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Randy Couture backs fighters’ rights before congressional subcommittee

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Les Carpenter: Couture, a UFC champion turned outspoken critic, spoke out on Thursday for more federal regulation of the sport that made him a star

This was something the UFC could not want. But there before a congressional subcommittee on Thursday sat Randy Couture, one of their once-great champions and now one of their biggest critics, telling Americas lawmakers that fighters dont have basic rights in a billion-dollar company

What if Wimbledon forced all the top 10 players to sign an exclusive contract, Couture said to members of the House subcommittee for Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade. You wouldnt have Wimbledon.

The first real blows toward forcing MMA organizations under federal regulation are being struck. Oklahoma Republican congressman Markwayne Mullin, a former MMA fighter, has been pushing for some time to add organizations like the UFC to the Ali Act, a 17-year-old boxing reform law that would force MMA promotions to share financial information about fights and use independent ranking systems to set title fights. In the case of the UFC, it would mean president Dana White couldnt form bouts based on what would make the most compelling pay-per-view battle. And because the organization has used this freedom to build themselves into a lucrative giant that was recently sold to WME-IMG for $4bn, they have not supported being added to the Ali Act. In fact they have hired a DC lobbying firm to oppose it.

But fighters have long complained that MMA organizations are exploitative, doling out tiny pay for grueling matches, forcing them to fight several times a year to break even, while signing away much of their endorsement power. Even at the highest level of the UFC, a superstar like Conor McGregor, who says he made $40m this year, earns far less than his boxing counterpart, Floyd Mayweather, who took in $300m last year. McGregor had to fight three times in eight months while threatening to retire and fight Mayweather to get that money. Imagine how much harder it is for a less popular but still top-level fighter to get even a fraction of what McGregor earned?

Mullin is pushing to change that system. After Thursdays hearing, he stood in the back of the room and said the UFCs title current title fights are essentially shams, calling them championships of the loudest mouth. He added that had Peyton Manning, the winning quarterback in Februarys Super Bowl, been in the UFC, he never would have reached such heights because Manning is not a flamboyant self-promoter. In January, he plans to hold another subcommittee hearing to add MMA organizations to the Ali Act with the hope of pushing the bill before all of Congress.

(Said the UFC in a statement issued late Thursday: The UFC issued UFC continues to believe the federal government would have no productive role in regulating MMA promotions or competitions. In addition to the organizations standard health and safety practices, each state actively regulates MMA bouts to create an atmosphere that promotes the safety and well-being of the competing athletes.)

Thursdays hearing seemed to be more about getting others in Congress to understand the fighter complaints than it was to grill the organizations lone representative: their anti-doping chief, Jeff Novitzky, a former agent for government agencies who prosecuted some of sports biggest doping cases. The subcommittees chair and also ranking member both said they were treading into a world they knew little about with the UFC. In fact, the most aggressive move Mullin might have made was his most passive, mumbling at the end of his questioning that he was slipping what turned out to be fighter Eddie Alvarezs original UFC contract into the record.

Advocates for a fighters association believe members of Congress will be shocked when they see the contracts restrictions on Alvarezs licensing and marketing opportunities.

This week, leaders of the newly-formed Mixed Martial Arts Athletes Association visited what they estimate was 16 to 18 Congress members to lobby for adding MMA fighting to the Ali Act. They took along Couture and fighters Carlos Newton, Vinicius Quireoz and Nate Quarry. In most cases, the lawmakers knew little about the MMA. But when the organizations founder, Phoenix-area attorney Rob Maysey, told them he was only trying to get Congress to expand the definition of the Ali Act from boxing to cover all contact sports, he said the reaction was positive.

They got that, he said.

But how much they understood about MMA or the sports political issues is debatable. Rather than ask about pay or independent rankings many on subcommittee directed their questions to Ann McKee, one of the witnesses, who runs Boston Universitys center for the study of CTE the degenerative brain condition found in many boxers and football players asking her about the sports safety record. There was even a question about whether MMA fighters should be required to wear headgear, something no fighter will want.

When asked after the hearing if he worried that Congress might try to regulate MMA fighting more than he wished, Couture, smiled and shrugged.

I think we have to find that fine line, he said, inching his thumb and index fingers.

Mullin did not seem to be concerned about excessive regulation. He also said he isnt worried that Whites friend, Donald Trump, will soon be president and didnt expect that Trump would interfere with the legislation. Mostly he was happy to finally be talking about the Ali Act and fighter rights and pay.

Ive been wanting to do this for years, he said of the legislation that might finally happen.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2016/dec/08/randy-couture-fighters-rights-congress-ufc-mma

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