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Francis Ngannou PFL Deal & Brief History of Working Class Struggles in Combat Sports

For a long time, nearly 20 years, no active UFC champion left the promotion for free agency and successfully get out of their promotional thumb. In 2004 it was BJ Penn and in 2023 it’s UFC Heavyweight Champion Francis Ngannou. He has signed an “industry-changing” deal but what exactly is it and could it change? How have working-class struggles within combat sports materialized before and is this a case of working-class solidarity within combat sports?

First, let’s give a brief overview of what is even the working class within combat sports and what struggles have they done in the past that can give us a better analysis of Ngannou’s deal. Class is determined by the social relation to the ownership of the means of production. The means of production are businesses, technology, land, finances, hardware, machinery, etc. and if you don’t own that but instead sell your labor to a person(s) that own the stuff to produce commodities. So for example—a capitalist/promoter has the finance capital to hire workers and sometimes owns the machinery for a fight event: ring, gloves, production equipment, etc. But their labor is not what creates the surplus value from the event—profit. That comes from the workers of the event putting the “dead” means of production into living motion to create value. Imagine a promoter trying to sell you a PPV but there are no fighters, nobody working the concession stands, ticket booths, cameras, audio/visual equipment, etc. There would be no event to sell. But that class of people that create the value of the event don’t have a say in the surplus they create. They don’t have protections from unfair practices and firing. They are told where to go, who they can work with, etc. This struggle between the working class and the capitalist-owning class will exist as long as the relations of the means of production stay the same.

There have been collective working class efforts to change this exploitative relationship obviously across all industries, but most combat sports fans—boxing and MMA fans especially—don’t seem to be aware of it or of the importance of it. There have been strong efforts to unionize the UFC, a company with monopsony power and anti-trust scandals. There have been successful attempts to create state pensions for boxers such as in California. But nothing that has truly changed the industry and the relations of production. For the most part, any challenge from the working class in combat sports has been on an individual basis usually through seeing their labor value on the “free market”—again a market clearly impacted by the monopsony power of the UFC and the oligopoly of the boxing mainstream promotional companies. If you are a major combat sports athlete here are the options for you:

-Premier Boxing Champions: a quasi-loose coalition of smaller promoters managed by one person working with network deals with mega-multinational corporation Paramount Global.

-Top Rank: “legacy” promotion owned by one person for decades. Telecast partner has been alleged to have monopsony power over the entertainment industry.

-Matchroom: Clear monopsony power in the UK and European markets. Telecast partners with a subsidiary of Warner Bros Discovery.

-UFC: Anti-trust lawsuit, monopsony power in MMA, Telecast partner with a subsidiary of Disney Co. along with Top Rank

Everything else from Golden Boy Promotions to PFL and Bellator has similar issues and connections to large multinational corporations that also have clear monopsony or oligopolistic control over their respective markets. In other mainstream sports, NBA, NFL, etc. there were intense decades-long struggles for collective bargaining to achieve unionization and labor protection from the owning capitalist class. In combat sports, we are still far from that reality. However, this Francis Ngannou contract has a few special parts to it that could be one of many sparks to get that class struggle within combat sports reignited.

The most important and hopefully inspiring clause of this deal is the guaranteed purse of not just Ngannou, but all future opponents for him—somewhere from $1-$2 million in guaranteed purse. In an age where UFC profits are reaching nearly $6 billion a year while fighter pay is at historic lows, this should be a wake-up call for fighters and workers within the UFC. The clauses of giving Ngannou equity of PFL, executive control over their plans in Africa, a split of all sources of the net revenue, no champions clauses, etc. all show that fighters and workers should be negotiating for executive control, guaranteed and increased wages, etc. But the lesson when the industry doesn’t change should be those things aren’t worth fighting for, but that it needs to be a collective struggle to actually change the industry.

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