MMA things I’d like to see happen in 2021 but, like, no pressure

A list of things, like better pay and fewer conspiracies, the MMA world could do to improve in 2021.

Remember when 2020 was arriving and we were all like “Hey, let’s make plans and create expectations like we do every year because why wouldn’t we?”

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In any case, you don’t really need to me tell you about how much this year sucked, do you? Not when you already have your timeline, your family, everything that exists on the internet and that sad, lifeless, vacant-eyed shell of a person staring back at you in the mirror every morning to do that.

So, instead, let’s just put it like this: 2020 is a thing that happened. It is now done. And while a calendar switch won’t magically make everything better, there’s nothing wrong with reluctantly allowing a tiny sliver of light to pry its way through this cold, hardened, shriveled lump of bark you call a heart and holding on to the mostly futile but comforting symbolism of a new year.

What can I say, I’m a romantic like that.

So, in the spirit of not expecting too much but daring to dream a little, I’ve compiled a list of things that I’d like to see happen in MMA in 2021. Some are doable, some aren’t, and some will probably be on every single list forever. But what matters is that we all keep in mind that this is my list and it’s not supposed to be serious, grounded in objective reality or in any way reasonable.

bernie let me live

Better fighter pay

Earlier this year, The Athletic conducted a wide-ranging anonymous survey among 170 professional MMA fighters. I was part of the group of the reporters who talked to the athletes, who were spread across different promotions, weight divisions and age groups, hailing from several countries and backgrounds. From existential fears to pre-fight nerves, we got a lot of insight on all kinds of topics, but I’m probably not surprising anyone when I say few discoveries were more fascinating than the ones we made in one particular front.

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I must admit, I wasn’t expecting a lot of fighters to answer when we asked about the biggest payday of their careers, and even less so when we asked them how much of that they actually got to keep. Alas, quite a lot of them did, and as a result we got to put their disclosed fight purses into (a kind of sad) perspective. We heard more about double taxation, and management fees, and the costs of even making it to fight week. We got to discover that, for the overwhelming majority of the surveyed fighters (70.5%), there was no bigger issue facing their class than money.

“Even when you get to some of those higher levels, the money’s just not there,” a UFC fighter said. “You’re a professional, but you can’t live and train like one.”

Now, those weren’t necessarily groundbreaking findings. It’s not like we didn’t know that MMA fighters are generally underpaid and that the sport structurally doesn’t offer much in terms of financial security. This very item was, in fact, in a similar list that I wrote last year, in which I presented arguments similar to the ones you are about to read. Still, there was something sobering about seeing the numbers and the quotes.

These are people who are risking their bodies, brains and literal lives to perform a job that is both intensely demanding and highly visible. And they’re doing it all as independent contractors, with no steady income or retirement plan, and no assurances of anything. These are people who can train for weeks, racking up all the costs that a training camp naturally incurs, only to run the risk of not getting paid at all in case a tendon decides to go rogue or an ankle rolls the wrong way. These are people who need to maximize the opportunities in a career that isn’t conducive with longevity but who can also lose years of their athletic prime if a knee isn’t particularly cooperative.

These are people who are expected to not only win but to do it excitingly, to be not only athletes but also brands, and who know that faltering in any of those things might be enough grounds to cost them their jobs at basically any point of their contracts.

In some cases, these are people making other people quite a lot of money and not seeing much of it themselves.

And these are people who, in this particular year, were expected to do all of this in the middle of a global pandemic, with all the added health risks and practical hurdles that it brought along, without so much as the power to collectively discuss and negotiate their terms and expectations in this new scenario.

In a way, it’s discouraging that we’re about to go into 2021 and I still find myself writing slight variations of this same text knowing that I will still be met with the totally cool, not at all gross and sociopathic “This is the life they chose, why should I sympathize” argument.

Yet, if I didn’t know any better, I’d say I have grown something resembling optimism about the direction of these conversations. Maybe it’s the holiday cheer, maybe it’s my brain mercifully tricking me into believing that not everything is hopeless bullshit, but I do feel like we are collectively becoming more open to asking rich corporations to maybe be a little less rich so that regular people can be a little less broke.

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A female commentator in the UFC broadcast

Women compete in the UFC, women hold titles in the UFC, women report on the UFC, women work the desk during UFC events, women watch the UFC and women even have educated opinions on UFC-related matters. The good news is that, despite it all, the UFC has yet to implode and the world has yet to stop rotating on its axis. The bad news is that there’s still something missing.

Thankfully, there seems to be a practical, highly qualified, UFC-employed solution for this predicament right in front of our eyes. I’m not going to say what it is, but I’m going to say it rhymes with the words AURA PANKO.

Well, the obvious

Look, I’m not naive.

