweight Neil Seery, who worked full-time as a warehouse manager in Dublin during his UFC career, sums up the situation well. Seery revealed in 2017 that “there are only a handful of people that make enough money to live like a superstar all year long in MMA. People think once you get to the UFC you’re made for life. I’ve had five fights in the UFC, I’m about to have my sixth, but there’s not a chance in hell that I’d be able to pay my mortgage for the year and support my family off that.”

Despite countless UFC fighters finding themselves in dire financial straits, athletes have not banded together to form a union. Associations have been created but have not managed to transform into successful collective bargaining units. The Martial Arts Fighters Association (MMAFA), which has existed for nearly a decade, has focused its attention on an antitrust lawsuit against the UFC and introducing the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act to MMA. Project Spearhead, meanwhile, has not managed to get enough fighters to join its cause despite stating it would advocate for medical coverage beyond the incidental insurance the UFC provides.

“I don’t know if [the fighters’] resistance to standing up for themselves is because the UFC has fostered such a hostile and individualistic environment where every fighter is in it for themselves or if it is because I am the one leading the charge,” Leslie Smith, a former UFC fighter and founder of Project Spearhead, told the Guardian. “I believe fighters are faking it to make it – faking a fancy expensive pro athlete type life while in reality they are still being treated like the third string of a bankrupt traveling team of carnies.”

The UFC classifies its fighters as independent contractors. Unlike employees, independent contractors are not legally protected by employment and labor laws, even though a business may pay the contractor and the employee to do similar work. In the case of UFC fighters, this legal distinction means that fighters bear the cost of their own expenses, such as training camps, and flights and accommodation for cornermen. The UFC is also not required to provide health insurance for its fighters.

Yet despite the fact that UFC fighters are independent contractors, the UFC exerts a level of control that is more representative of an employer. For example, the promotion reached a $70m deal with Reebok in 2014 and subsequently banned its athletes from wearing their own sponsored fight gear, something which was a handy source of income for struggling fighters. In 2015, the UFC imposed an out-of-competition drug testing program in partnership with the United States Anti-Doping Agency. Among other things, this required fighters to inform the UFC of their whereabouts, including when they were on vacation. This, too, was negotiated without the fighters’ input.

Yet while the UFC has shown it is willing to act like an employer when it suits, it has yet to provide any pensions or legitimate healthcare for fighters outside of the “accident insurance” they have for pre-fight injuries.

“The UFC hasn’t taken care of any of its fighters. They didn’t have real health insurance while they were fighting, they don’t have any sort of post-career plan for good healthcare now that they aren’t in the UFC,” said Smith. “If we had a fighters’ association in the nature of the players’ associations of football, basketball, hockey and baseball then there would be programs and health care and disability options to support the athletes who have gone out sacrificing their backs and their knees, their brains and their youth for the game. But we don’t and that isn’t on anybody except the fighters. The UFC should take care of the fighters it uses but it doesn’t and it is a waste of time to point out how despicable that is because it won’t change anything. What needs to happen is for the fighters to step up and collectively bargain for the tools and accommodations needed to be healthy and happy later in life.”

While the UFC is partially to blame for the trajectory of Liddell’s career, they had nothing to do with his ugly fight with Ortiz. There are several other actors involved, including the California State Athletic Commission, which regulated last month’s fight (the commission has since handed Liddell an indefinite medical suspension, making it unlikely he will fight in the US again). Some of the blame also rests on Liddell’s management team, who allowed him to fight despite his deteriorated state, as well the promoter for profiting off a repugnant spectacle that should never have taken place.

In many ways, Liddell’s is a cautionary tale in the struggles facing MMA fighters in the twilight of their career. Smith says the moral of the story is that “fighters need to take care of themselves – their health, their money.”

It should be noted that even leagues with strong unions, such as the NFL, have former players who struggle financially. One report says that 78% of NFL players struggle financially after retirement. Despite that, Smith believes a fighters’ association is vital.

“Every fighter thinks they are going to be the one that impresses the world and most importantly Dana White,” says Smith. “So they sacrifice themselves in hopes of getting glory but the UFC doesn’t take care of them while they are fighting and they definitely don’t take care of them after they are done fighting so those sacrifices for the greater good of their family and to improve their situation become sad and sadistic instead of inspiring and desirable.”

  • The UFC did not respond to a request for comment for this article.

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