In 2003, Pete Spratt was weeks away from the biggest fight of his fledgling mixed martial arts career, an Ultimate Fighting Championship bout against future hall of famer Matt Hughes.
Spratt, a Texas-based fighter who grew up in Sherman and still trains young athletes in San Antonio, was fresh off an upset win against future UFC champion Robbie Lawler.
He thought the biggest payday of his career was upon him.
Instead, Spratt was offered $8,000 to challenge Hughes for the title while Hughes was offered $50,000 to fight and another $50,000 if he won.
When the UFC rejected Spratt’s counter offer of $25,000 to fight, Spratt walked away and began a journeyman career across North America that spanned a half dozen different fighting organizations. He never got another UFC title shot and last fought in 2013.
There’s no reason why they couldn’t compensate me $25,000 for a fight.
Pete Spratt, former MMA fighter
“I gave the politically correct answer that I wasn’t ready to fight a wrestler of that caliber,” Spratt said of his public reasoning at the time for rejecting the title fight. “The real reason was because of that money. There’s no reason why they couldn’t compensate me $25,000 for a fight.”
Now Spratt is hoping Congress will get into the fight, expanding a 16-year-old law intended to protect boxers and force the UFC to reveal its finances and set up independent rankings that will award title bouts to fighters based on their records and not on UFC’s judgment of their marketability.
It may seem like an odd battle for Congress – regulating a sport whose profits, while considerable, are still dwarfed by the billions raked in by the National Football League or the National Basketball Association.
But Washington has stepped in before with the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act, and the mood in the nation’s capital may be ripe for another foray – with a president-elect whose reputation was made in part by reality TV and whose pick to lead the Small Business Administration, Linda McMahon, is a former executive of another highly profitable athletic endeavor, World Wrestling Entertainment.
Mixed martial arts is a sport that incorporates elements of boxing and wrestling, allowing athletes to kick, punch and grapple with their opponents both standing and on the ground. The Ultimate Fighting Championship, or UFC, is the world’s largest MMA promoter. The UFC began in the early 1990s with the tagline “there are no rules” and has evolved into a multi-billion dollar entity with superstar athletes.
Young MMA fighters typically come from the ranks of other combat disciplines, like judo and karate, before making the jump into professional competition.
Payouts can be huge for fighters like Conor McGregor or Ronda Rousey, UFC champions who earn millions with every bout. But for every one of them, there are dozens of mixed martial artists like Spratt who must fight up to 6 times a year to make ends meet.
Spratt wants Congress to expand the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act to cover MMA athletes and force MMA promoters to divulge their revenue, end one-sided contracts and establish an independent ranking system for athletes. The act was first passed in 2000 to protect boxers and end match fixing.
Oklahoma Republican Rep. Markwayne Mullin, a former MMA fighter, and Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Joe Kennedy are sponsoring the bipartisan effort.
Mullin criticized the UFC’s ranking system after a recent hearing in Washington, arguing that fighters need to assume a TV-friendly personality to succeed financially.
“In order to get a shot at the belt you either have to be the villain or the good guy,” Mullin said. “You’ve got to have a loud mouth and you’ve got to be able to self-promote and put a lot of people in the seats or otherwise you aren’t going to get a shot at the title.”
Spratt wasn’t a self-promoter. A former college football player at Southeastern Oklahoma State, Spratt got into MMA to pursue his dream of being a professional athlete in any way possible.
“I was just training with a couple of friends of mine that were already fighting professionally,” Spratt said. “The first guy I fought was a guy named Keith Sutton and I knocked him out in the first round. There was no training camp and I think I made $100 in my first fight.”
Spratt’s first professional fight, at a bar in Killeen, Texas, in 1999, exemplified the sport’s backroom roots. Spratt was determined to make it to the UFC within two years. It took him three, but the championship fight – and the big payout – never came.
“In my career, if there was an open market then I could probably easily make six-figures,” Spratt said. “Boxers make way more on average than mixed martial arts fighters because the UFC controls the market because that is the pinnacle of your career.”