I know that time is a social construct and that things don’t magically change when our calendar changes. I’m not expecting miracles, or sorcery, or for the vaccine fairies to appear on January 1st. I’m not an idiot, OK? I know fairies have families and take vacations and will need at least a couple of days to sleep off all the booze and recreational drugs. Still, things seem to be heading in a reasonably less-awful direction, and I can’t help but hope that next year’s list will be less about how everything is totally horrible all the time and more about how most of the things are only severely horrible like 90 percent of the time.

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Fact is, despite the best efforts of some of the very powerful heartless ghouls in positions of power (*coughs* Jair Bolsonaro *coughs*), science is still happening and vaccines are beginning to make their way through the population. It’s hard to tell just how long it will take for them to be widespread enough for us to be able to travel freely and go back to having to make excuses to get out of plans with real-life people in public settings. I’m no expert, but it’s looking like 2021 will still be, for the most part, weird. But I guess if I’m making a wish list, might as well aim a little high and I hope that by year’s end we’ve dramatically reduced the number of positive tests in MMA and can get back to our regular pre-COVID levels of conflict about following this beautifully unreasonable sport.

In the meantime, though, just less spreading of misleading or plainly false information would be nice

As we are all painfully aware of by now, rejecting science and expertise in favor of a meme shared by some guy who you once saw butt-chugging a Coors Light in college isn’t so much an MMA thing as it is a living in the world in 2020 thing.

Is it worse in the MMA community, though?

That’s a question I still have a tough time answering definitively.

Whether it’s watching prominent fighters casually sharing COVID denialism on their Instagram stories, seeing former champions turn themselves into real-life anti-mask memes in public office or reading the contents of pretty much all comment sections and reply threads, I admit it’s often hard to arrive at a different conclusion.

As someone who is around MMA for large portions of her day, I do often find myself unable to escape the unrelenting 2020-ness (2020-ism? 2020-tude?) of it all. And stories like Politico’s “How MMA Fighters Magnify QAnon for MAGAWorld” and The Guardian’s “Tinfoil gloves: why has MMA become a breeding ground for QAnon?” (both great reads if you want to get insight but also a case of the sads) show me I’m not alone in these feelings.

At the same time, I acknowledge that I exist in a bubble. With this sport taking over so much of my life as both a fan and full-time MMA writer and podcaster, at a time when our interpersonal interactions are limited and arguably more curated than ever, it’s hard to truly put perceptions into perspective.

Which is my way of saying I don’t have the numbers and data to tell you if MMA really is particularly shitty or if it’s just the specific cut-out of the overall shittiness that I get to witness more closely. Is conspiratorial and anti-scientific thinking really is more prevalent in MMA or simply less discouraged? Are there really that many of these voices or do they just sound louder because there aren’t many others pushing back? Does it really matter, ultimately, when the result is the same?

So, no, I can’t confidently tell you that MMA is worse. But what I can tell you is that having public figures using their platforms and open channels of communication with audiences to carelessly share information that is either misleading or downright dangerous is not great. I can only hope the vaccines remind people that it’s actual experts and scientists, not butt-chugging dude from college, who are actually putting out this raging dumpster fire. Then maybe, hopefully, who knows, some collective responsibility will follow.

Jon Jones vs. Israel Adesanya

At this point, I’ve lost track of where Jon Jones is, if he really is going to come back as a heavyweight, or the status of his relationship with the UFC.

I don’t know when Israel Adesanya is going to move up to try to become a champ-champ, when will defend his middleweight title, or if he’s going to do both in the same night while balancing himself on top of a flaming pogo ball.

I don’t know if a fight between Jones and Adesanya would be worth an undisputed title, an interim title, a BMF title, or one of those Burger King crowns.

And, honestly, I don’t care.

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P.S: Jones is indeed expected to return at heavyweight and Adesanya will probably meet 205-pound champ Jan Blachowicz next and maybe I am being a tad idealistic, but it’s been a long year and we deserve a treat and I ask that you please just let me have this.

Customized fight gear in the UFC

Now, kids, you might not remember this. But a long long time ago, way back in October, the MMA community came together as one in celebration as featherweight Bryce Mitchell walked out to the cage wearing a pair of camo shorts.

Smiling over camo shorts was nowhere near the list of things I was expecting to see myself doing in 2020, but, then again, neither was learning how to wax my crotch at home or getting extremely into Mexican songster Luis Miguel. Alas, such is the hand we’ve been dealt, and as those shorts entered that octagon I just couldn’t cope with the overwhelming emotion of knowing I would now be able to stop hearing about the damn camo shorts for like five seconds.

My intern is on vacation, and also he’s a cat, so I won’t be able to pull out the numbers here, but if I had to guess the number of times the camo shorts were mentioned in public UFC-related conversations I would estimate around…

Too many.

Too. Damn. Many.

Now, I’m no apparel expert, but I’m going to go ahead and guess that this would all have been avoided with a single step: If Mitchell had his camo gear from the get-go. And if — prepare yourselves because I’m about to get real crazy up in here — all fighters had been able to walk out with unique gear that reflected their personalities. Yes, I do understand uniforms are part of other sports, but I’m going to go ahead and throw the wild suggestion that MMA is not like any other sports. And yes, I do understand that allowing customization would have taken some more work and resources, but for some reason I get the feeling that Reebok would have been able to swing it.

