Kobe Bryant’s vocal support could be tipping point for UFC athletes in unionization efforts

Kevin Iole
Combat columnist
Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant spoke in favor of an MMA fighters union during the UFC Athlete Retreat. (Getty)

The most dramatic moment of the three-day UFC Athlete Retreat that took place in Las Vegas over the weekend came when bantamweight Leslie Smith stood up to ask Kobe Bryant his thoughts about the fighters organizing a union.

There is no union or association among UFC fighters, though three groups have formed over the last several years attempting to do so.

Smith, who has fought for the UFC since 2014, had no idea how Bryant, the retired Los Angeles Lakers legend, would answer the question. Bryant was one of many speakers at the retreat, which was designed to introduce the fighters to the newly opened UFC Performance Institute as well as introduce them to the new owners, WME/IMG.

Smith told Bryant that UFC fighters were trying to form a union, and she asked him how important the NBA Players Association was for him in terms of his own contract negotiations.

When she asked the question, there was a small applause from other fighters in the room.

“It was only a smattering of applause, but it was a pretty big deal, if you ask me,” Smith said. “We were brought there by WME/IMG. It was being filmed. It was paid for by [UFC CEO] Ari [Emanuel] and the other owners. Kobe was brought there by them to speak to us. And retribution in the UFC is very real. So while it wasn’t this huge ovation, the fact that as many fighters applauded as they did is very significant to me.”

But any significance would ultimately rest on how Bryant answered the question. If he gave a pro-management answer, no one would have been emboldened, and the struggling effort by the fighters to organize and improve their situations might have completely fizzled.

Bryant, though, did not do that.

“Even us as players, we have our union meetings, and we’re normally at each other’s throats competing against each other,” Bryant said. “But we understand completely that a rising tide raises all boats. So when you guys have this union and you operate on the same page together, it will 100 percent fortify the sport and make the sport better, not just for the present but for future generations coming. It’s extremely important.”

Smith said moderator Cari Champion continued the discussion with Bryant along the same lines. Later, ex-NFL star Michael Strahan spoken of the need for unity, Smith said.

Smith has been among the most vocal of the UFC athletes seeking improved working conditions. She said she spoke to Emanuel privately at breakfast during the retreat and asked if the fighters would be paid more.

According to her account of it, Emanuel said no. (Yahoo Sports reached out to WME to get Emanuel’s recollection of the conversation, but no response was given).

“I saw Ari and I shook his hand and said, ‘Thank you for having us,’ ” Smith said. “I asked him if we were going to get paid more now that WME/IMG was running the show. He said no, that we weren’t going to get paid more, but that we’d have more chances to fight.”

Increased pay is only one of the issues Smith wants to see improved. She said fighters deserve a health care plan, a retirement savings plan and a grievance process.

Leslie Smith raises her hands after facing Irene Aldana in their women’s bantamweight bout during a UFC Fight Night event on December 17, 2016. (Getty)

She has yet to fight in 2017, though she hopes to face Lina Lansberg.

She made $185,000 total in fighting income in 2016, when she fought three times and went 2-1. It was, she said, more than she made in her entire career up to that point, which began in 2009.

In 2016, Smith defeated Rin Nakai in Brisbane, Australia, on March 20. She lost Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino on May 14 at UFC 198 in Curitiba, Brazil, and then defeated Irene Aldana on Dec. 17 in Sacramento, Calif.

She received $10,000 to show and $10,000 for defeating Nikai. She also was given a $5,000 discretionary bonus for that fight, making her total pay for that bout $25,000.

She made $35,000 to show and got a $25,000 discretionary bonus in the Justino fight, making her pay in that one $60,000.

And for the Aldana bout, which was named Fight of the Night, she made $25,000 to show, an additional $25,000 to win and the $50,000 fight night bonus, making her earnings there an even $100,000.

That brought her 2016 fight-only income – not including sponsorships or income from side jobs of any kind – to $185,000. It’s not the kind of money to make anyone rich, but it’s far more than most.

But a number on paper doesn’t tell the entire story, Smith said.

