When Randy “The Natural” Couture began his Ultimate Fighting Championship career in 1997, the sport resembled little more than an organized fight club.
His first opponent outweighed him by more than 100 pounds.
Two decades and billions of dollars later, the UFC has entertained millions through lucrative pay-per-view TV events with a host of colorful characters including Irishman Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey, the third-most searched person on Google in 2015.
But the Ultimate Fighting Championship determines its own fighter rankings and does not allow athletes under contract to compete in other competitions. Now, a group of former fighters led by Couture and Rep. Markwayne Mullin, R-Okla., want to expand federal protections for athletes who participate in mixed martial arts, known as MMA.
Mixed martial arts is a sport that allows athletes to kick, punch and grapple with their opponents both standing and on the ground, incorporating elements of boxing and wrestling. The Ultimate Fighting Championship, or UFC, is the world’s largest MMA promoter.
Couture said the UFC “uses rankings and titles to manipulate fighters,” and he railed against the multi-billion-dollar company’s control of athletes during a hearing on Capitol Hill on Thursday.
“A machine is basically printing money for them. They don’t want to give up that structure and that power,” Couture said of the UFC. “Me, I was fortunate to be in that top percent. I made a great living as a fighter. The mid- and lower-tier fighters, those guys that aren’t in the top 5 percent ... they struggle.
“They can’t fight enough times in a year to make a decent living, especially with the restrictive contracts that are out there, relegated to fighting just for that one promotion,” Couture continued. “I’m more interested in changing the sport across every promotion for all the future athletes, so they don’t have to fight with the company over ancillary rights and some of the crap that I had to fight with the company over.”
Couture, along with representatives from the UFC, testified before the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade, chaired by Fort Worth-area Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas.
“Once more, we turn our attention to something Congress has not focused upon before,” Burgess said during his opening statement. “As the industry continues to evolve swiftly, now is the time to bring Congress up to speed on MMA, and understand if there is a role Congress should be playing in this multi-billion-dollar industry.”
Couture appeared on Capitol Hill to support expansion of the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act, a piece of legislation that became law in 2000, that protects boxers but not mixed martial arts athletes from oppressive promoters.
The Ali Act expansion, a bipartisan effort sponsored by Mullin and Democratic Rep. Joe Kennedy of Massachusetts, would require promoters to report their full amount of revenue. It also would ban oppressive contracts and would institute an independent ranking system for athletes.
Mullin is a self-described “B-level” MMA fighter who knows the sport well. The 39-year-old lawmaker has a 3-0 career professional record according to Sherdog.com and went to Missouri Valley College on a wrestling scholarship.
The Ultimate Fighting Championship opposes the effort, and attempted to prevent Couture from testifying. Mullin told MMA Fighting, a website that covers the sport, that the UFC threatened not to testify at the hearing if Couture was speaking.
“If you’re not a Ronda Rousey or a Conor McGregor, you’re getting the shaft. Everybody below that’s not in that top echelon is struggling,” Couture said. “It’s not going to get better, it’s going to get worse. The only reason Conor’s getting a bigger, better piece is because, so far, he’s backed it up.”
McGregor recently won the UFC Lightweight Title at an event in Madison Square Garden in New York, but was dropped from the rankings against his will from a different weight class by the UFC even though no one had challenged him for the title.
In response, McGregor got a boxing license in California for a potential bout with undefeated boxer Floyd Mayweather, who made millions more from high-profile fights during his boxing career than anyone who has competed in mixed martial arts.
“Now, he’s covered under the Ali Act with that boxing license, but I guarantee you his contract with the UFC says he’s not allowed to box, he’s not allowed to do grappling or wrestling – so how’s that gonna settle out?” Couture asked rhetorically after the hearing.
During the hearing, Mullin verbally sparred with UFC vice president Jeff Novitzky, who argued that the UFC protects its fighters through anti-doping measures.
“We have the United States Anti-Doping Agency, which is the officially recognized anti-doping agency in the United States. ... So that’s one of the beauties of our program,” Novitzky said. “We don’t police ourselves, we have an independent authority.”
Mullin fired back.
“Then how did Brock Lesnar get a pass this past July to not have to test?” Mullin asked.
“That’s not accurate that he got a pass in terms of testing,” Novitzky said.
“Yeah, I believe it is, I can submit that article for the record,” Mullin retorted.
After the hearing, Mullin said the UFC is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to lobby Congress against the Ali Act’s expansion and makes a mockery of competition at MMA’s highest level.
“As we heard with McGregor, he’s never lost at 145 pounds, but yet because he made the UFC mad they dropped him out of the Top 10 in the ranking system,” Mullin said. “They do that all the time.
“When I had their (chief operating officer) in my office ... I asked him about the ranking system in championship fights. I said, ‘How is No. 1 and No. 5 always fighting and you don’t see No. 1 and No. 2?’ He said, ‘Well, we put on the best fight that the fans want to see.’ I have no problem with that, that’s called promoting. But if you’re going to call it a championship belt then shouldn’t No. 1 and No. 2 be fighting themselves?”
The impact of head injuries also came up during the hearing, although the Ali Act addresses rankings and concerns with promoters instead of health standards.
“CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) is a big problem for contact sports, and what we know today is very likely only the tip of the iceberg,” Ann McKee, a professor of neurology at Boston University said during her testimony. “We found evidence of CTE in the only [sic] MMA fighter we examined, a 27-year-old who took his own life, and there is good reason to believe that a significant portion of other MMA fighters are at risk for CTE.”
The expansion of the Ali Act will not be voted on until the new Congress commences in January, but Mullin said after the hearing that incoming House Commerce Committee chairman Greg Walden, R-Ore., will allow the legislation to progress.
Couture joked that his foray onto Capitol Hill was less pleasant than preparing for a fight.
“I’d rather be punched in the face,” Couture said.