As we know, that point is now moot, as the UFC and Reebok are parting ways and no one was ever cool enough to send me a “Giblert” T-shirt. But here’s hoping new global outfitting and apparel partner Venum changes things up a bit.

Or at least that they just go ahead and make the damn camo shorts.

P.S: I’d say maybe the fighters could get a bigger cut of that sweet sponsorship money, but let’s take this one totally wild idea at a time.

Jorge Masvidal vs. Colby Covington

If wanting a sanctioned cage fight between two friends who were once close enough to advertise athletic cups by kicking each other in the nuts and are now public enemies is wrong, then I don’t want to be right.

Literally any Nate Diaz fight

Speaking of wrong, I’m not even going to lie: If it takes a Paul brother and some water balloons to get Nathan Donald Diaz back into our lives, I’ll gladly trade basic human dignity and whatever’s left of my principles for a front-row seat.

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No more carboxy-THC suspensions

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Maybe a realization that media isn’t the enemy?

I decided to sneak this one in last in hopes I won’t catch too much flack for it. I’m sure bitter Twitter men will promptly let me know if my bold strategy paid off.

This has been discussed ostensively by myself and many of my colleagues, so I’m not going to walk you through the grand UFC president Dana White vs. The Media debacle of 2020 all over again. The Cliff’s Notes version: earlier this year, when the pandemic started to really rage on and basically all sports shut down, the UFC still insisted on continuing with events — particularly UFC 249, which they considered holding on Native American land in order to avoid regulations.

Naturally, we had some questions about how the whole “holding an event with human people in the middle of a massive health crisis” would go down, and the fact White didn’t seem particularly keen on answering them caused some tension. Pressure from Disney and ESPN ultimately led the UFC to back down and call off the event, but the narrative that the big bad sports media actually hated sports and was out to ruin them was already laid out.

In a way, there’s nothing new about the media being used as scapegoats. The strategy of shooting the messenger rather than addressing the issues that the messenger is trying to report is as prevalent as it is effective, and at some point you just take it as part of the gig. Criticism, fair and otherwise, is part of the gig.  Being hated and publicly dragged by people you don’t know is part of the gig.

And one thing I’ve learned after years of trying to bridge these gaps and explain our side of the deal is that people who are determined to believe that the media is the root of all evil won’t even try to listen, and those who aren’t think that what you’re saying it’s kind of obvious. There’s really no way of engaging these arguments without sounding defensive and self-serving and opening yourself up to sneering and mockery, but after White’s most recent anti-media diatribe I’ve decided to give myself this totally unnecessary dose of stress.

Off the bat, I’ll say this: There isn’t a lot of incentive to being a journalist, let alone a journalist who covers something like MMA for a living. Full-time jobs are rare, full-time jobs that actually pay decently are even rarer, and there often isn’t a lot of security in any of them. I can’t speak for everyone who works in this business, given I don’t know everyone who works in this business, but I can speak for myself and for the people I know that the vast majority of us chose to pursue this sport not because of the fame and the prestige, not because we’re beautiful martyrs who took upon themselves the burden of spreading the cage-fighting gospel, but because we were weird enough to actually like it.

People who cover MMA, much like those who cover any sport, rely heavily on a calendar of live events to do their jobs. We need people to watch sports if we want them to hear or read about sports. The UFC happens to be the world’s leading MMA promotion, which means that UFC events are a big part of our jobs. If the UFC were to cease to exist tomorrow, for instance, so would many of the positions we currently occupy. Which is all to say that, even if we were terrible people who chose to work a lot for little money just to be assholes, there really is no benefit to bringing down the UFC.

We ask questions and we criticize things because that’s kind of the job description, not because — again, speaking for myself and those I know — there is some deep, dark, bottom line there. Yes, working online often comes with the need for clicks, and to pretend like this doesn’t affect the general quality of the work would be dishonest.

There are careless and misleading headlines in MMA, like there are in everything else, and there’s sensationalistic content in MMA, like there is in everything else. The content-churning machine is real, and we make mistakes, and we should be held accountable for them. But what many people might not realize is that we aren’t the ones pocketing the money from those extra clicks. There’s really no direct benefit to being raging assholes. For the most part, we’re just people with jobs trying not to suck at either being people or doing our jobs, much like most people who have jobs.

Except for rich attorneys who help richer people get away with crimes and leaders of multi-level marketing companies. They really are all terrible people.

Bonus wish: A cross-promotion Patricio Freire fight

I wasn’t going to include this because seeing Bellator champ-champ Patricio Freire mixing it up with UFC featherweights seemed way too unrealistic, but I guess there really is no force quite as indomitable as human hope.

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