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No Holds Barred

Labor turmoil in the world of mixed martial arts.

Last May, a group of some of the most fearsome fighters in the world gathered in a hotel room at the Red Rock Casino Resort & Spa in Las Vegas. Initially, only three or four showed up for the meeting; but eventually 19 brawny bodies packed into the room. The fighters were attending a two-day summit hosted by Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), a promotion outfit that, in recent years, has become nearly synonymous with mixed-martial-arts fighting—an often bloody spectacle in which competitors combine elements of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, boxing, and wrestling.

This particular meeting, however, wasn’t on the summit’s official agenda. It had been convened by Robert Maysey—a Scottsdale, Arizona, lawyer and mixed-martial-arts enthusiast, who was trying to enlist support for a fighters’ association. He projected PowerPoint slides onto a screen, estimating UFC’s revenue and laying out the advantages to collective bargaining. The fighters, he recalls, were intrigued. “They all would have signed right then and there,” he told me when we spoke recently.

But then, one of the star fighters stood up. “Rob, I’d love to, but they’ve got me by the balls,” he said, referring to UFC. “They’ve got half my pay in bonuses.” Others worried that UFC would blackball them if they were to organize. One by one, the fighters filtered out. Maysey tried to follow up later on, but they all eventually stopped returning his calls.

For a long time, mixed martial arts—or MMA, as it’s known—resided on the fringes of American culture. And the sport remains illegal in Connecticut and New York. (A bid to overturn the New York ban failed in the state assembly earlier this month.) In the rest of the country, however, MMA is no longer a marginal enterprise. UFC—having in recent years bought up most of its competitor organizations and established control over 80 to 90 percent of the mixed-martial-arts market—is now worth more than a billion dollars. Last year, the company signed a seven-year TV deal with Fox worth a reported $100 million annually. The rules governing MMA have changed, too: Where once only eye-gouging and biting were officially off limits, UFC now bans groin attacks, heel kicks to the kidney, and throat strikes. Mixed martial arts, in other words, appears on its way to becoming a semi-legitimate sport. But one thing is still largely missing: labor protections for fighters.

ROBERT MAYSEY is 37 and has the sturdy build of a former college athlete. Growing up playing baseball and football, he initially dismissed MMA as a “blood sport that exploits underprivileged people,” but his opinion changed after he watched a UFC competition in 1996. Witnessing the event inspired him to join a small jiu-jitsu club at Cornell when he enrolled in the law school that fall, and he quickly became hooked, keeping up with his training even after he graduated and moved to Los Angeles.

At his gym in Hollywood, Maysey became friends with a number of MMA fighters. Over time, they began to tell him about their legal troubles, and he began to help. He assisted a woman who was thrown out of her hotel room for refusing to fight an opponent who was significantly bigger and more experienced than advertised. He sued a promoter in Japan on behalf of a man who had signed an exclusive 18-month, three-fight deal, but was only given a single fight. “That was my introduction,” Maysey says. “I realized the fighters had zero leverage.”

As UFC began to monopolize the rapidly expanding industry, fighter leverage worsened. Pay and benefits increased marginally, but contractual terms deteriorated. Contracts regularly featured a “champion’s clause,” which automatically extended the contract of a fighter at a lucrative moment in his or her career, as well as provisions that made it exceedingly difficult for fighters to negotiate higher pay. Fighters were also compelled to relinquish control over their images, voices, and likenesses—often “in perpetuity.” When video-game-makers began to produce games like UFC Undisputed, fighters saw their likenesses being put to commercial use. (UFC did not comment for this article, but Lawrence Epstein, the company’s general counsel, has said that UFC’s merchandizing agreements have “literally created millions and millions of dollars for our fighters.”)

Some of the fighters were aware of this mistreatment. Four-time middleweight UFC champion Frank “The Legend” Shamrock had the Screen Actors Guild look at his contracts after he was invited by Chuck Norris to appear on “Walker, Texas Ranger.” “They said, ‘These people are raping you!’” Shamrock recalls. Christian Wellisch—a former MMA fighter who now practices law and has also taught a philosophy course on moral issues at San Jose State University—recalls a time when some of his fellow fighters at the American Kickboxing Academy took issue with a contract that granted UFC exclusive lifetime video-game rights to their names and likenesses. “The message was clear: If one of you doesn’t sign one of these contracts, then all of you would be fired,” he told me. “It worked. Everybody signed the contract.”

In 2005, Maysey founded a group called the Mixed Martial Arts Fighters Association and started reaching out to MMA gyms across the country. He hoped the organization would become something analogous to the players’ associations that have advocated for labor rights in other sports. At the outset, he was mostly rebuffed, though he did manage to gain some stature after he successfully represented a group of MMA fighters under contract with a collapsing promotion entity called Elite Xtreme Combat in 2008. Maysey sent the company a letter threatening legal action if it didn’t reassign its fighters to another promotion or release them from their contracts—and the company caved.

But, as it turned out, the cause of MMA labor rights would get its biggest boost from an unexpected corner: Nevada’s largest union, the Culinary Workers Local 226. The union had been engaged in an ugly, years-long battle with Station Casinos and started investigating the other holdings of the casino chain’s owners—which happened to include UFC. The fighters, the culinary workers concluded, were being bullied, just like the busboys and cocktail waitresses.

When UFC purchased its last remaining major rival, in March 2011, the culinary workers sent a letter to the Federal Trade Commission, requesting an investigation into a possible antitrust violation. More recently, the culinary workers have played an role in backing a California state assembly measure—introduced this year by Assemblyman Luis Alejo, an avid MMA fan—that would establish protections for MMA fighters akin to those enjoyed by professional boxers, such as a prohibition against contracts that assign exclusive merchandising rights for an unreasonable period of time or contracts that automatically renew or extend without good-faith negotiations. Maysey was enlisted to help draft portions of the bill, and the culinary union has rallied groups like the Teamsters to send letters of support. (The union was also instrumental in blocking legalization of the sport in New York—a move that will presumably be less well-received by MMA fighters.)

This unlikely alliance of convenience between the service union and some MMA fighters has proved irksome to UFC management. “All kinds of crazy shit they’re trying to throw in this bill for MMA,” UFC President Dana White told The Orange County Register last month. “You know who’s doing it? The culinary union from Las Vegas.” The bill is now awaiting the approval of the state appropriations committee.

Maysey is heartened by all of these developments. Still, even if the bill passes, he argues that MMA fighters will not be able to bargain for things like health insurance, pensions, and a greater percentage of merchandizing revenue until they are organized into a fighters’ association—a development that he contends would help not just the fighters, but the sport as a whole. “I’ve said all along, I think an association would benefit the UFC’s growth in the long term,” he told me. “It would make the UFC the NFL.”

Jesse Zwick is a special correspondent for The New Republic. This article appeared in the June 7, 2012 issue of the magazine.