By now, the shock of both Sean Sherk and Hermes Franca
testing positive for steroids has subsided a bit. The ripple of that stone being thrown into
the pond of MMA, however, remains. There
are of course worse things that could have happened and could yet happen to the
UFC. But there’s a way to prevent, or at
least curb the possibility, that some similar scandal could rock the
organization (and the sport) in the future, when the ramifications are
potentially more far-reaching.
There are a few key points worth discussing in the statement
sent to MMAWeekly by Hermes Franca. He
explains early on that he contacted the UFC to tell them about his ankle
injury, and how it could possibly preclude him from fighting. He wanted to postpone the fight until the
next event, but this idea was promptly shot down. Now of course, keep in mind that UFC 73 was
eight weeks away at this point, and the cards for the next two or three events
were largely in place. To postpone the
fight would mean to have to sign a quick replacement fight on short notice, and
to squeeze a semi-main event into one of the next cards, where the main events
were at least already planned, if not signed.
But postponing the fight wouldn’t have been the answer anyway. A replacement opponent would have been named,
and Franca would have lost his
shot. But in all fairness, he would have
gotten the shot later, right? Well,
history may prove that theory wrong.
Let’s get in the wayback machine, shall we?
Back in late 2005, Karo Parisyan was on a bit of a
roll. He’d won four straight fights over
some stiff competition in the form of Shonie Carter, Nick Diaz, Chris Lytle,
and current champ Matt Serra. His last
loss had come at the hands of Georges St. Pierre, who had lost his own bid at
the title shortly thereafter. Matt
Hughes had just vanquished Frank Trigg for the second time, and it seemed that
he and Parisyan were on a collision course.
Fate would intervene, however, when Parisyan was injured shortly before
his scheduled bout with then-champion Hughes at UFC 56. Parisyan had to pull out of the fight, and
Joe Riggs would go on to lose to Hughes in what turned out to be a non-title
fight, due to Riggs’ inability to make weight (which is another story in
itself). Just a bump in the road for
Parisyan, right? Well, not really. Parisyan came back and fought in an
untelevised bout against UFC rookie Nick Thompson in April of 2006 for his
return. He would then go on to lose to
Diego Sanchez in what many considered to be the best fight of 2006, before
beating Drew Fickett and Josh Burkman by decision. And now?
Now there’s at least the winner of Koscheck/St. Pierre in front of the
Armenian. Almost two years have passed,
and Parisyan is no closer to his lost title shot than he was when he fought
Nick Thompson. So the lesson learned for
any UFC title contender is that you don’t pull out of a title fight unless you really
can’t go. Do whatever you have to in
order to fight, but you’ve got to fight.
And so we have one motivation for Hermes Franca to take
steroids. Whether or not you believe Franca,
or feel that his motivations warranted his actions, is immaterial. The motivation is there, and that’s indisputable. The UFC set the precedent with Parisyan, and
until someone else pulls out of a title fight and is given a shot upon his
return, there’s no reason to believe that a different fate would await any
other would-be title contender.
So that brings us to the next point in Franca’s
statement. He talks about how fighting
is how he makes his living, and how he lives from fight to fight. There’s a big problem with this if it’s true. Look at Franca’s
last year. Here’s a guy who fought seven
times (three in the UFC) between March of last year and January of this
year. If three fights in the UFC don’t
pay you enough to be able to skip a fight due to injury five months later, or
if the UFC isn’t willing to take care of a title contender who’s laid up temporarily,
we’ve got a problem. And it doesn’t
matter whether Franca was telling
the truth here, or whether it justified his taking steroids in order to take
the fight. (For the record, nothing
justifies his taking steroids before this fight. All health risks aside, he knew that he was
going to be tested, and he knew it would come up positive, and he knew he’d be
fined and suspended. So taking the drug
defies all logic. But again, that’s not
the point.) The point is that we have no
way to prove or disprove anything he’s saying.
