Former Democratic presidential nominee hopeful Andrew Yang hosted his bachelor party in Las Vegas in 2010 to attend “The Ultimate Fighter 12” finale. He still watches every mixed martial arts bout that he can. Even so, Yang has grown deeply critical of UFC and President Dana White’s treatment of its fighters.
During his run for president, Yang unveiled a policy proposal that would empower mixed martial artists to unionize and collectively bargain, the first of its kind for a presidential candidate. Yang also sought to broaden the provisions of the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act to encompass combat sports. Passed by Congress in 2000, the Ali Act aimed to provide boxers protection from exploitation and anticompetitive practices.
But without advocates in the White House, the road ahead for Yang’s proposals is arduous. In 2018, the National Labor Relations Board dismissed fighter Leslie Smith’s complaint alleging that UFC retaliated against her for threatening to unionize. Rep. Markwayne Mullin, R-Okla., proposed legislation in 2016 that would have amended the Ali Act, but it received little support. Meanwhile, UFC continues to lobby against any further provisions.
UFC 249 in Jacksonville, Florida, is set to become the first major American sport to compete live since widespread stay-at-home orders were enacted in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic. In a phone interview before Saturday night’s card, Yang spoke about how he would regulate UFC and why fight fans should care about his proposed reforms.
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Q. First things first, do you have any predictions for UFC 249?
A. That’s a great question. If I had to, I’d have to say [Justin] Gaethje, [Henry] Cejudo and [Francis] Ngannou. Gaethje is a bit of an upset, I suppose.
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Q. Is the fan in you excited for UFC to come back, or is the critic in you concerned about the organization’s insistence on expediting its return?
A. If you’re to imagine a sport that could come back safely, it would be a sport like the UFC, where you only have two fighters in the ring and one referee. It’s much harder if you think of something like the NBA, where you have teams of 12, 15 and people are in close proximity on the court. It would make sense to me that the first sport that could come back is something like the UFC.
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Q. How far along in your presidential run did you decide to zero in on this issue of empowering MMA fighters? Was it something you had thought deeply about before your run or after you started to campaign?
A. I’ve been a fan for a long time, and it has angered me more and more that the UFC has been exploiting fighters, including firing Leslie Smith when she tried to organize a union. Then her complaint was then squashed by the Trump administration. Meantime, the UFC was valued at billions and billions of dollars. They got a nine-figure contract with ESPN to broadcast events.
The UFC’s fighters are being paid a small fraction of what they should be getting paid. Their entire valuation is based on the systematic exploitation of these fighters. They’re getting paid 10 to 15 percent of the revenue, whereas the standard for every other major sport is 47 to 50 percent.
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Q. Your policy proposals would be difficult to execute without an advocate in the White House to appoint members to the National Labor Relations Board amenable to reclassifying fighters as employees. Republican administrations historically have been averse to unionization. Still, there’s no guarantee that, under a Democratic administration, enough of their nominees to the NLRB will be responsive to complaints such as Smith’s. Without you or a similar proponent in the White House, how do you plan on implementing these changes from outside of the federal government?
A. I’m very confident that under a Democratic administration, we can very quickly recognize the economic reality that these fighters have been operating under and can recognize the reality that they are employees and should have the ability to organize and negotiate for a higher proportion of the sport’s revenue. I don’t need to be president to make that happen. Obviously, I was running for president and would have been thrilled to do it as president, but if there’s a Democratic president, we’ll still get it done.
Like, I can frankly just call Joe [Biden]. [Laughs] And say, “Hey this is going to seem like something you don’t need to care about, but let’s do this for the fighters because it’s the right thing to do.” I’m very excited to make that call.
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Q. Is this a policy that you will lobby Biden to campaign on?
A. Obviously to me, as a fight fan, it’s something that’s important to me. But it’s not something Joe’s going to campaign on, probably. It’s just something we’re going to make happen after he becomes president.
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Q. You have said previously that your appearance on Joe Rogan’s podcast in early 2019 helped dramatically buoy your campaign. How do you reconcile his close ties to UFC management with your relationship?
A. Joe’s friends with many of the fighters. I’m sure, in private, many of them have expressed various sentiments to him. I don’t think his comments [regarding UFC fighters’ willingness to unionize] say that he has a firm stance on this issue. But regardless, I’m very happy to sit down with people who might disagree with me on a particular topic.
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Q. Though some MMA fans do care about the relevant legal and political procedures, others might think your proposed reforms are outside the purview of their fandom. How do you properly communicate why this issue is important to fight fans?
A. If you are a fan of the sport, you would want the sport to be able to reward its athletes at an appropriate level so that you would get more talent into the sport. And also that you could watch the sport knowing that the fighters were being properly taken care of. That they have the proper health-care coverage. And that they aren’t in the octagon for longer than they should be. Seeing a fighter fight when they’re past their prime is difficult. It’s painful. But it’s even worse if you think they’re doing it because they just don’t have a choice.