She debuted in the UFC in 2014 and made a total of $70,000 for three fights. She made $10,000 to show against Sarah Kaufmann, and received a $10,000 discretionary bonus. She made $30,000 for defeating Jessamyn Duke — $10,000 to show, $10,000 to win and a $10,000 discretionary bonus. And she made $10,000 to show and earned a $10,000 discretionary bonus in a loss to Jessica Eye.

She made nothing in 2015. Her ear exploded during her loss to Eye, and she had to wait for that to heal. She also had two surgeries, one to repair a meniscus injury on her knee and an issue to remove a pin that had been incorrectly inserted in her wrist.

“It was sitting between two bones and the doctor told me that it was acting like a cheese grater, if you can believe that,” Smith said.

The reason she’s so passionately fighting for a union or a fighter’s association is because of how much she’s had to sacrifice and how great the struggles have been on the way up.

The $180,000 she made in 2016 was far more by itself than the combined amount she’d earned from 2009 through 2015. She’s had to rely upon the support of her boyfriend, Kevin Lum, a Cesar Gracie purple belt, for much of her everyday needs.

“I am not married and I’m not independently wealthy or anything,” she said. “I have a boyfriend who is literally amazing, and he’s the one who has made any of this possible for me. He’s supported me to get me to the point where over the last three years, I can make that much. The first year of me fighting [in the UFC], every time I got a check, I handed half of it over to him. I gave him $35,000.

“He’s literally been supporting me for six years before that even came up. I made that money, but I feel like I am paying someone back; I am paying someone back for taking care of me for so many years. To reach the point where I was even considered for the UFC, and to have the kind of dedication I had, is a direct result of him taking care of so many things. I’m talking rent, and car and phone. There’s a certain amount of pride I have to swallow to do that and I don’t think it’s something that everybody realizes.”

Will the issues that Smith cares about be solved? That’s anyone’s guess. WME/IMG is a business, and it has a significant debt service on the loans it took to finance its $4 billion-plus purchase.

Fighter opinions varied greatly. Al Iaquinta, who has been raging at management publicly for months, attended a few sessions and then left the property, not to return. He then blasted the UFC on Monday on The MMA Hour.

Joe Lauzon worked quietly to help find solutions. And Kajan Johnson, a lightweight who had been highly critical of the UFC, and in particular of the Reebok deal, seemed to be satisfied after attending a session on Sunday evening that wasn’t on the original schedule.

WME executives felt there were unanswered questions, so they made Lawrence Epstein, the UFC’s chief operating officer, and other high-level UFC officials available for a final open question-and-answer period.

Johnson’s outlook changed dramatically.

“Actually, it ended up pretty positive really,” Johnson said. “Because after they sat me down, they took a huge list of every single grievance that I have with the game of MMA to date, which is a lot. I just got back from [Washington], D.C. [where] I was lobbying for the Ali Act in Congress right before I went to the athlete retreat. So I have a lot of grievances. There’s a lot that I see that’s wrong with the way they’re conducting business in this game.

“And so that happened and then after that, that led to them calling a whole [additional] meeting with all the fighters, sitting us down in a room, and having an open, honest, back-and-forth two-way discussion, which I don’t think has ever even happened before. It was amazing, the outcome of that was incredible.”

Bryant’s response to Smith’s question might have opened the door. Fighters saw that though WME brought Bryant and Strahan in, they didn’t try to muzzle them and order them to toe the party line.

So they became more willing to speak up and express the problems they felt.

The stars have a different set of issues than the entry-level fighters, but the common theme is that they all see that the way business is being done as it relates to their careers can be improved.

If Smith’s unexpected question to Bryant opened the dialogue that leads to a solution that makes all sides pleased, then she accomplished her goal.

“What happened after me asking that question and Kobe’s response was so many people came up to me and thanked me,” Smith said. “Almost every single conversation I had with anybody after that presentation was people saying, ‘Good job. Thank you for asking the question everyone wanted to ask.’ I don’t know if other people had that question written in their notebooks and were afraid to ask it, but so many people were so happy and pleased and thankful I did.

“And my sense now is that we are close to forming a union and getting some kind of a solution. I think this weekend brought us closer together and I’m optimistic that we have the kind of momentum now to get something done that we haven’t had before.”

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