The lesson that the UFC can learn here is simple. Be more transparent with the business. I understand that Dana White and the
Fertittas feel like they shouldn’t have to disclose anything, seeing as how the
UFC is a privately owned company, and that makes sense to a certain
degree. But when the UFC becomes bigger
than it already is, when they’re on ESPN and/or network television, when
they’re more likely to be more heavily scrutinized by journalists and
potentially government, the willingness to be open with business practices
would work to their advantage. Saying,
“we take care of our fighters” means jack. Sure, Chuck Liddell makes a good living.
But everyone knows that. What
about guys like Franca? What about guys like Roger Huerta? Or Clay Guida? Houston
Alexander? Alessio Sakara? What about those guys? If they don’t get the hefty fight of the
night bonus (which, by the way, is completely arbitrary), what do they get
paid? Do they need to work a job on the
side? Do they depend on sponsors? And if so, why? Any fighter in the UFC should be able to make
a decent year’s salary with a couple of fights.
Let’s just look at it this way. Say the UFC pays every fighter on the card
$50,000, with a $50,000 win bonus (way, way more than even some main eventers
get paid right now). And let’s say that
a pay-per-view event does 100,000 buys (way fewer than reality). That gives us a total fighter salary of $1.35
million. The total PPV revenue (not counting
the live gate or the merchandise sales, on which the UFC is completely missing
the boat) would be $4 million at $40 per buy.
Have a look at that ratio. Almost
40:1 profit to fighter salary. Is that
too much to ask for the guys that are selling the show?
Granted, the actual logistics are more complicated than
that, and not everyone is promoted in a way that all fighters “sell the show”, but
the principle is the same. Maybe the UFC
is paying their guys enough. But
until they make the real salaries public, and not just the official
salaries that get reported to the state, we won’t know for sure. Not only that, but we’ll continue to see guys
who appear to be grossly underpaid.
To pay a fighter $3,000 to fight and $3,000 to win on a night where the
company is making the kind of money that the UFC is making is disgraceful,
plain and simple. I understand the
principle of fighting one’s way into the show, but I don’t understand how
someone would be less motivated if they made big money in their first appearance
for a promotion, with the promise of more of the same and bigger money to come. There is no disadvantage to paying your
fighters more money, and there’s no disadvantage to disclosing the real fighter
salaries to the public, other than the loss of a secret that you can hold over
the public’s head. To keep mum for the
sake of keeping mum is ludicrous.
There’s another aspect to this. Secrecy in general implies that there’s
something to hide. If the UFC wants to
avoid the same fate as boxing, that’s another reason to be more
transparent. The organization of boxing
today turns a lot of potential fans off.
Corruption is almost a given in the sport. With the UFC, not only do we have no idea
what goes on behind the scenes, but the promotion is based out of the seediest
place in the country—Las Vegas. Why do
you think no major sport will touch Vegas?
There won’t ever be a major sports team there, because the association
with a town like that is too risky.
Gambling is a huge part of sports, and no one is denying that. But no one is embracing it either. And if you wonder why, look no further than
Tim Donaghy, the corrupt NBA official who was potentially fixing games because
of—you guessed it—gambling debts. The
association with Las Vegas doesn’t
do anyone any good, despite the rich history that the city has with combat
sports. Mixed martial arts, and the UFC
in particular, is in the process of writing history at this time. Why follow a pattern that has failed in the
long run? Why associate yourself so
closely with a vice that has destroyed countless lives? It may sound dramatic, but it’s true. The Fertittas and Dana White are already
millionaires many times over. We all
know that they lost a lot of money before they made any. But you can bet that they’ve made it all
back, and then some. Isn’t it time to
start making good on the promise to secure the future of the sport?
There are other issues to discuss in the realm of improving
MMA and the UFC, but for now, the UFC ought to look at what lessons Hermes and
Karo provide, and actually learn from them.
If we’ve learned anything from the debacles that have hit professional
wrestling over the past couple of months, it’s that you can operate in a bubble
for a long time if you’re lucky, but you can’t do it forever. The sooner the UFC starts worrying about what
people think, the better they’ll be for it in the long run. Stubbornness can only get you so far.
contact me, Shawn Ennis, shoot me an email at email@example.com or visit my
zone on the forums.