Liz Carmouche's distasteful UFC firing highlights wider exploitation of its athletes

Elias CepedaYahoo Sports Contributor
Liz Carmouche warms up prior to her bout during the UFC Fight Night event at Antel Arena on August 10, 2019 in Montevideo, Uruguay. (Photo by Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC)
Liz Carmouche warms up prior to her bout during the UFC Fight Night event at Antel Arena on August 10, 2019 in Montevideo, Uruguay. (Photo by Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC)

Two-time world title challenger Liz Carmouche was cut from the UFC on Friday after having won two out of her last three bouts, and four of her last six.

She was cut after going the distance in her last fight with UFC flyweight champion Valentina Shevchenko — one of the best fighters in the world, pound-for-pound. Carmouche found out she was cut while working a public relations trip for the UFC in Washington D.C. on the day before the promotion was set to put on a card there.

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A lot of the justified outrage at the UFC’s firing of Carmouche has focused on how the promotion “messed up” with regards to the timing of the release, how it — per usual — let word trickle down to the fighter instead of telling her directly and/or face-to-face, and how they did so after parading the military veteran around to bolster its own image as supportive of servicemen and women. The callousness of firing a top fighter as they do you a favor and work for free after flying across the country is certainly problematic, but it isn’t at all atypical of the UFC. Carmouche’s story only highlights deeper issues within a larger MMA financial system that is weighted against the athletes who make the sport run.

As we rightly lament this latest example of poor athlete treatment embodied by Carmouche, let’s remember more universal travesties her situation illuminates:

  • UFC fighters, even the championship-level ones like Carmouche, often have day jobs. Some, like heavyweight champion/firefighter Stipe Miocic may say they keep those jobs out of passion and interest, but the financial reality is that day jobs are a necessity for most.

  • UFC fighters don’t receive salaries or guaranteed contracts.

  • UFC fighters don’t have year-round healthcare and are not eligible for pensions.

If they want any chance at financial security for themselves and their families, big-league MMA fighters in 2019 usually have to work other jobs in addition to fighting on national television and pay-per-view.

Carmouche exemplifies this indefensible situation. “It’s a little bit insane that you would [do that],” she told MMA Junkie on Saturday of the UFC’s decision to release her while she did unpaid promotional work for the UFC last week.

“I took time off from work to be here at my own pocket expense. It’s a little bit sad. Then, two, that it would be done that way … I’m here with the UFC and you could have actually spoken to me firsthand … Especially during the holiday season.

“I have a 4-year-old at home. My wife is at home and I’d love to be spending it with them. Especially saving up as much money to spoil them for Christmas. To take a week off from that definitely sucks and is kind of a setback. And to be done this way is definitely not a great taste.”

  • UFC fighters have no real job security, don’t have much say in when and who they get to fight, have to advertise corporate sponsors that pay the UFC directly but not them. They also no longer get to represent their own sponsors during fight week.

Most UFC athletes can be released without doing anything “wrong,” (without cause) and while being quite good at their job, without any real deliberative or appeal process that they have any part or say in. In fact, Carmouche told ESPN that one of the reasons she was given by the UFC for her release was that she is too good at her job.

"The reason that they gave is that they're really trying to build up the division and every female that they've brought into the 125-pound division, I've been able to beat them," she said.

"So it's not really giving them the opportunity to build up the division the way they've wanted to. So for the best well-being of the division, they had to cut me to give me an opportunity to go elsewhere and get the fights I need."

This isn’t much of an exceptional case in that regard. It’s actually common for top contenders who seem unlikely to beat the division’s champion but are tough fights for everyone else to find themselves in difficult predicaments, career-wise in the UFC.

On that note ...

  • The UFC isn’t about having the best fighters among its ranks at all costs. Newer, less established fighters aren’t usually paid as much as accomplished veterans like Carmouche. Making way for new, younger contenders with less accomplishment is also about letting go of more expensive fighters and keeping on cheaper ones.

  • The UFC does not consider its athletes employees. It classifies them as independent contractors even though fighters’ contracts to the UFC are exclusive and the athletes face strict guidelines and penalties with regards to what they can say, what they wear and when and where they work. By not being classified as employees, UFC athletes also miss out on a host of benefits and protections only afforded under U.S. law to employees.

  • UFC fighters are effectively compelled to do extra public relations labor for the company without additional pay for that labor.

  • UFC fighters often have to effectively pay for the privilege of doing said free PR work for the company. Whether it’s lost wages from a day job they take off from to do the PR work for the UFC, or money spent on food that might exceed whatever per diem they receive, to other considerations, Carmouche’s situation illustrates the compounding true costs of doing free goodwill work for a company that doesn’t do you even the basic courtesy of making you an employee or paying you a salary.

  • UFC fighters also often have to pay for flights for their corners/coaches to make it out to fight week, as well as additional hotel rooms out of their own pocket. The UFC does not usually pay for the flights needed to bring all of the coaches you see in a fighter’s corner on fight night to wherever the event is taking place.

So, athletes can either head into battle with their ranks diminished or pay out of pocket for multiple coaches’ flights. This goes for hotel rooms as well when a fighter or a coach has the temerity to not want to be squished into fight week living situations in the room or two typically paid for by the UFC where athletes and coaches sometimes sleep on floors or couches.

In the end, Carmouche’s situation as a stand-alone offense would be bad enough. The athlete and her labor were exploited outside of the cage and she was thanked for it with a pink slip after years of exciting and effective fighting service for the promotion.

“I’m a little bit pained,” she told MMA Junkie.

“They brought me out here and had me doing a lot of media obligations. I went to Arlington Cemetery and was part of the wreath ceremony. They brought me out as a veteran and as a fighter. Then today they had me going to the hospital and talking to different people and different wards — only to find out that I’d been released earlier. The news just finally trickled down to me.”

The fact that Carmouche’s situation is simply part of a larger exploitative system that treats fighters unfairly as a matter of course with bits of heavily publicized and discretionary charity thrown in from time to time is even worse. The precarity in which UFC athletes live day in and day out can hardly be matched by professional athletes in any other major sport in the 21st century.

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