Professional athletes are a lot like any other professional entity. They train, they attend meetings, they fulfil corporate obligations and they even have to deal with a boss. However, unlike most other professions, athletes have a physical expiry date. In an effort take the blow out of this, most athletic institutions establish unions tasked with financial and medical reassurance. Most…except for Mixed Martial Arts.

In a sport where points are made or lost in and amongst an exchange of brutal combat, a safety net for its talented and virtuosic fighters is essentially non-existent. That was until The Mixed Martial Arts Athletes Association made its announcement at the end of 2016.

The Association had a clear set of demands: 1) Substantial settlement for past and current UFC fighters, 2) 50% of all UFC gross revenues to be paid to fighters and 3) Comprehensive benefits package including appropriate health care. Considering it’s fronted by a team of high-profile fighters including Georges St-Pierre, Cain Velasquez and Tim Kennedy, aided by Bellator founder Bjorn Rebney, the MMA Athletes Association also has the power to achieve these demands.

Off the back of the announcement and a recruiting period, we spoke to Tim Kennedy about the Association, how the MMA community has responded, and exactly what it is that fighters are signing up for.

 


 
The Neversphere: To start off, it would be interesting to hear about the context that led to the creation of The Mixed Martial Arts Athletes Association. Why now?
 
Tim Kennedy: It wasn’t like a realisation. It’s something I’ve worked towards and for the past, I don’t know, 15-years of a professional career. I’ve never minced words about the need for change and the need for fair compensation. I think it just finally came to the right opportunity, with the right group of people.
 
The Neversphere: The Association was announced with an incredible group of people including yourself, GSP and T.J. Dillashaw just to name a few. What went into selecting the main team?
 
Tim: It wasn’t about the star or celebrity status. It had more to do with where the guys’ hearts were. There were a lot of people who, initially, wanted to be part of the board. There were a lot of people who were looking, working, striving, to make sure that the association came to fruition, but it was really about ensuring that the guys that were part of it from the genesis were the right guys and there for the right reasons.
 
The Neversphere: Now that it’s been announced and it’s had a few months to resonate with fighters and fans – what’s the response been within the community?
 
Tim: It’s been overwhelmingly positive. There are a lot of questions, a lot of really good ones, from fighters. Obviously everybody wants the same thing; they want their compensation, they want their pension, everybody wants fair medical. Nobody wants brain damage, you know? The questions are ‘How are we going to go about this?‘ There’s a lot of fear. There’s some reservations of ‘If we’re part of it, then is there going to be reprisal? Are people going to be coming after us? Is the UFC going to be able to penalise me?‘ A lot of those questions.
 

 


 

The Neversphere: The vibe does seem to be a fear of repercussions. For fighters who sign up, how realistic is this fear?
 
Tim: I don’t think it’s real at all. 20 years ago, maybe. I think it would have been a thing. Maybe 5 years ago, maybe even a year ago. Now that the Association has officially been formed, and tonnes and tonnes of people are a part of it, we have massive legal representation. So, this sounds bad, but it would be a really good thing for us if one of the fighters that is part of the association is punished or penalised for being part of it…That would be an ideal legal situation but that’s not going to happen.

The UFC is not stupid. They 100% understand and realise that’s against pretty much every labour law there is. Right now at this point it’s a lot of work – that’s where we are. A lot of paper work, a lot of talking to fighters, agents and managers…Heck, even their lawyers sometimes. So, you know, it’s work.
 


 
The Neversphere: Straight after the announcement, you revealed you were already speaking to more fighters to sign up. Are you able to reveal any more fighters that you’ve signed up?
 
Tim: No, we’ll do that formally, I think about mid-February. We’ve already visited a couple of the marque fight training centres and the response has been overwhelmingly positive.
 
The Neversphere: On the topic of the marque training centres, you’ve already locked in some of the top tier talent in the community. What are you looking for in the fighters? Can anyone who’s fighting sign up for it?
 
Tim: Yeah! Any UFC fighter would be welcome with opened arms to be part of the association. The protection is going to go for everyone in the UFC. It’s not like you have to be Top 10 or you had to have fought on so many cards…If you fight in the UFC, you are going to be protected…We’d really like everyone to be part of this fight.
 


 

The Neversphere: Off the back of the announcement there was some negative response. It seemed to come more so from fans than actual fighters. There were people who came forward claiming ‘what do these guys care? You’ve already made your fortunes, why are you still hanging around?’ type of thing. What did you think about those responses?
 
Tim: I was baffled by it, honestly. Anybody with some form of common sense and rational logic in them could answer that themselves. Yes, Georges St-Pierre does not need the MMA Athletes Association to be successful financially. He also doesn’t need it to ensure his legacy is remembered as one of the greatest champions ever in the sports history – those two things are already set. The only reason he’s doing this is to help the future and to help the sport.

He’s a martial artist at heart. He wants to save the sport and he wants to make sure that future fighters don’t have to endure the same things he had to. He wants them to go out, fulfil their dream and become world champions like him…Except without having to deal with dudes on steroids, or backroom deals about compensation or looking the other way towards a positive steroid result…

That motivation is with all of us. Cain Velasquez is a former champion…His motivation is slightly different. He’s about to move onto his 11th surgery. He’s paying out of pocket for his own medical insurance and that’s insane! He’s the former Heavyweight Champion of the world!
 


