The Rickety Old Shack

Leslie Smith And The UFC Part Ways

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The weigh-ins for the latest instalment of UFC Fight Night were rife with drama and bout cancellations, as they have all been since the UFC implemented their early weigh-in policy. Kevin Lee missed weight for his main event fight with Edson Barboza, Magomed Bibulatov was scratched from his fight with Ulka Sasaki due to an unspecified back injury, and Leslie Smith's opponent, Aspen Ladd, missed weight by 2 pounds which lead to the fight being cancelled. The circumstances leading to Smith's fight being cancelled are interesting, and took some time to be explained by the fighter herself, first in a statement provided to MMA Junkie (link):

They said they had no interest in extending my contract at this time, and instead, they offered me my show and win money. So they said they'll just pay me off, and since they're giving me the win bonus, it counts as the last fight on my contract. So, I guess that would mean I'm a free agent now.

Smith further elaborated on the situation via Twitter (link), where she explained exactly why the fight was cancelled and how her discussions — which ultimately lead to her purported release from the promotion — with the UFC went.

Ultimately I said I would fight [Aspen Ladd] (who is lying about offering me 5k) if [The UFC] renewed my contract for one more fight at my current terms and they said no. UFC said they'd pay me $62k NOT to fight, so I would've been fighting for $0 since I already had $62k coming.

So, to recap, this is what happened: Smith's opponent missed weight by 2 pounds, Smith then used the situation to try and negotiate with the UFC for an additional fight — or just a better contract, whichever was more feasible — and was instead told she would be paid her show and win money and did not have to fight. Furthermore, the UFC apparently stated that, since she was paid her contracted win bonus, that satisfied the remaining fight on her contract. This is an unprecedent situation, as the UFC, historically, does not pay win money to fighters who don't fight — let alone paying them and letting them out of their contracts.

If all of that seems a little strange, then it bears considering that Leslie Smith has also been leading the charge for Project Spearhead, and their efforts to get UFC fighters to sign union cards in order to force a determination of their employment status from the National Labor Review Board. Perhaps things make a little more sense now; the UFC clearly did not want an agitator remaining among the ranks, and then along came this opportunity to release Smith without even putting her on the broadcast or letting her leave on a win...

That being said, the UFC may have done themselves a disservice here. While they may have gotten a "troublemaker" out of the organisation, their actions demonstrate the extreme degree of control they have over the MMA world. The UFC was able to pay a fighter to not fight, and by refusing to re-sign her there is effectively no ranked competition for her outside of the organisation — aside from Sarah Kaufman. People can sneer at the UFC's official rankings all they want, but they have given sworn deposition that those rankings are used by matchmakers. Also, whether one puts stock in the UFC's rankings or not, the fact remains that the UFC has claim to almost every female bantamweight fighter of note.

Another aspect to consider is that the UFC may have erred in releasing Smith, as taking action against an employee, in retaliation for any sort of labour organising, is illegal. Now, that applies only to employees — not independant contractors, which fighters are — however, if a legal situation forced a review of fighters' employment conditions with the UFC, things could get dicey. As explained in a 2015 article from Bloody Elbow (link), the employee / contractor classification hinges on how much control the employer exerts over the person in question:

The protections under federal law for union activity only applies to employees, not to independent contractors. So if fighters are ICs, then they could not avail themselves of those protections. The question of whether one is an IC or an employee boils down to a bunch of questions over how much control the employer exerts over the individual. Who controls or directs the employee. There are a number of court cases determining the proper classification of workers in different contexts — workers' comp, unions, taxes, the Fair Labor Standards Act, etc.

The article covers some scenarios that may arise now, either because Project Spearhead reaches their goal of getting 30% of the UFC roster to sign union cards, or possibly now because of legal action available to Smith. Regardless, the situation highlights the incredible amount of power and control the UFC exerts over fighters, by virtue of their dominance of the North American MMA market. Given some basic facts, it is my opinion that the UFC would fail in their assertion that UFC fighters are contractors due to the following:

How this plays out remains to be seen, and it would be foolish to expect any quick action. As noted, the UFC may have made a mistake here — exposing themselves to scrutiny they absolutely do not want. The circumstances surrounding the fight cancellation are suspicious, with Smith stopping just short of stating her opponent colluded with the UFC to scrap the fight, and given the growing momentum behind unionisation — and the UFC's anti-trust suit currently working through the courts, it isn't exactly beyond the realm of consideration. I know, I know; the notion that the fight game may be host to shady, underhanded behaviour would be such a shock, but you never know!

I suspect there will be more to this story as time passes. Leslie Smith has put a lot of effort into Project Spearhead, and I respect and salute her efforts. Regardless of whether any legal challenge arises from the events of today, fighters should take a look at what transpired and sign their union cards. No one knows exactly what is best for UFC fighters but, as evidenced today, the status quo is absolutely not the answer — anything that affords fighters more agency has to be for the better. Today's events only underscore the importance of Leslie Smith's message.

—by Derek

Published: April 20th, 2018.