When fighters know how much money the UFC rakes in from pay-per-view TV fees and sponsorship deals, Spratt said it will help everyone know their relative bargaining power.
In the last decade, the UFC had nine pay-per-view events that attracted at least 1 million viewers compared to boxing’s 10. But the UFC has a deeper pool of fighters that draw lots of viewers.
Nine different UFC fighters have led the promotion in box office draws over the last decade while boxing relied on Oscar De La Hoya, Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao to draw crowds. De La Hoya and Mayweather are now retired and Pacquiao is in the final stages of his career.
“From what has been reported, the UFC is making 90 percent of revenue and fighters are getting about 8 percent,” Spratt said. In contrast, boxers receive about 50 percent of the sports’ take, he said.
You’ve got to have a loud mouth and you’ve got to be able to self-promote and put a lot of people in the seats or otherwise you aren’t going to get a shot at the title.
U.S. Rep. Markwayne Mullin, R-Okla., former MMA fighter
According to Dave Meltzer, an expert on the MMA business, the UFC generated $157 million in profits in 2015, well below the profits of the NFL and NBA, but still substantial black ink.
Spratt is part of a group of fighters attempting to organize the Mixed Martial Arts Fighters Association. They aim to build a group akin to the Major League Baseball Players’ Association and expanding the Ali Act is a first step in their organizational efforts.
But it’s not clear how much the Ali Act would help MMA athletes. In boxing, each state still has jurisdiction over the majority of fights and some choose not to penalize promoters who openly violate the Ali Act.
“Many people in boxing today simply ignore the act’s requirements,” boxing author Thomas Hauser wrote in 2007. “And virtually no one in a position of authority with regard to enforcement is doing anything to remedy the situation.”
But UFC hall of famer Randy Couture, a proponent of the Ali Act’s expansion who testified before Congress despite the UFC threatening to withdraw from the hearing if he spoke, argued that expanding the Ali Act would make a difference.
“There’s still accountability,” Couture said. “Federal law . . . changes the structure of mixed martial arts. Right now the promoter (UFC) is acting as the sanctioning body and promotion, they can force athletes to sign exclusive contracts.”
A UFC representative did not respond to a request for comment.
“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.”
Even if the Ali Act doesn’t prevent some promoters from exploiting fighters, an independent ranking system will likely remove some of the controversy surrounding the UFC’s decisions to raise and lower the rankings of certain fighters.
Mullin said the UFC chooses to put certain fighters in title bouts in order to boost ratings, passing over more deserving fighters for a flashy card. He compared retired NFL quarterback Peyton Manning to a fighter who isn’t marketable on TV.
“If Peyton Manning was fighting in the UFC, he’s not this flamboyant individual or a self-promoter and he would never be . . . one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL because he would never get the opportunity to do so.”
Even though Spratt walked away from the UFC and publicly speaks out about the organization’s treatment of athletes, the allure of cash was too much for a fighter moonlighting in small arenas around the country. In 2006, he participated in a UFC-sponsored reality TV show that gave the winner a chance at a title.
Spratt lost twice, ending his hopes for a title shot.
Even though the UFC is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to lobby members of Congress, Spratt and Couture are confident the bill will pass sometime in 2017.
Mullin, the former MMA fighter who’s now in Congress, said incoming Energy and Commerce Committee chair Greg Walden, an Oregon Republican, will allow the legislation to proceed.
But the Ali Act could have one final hurdle if it makes it out of Congress.
Donald Trump is friends with UFC founder Dana White.
Couture said White “may try to play that buddy card” to derail the bill, but both he and Spratt dismiss White’s influence. Couture, who supported Trump during the election, said Trump “understands fighters” and notes that the president-elect is friends with former UFC fighter and Celebrity Apprentice contestant Tito Ortiz.
“Trump is a businessman and I think he’ll be fair and see the things that have been happening with MMA as a whole and he’ll sign off on the bill eventually,” Spratt said.