 
The Neversphere: It is crazy to think that some of the demands the Association is putting forward, in any other industry in the world they wouldn’t be ambitious, in fact they would probably be industrial standards. But in this world they are ambitious. How have the demands gone down with the people you’re fighting against?
 
Tim: I don’t think they’re surprised…We are the last professional sport, in the world, that doesn’t have these basic things. Name a sport – go ahead. Soccer? Yep. They got it. I don’t know if you know much about American Football but football – Yep, they also have it. Basketball? They have it. Baseball? They have it. Name a sport – they have it! Except for us.

And unlike every other sport on the planet, this is the most violent, this is the most brutal and this is the one that leaves the athletes the most damaged. So if any of the sports need these basic rights, it’s this one. It’s insane. As you said, it’s commonplace in all other workplaces, but not here. It just blows my mind that we can say that out lout and it’s not been fixed.

Everybody – The fans, the journalists, the athletes, should be like ‘Oh my god, that’s a blaring contraction…it’s almost a pathetic irony. This has to be a joke’. But it’s not…this is the real world and we gotta fix it.
 


 
The Neversphere: The irony is crazy. The guys and girls in this sport are largely seen as the toughest, strongest people in the world, why on earth would you try and fuck this group of people over?
 
Tim: Yeah, well, we might be the toughest guys and girls on the planet but we also have the same dream: we all dream of being the world champion. That is something that’s been leveraged against us since the inception of the sport. We’ll give our brains, we’ll give our bodies, we’ll ruin our families, we’ll ruin our finances, hell, we’ve almost fought for free just to be recognised as the best fighters on the planet…

I think we’re going to turn the corner and people are going to realise you can still be a world champion but you don’t have to starve once you’ve retired.
 
The Neversphere: What did you think about the comments that the struggle is all part of paying your dues. That making the journey easier with things like medical or pension is almost taking some of the pride out of making your way to the top?
 
Tim: Oh, you’ll still have those struggles. A baseball player who wants to be part of the Major League Baseball Union, they don’t get to be part of that union until they’re playing for Major League Baseball. All that time you play in high school, all that time in little league, that time you finally get that letter from the college that says you can play for them, then you’re playing at university and you’re really good. But you’re starving, you’re eating Top Ramen, you’re working at a chicken restaurant so you can get food for free. Then you graduate and you play AAA-Ball. You’re icing your shoulder every night, you’re trying to eat clean, you’re borrowing the gas card from your Dad and you’re saying ‘I think maybe there’s going to be a scout at the next game’…

That’s not going to change. That’s still sport. Fighters are still going to pay their dues, they’re still going to struggle, they’re going to bleed and spar. Even when they make it to the UFC, nothing is ensured there. They still have to suffer to be the best. So, all you little bitches who say ‘Oh those fighters should pay their dues’, yeah, come walk in our shoes.
 
The Neversphere: Other organisations have popped up over the years with the same intentions as the Association, however they never appeared to have the same luck in the beginning as you guys. What’s the point of difference between you and the other organisations?
 
Tim: I think that word you just used – they were trying and hoping for luck. This had nothing to do with luck. This had to do with the recognition of a need, and we strategically put in place a flawless plan that we are executing precisely. This is nothing about luck. This is about doing what’s right; this is about saving a sport that we all love. This is a belief and a passion for sports and for martial arts and a bunch of guys and girls trying to save it.
 
The Neversphere: Australia is becoming more and more prominent in the MMA map thanks to our unreal male and female fighters. Is it easy for an Australian fighter to sign up to the Association?
 
Tim: Yes, it is super easy for any UFC fighter to join. As a matter of fact, I have here with me a letter from a brand new person that just joined today. I get these every day. I’ll actually read to you what the fighters sign…

So there’s a little thing they put their personal information in. It just says “Name” then the persons name…I won’t tell you their name though. Then:

“I’m a professional mixed martial art athlete currently competing in the Ultimate Fighter Championship OR formally competed in the UFC. My signature below indicates my desire to become a member of the Mixed Martial Arts Athlete Association. I have read the Mixed Martial Arts Athletes Association mission statement and I understand that The MMAAA is a non-profit trade association comprised of fighters fighting for my rights and the rights of fellow mixed martial arts athletes, and I enthusiastically support the mission. I am aware that The MMAAA currently has no membership dues of any kind.”

…There you go. There is no confusion whatsoever about what we’re trying to do. You joining the association is exclusively so you can support, enthusiastically, the mission statement. It’s so basic, it’s so no-bullshit, so no lies. It is so just the truth and what is right.
 
The Neversphere: So any potential fighters reading this but are hesitant to sign up, what do you want to say to them?
 
Tim: Call me! There isn’t a question in the world I can’t answer about this. There are no secrets, you know who the board members are. The only people to have any control over anything whatsoever are the fighters. There are no former promoters, there are no advisers; there’s nothing. There are fighters, then there’s everyone else. We are the only ones who have any power to change anything.

So, if you have any questions, ask me. My email is easy, tim@rangerup.com. Email me. Say, ‘Hey dude, I don’t understand this’, it’s that simple.

I’ve been part of every mixed martial arts athlete’s promotion. I understand running to the bank to cash a cheque before everyone else does so hopefully it’ll clear. I understand fighting guys on steroids. I understand promoters using leverage and lies to get what they want out of you. I understand that…

….Call me and I will explain how protected you are.