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A UFC undercard fighter weighs risks and rewards: 'I'm taking years off my life'
In a lot of ways, Sean O’Connell is a useful case study in the life of the mid-tier UFC fighter. For one thing, he’s got a day job (though he’s somewhat rare in that he works in broadcasting as a sports talk radio personality). For another, he’s had to get creative in order to get noticed by fans.
His brawling style has made for some exciting battles, earning O’Connell (17-8 MMA, 2-4 UFC) “Fight of the Night” bonuses in three of his six UFC fights. It’s also earned him a losing record in the UFC, and a lot of physical damage that he said may not be justified by the money he’s making under his current deal.
His last disclosed payout saw O’Connell earn $18,000 in a loss to Ilir Latifi on the prelims of UFC Fight Night 81. On Friday he’ll step into the octagon against Corey Anderson (8-2 MMA, 5-2 UFC) at UFC Fight Night 102 for the last fight on his current UFC contract. Whether he signs a new deal will depend on what’s he’s offered, he said, and his opinions on what that offer should look like are colored by everything from the recent UFC sale to the push for a fighters association.
So how does a thoughtful, intelligent fighter weigh his options in a changing sport? In this conversation (edited for length), O’Connell takes us through a complicated calculus currently being performed by fighters and managers all around the UFC.
MMAjunkie: You’re approaching the last fight of your contract this Friday. Usually that’s a decision point for people. Are you hoping to sign a new deal once this is over, or are you considering moving on to another organization, like Bellator?
O’Connell: You know, the UFC still, despite its warts, is the best MMA organization in the world. Ideally I’d be able to negotiate and find an agreeable point when it comes to things like pay, but there are competing organizations out there that might be interested. But I think to make anybody interested, I’ve got to win this fight. That’s the only real priority right now.
If the UFC offered you something similar to what you’re making now, is that an agreeable point for you, money-wise?
Sean O’Connell and Matt Van Buren
No, it’s not. Realistically, for any fighter in the UFC, we’re all real excited when we sign our first UFC contract, and sometimes even our second UFC contract, because it’s more money than you’ve ever made fighting anywhere else.
But now that we know how much this organization profits, what it’s worth and what that sale was about, I think it’s time for everybody, not just me, to demand a slightly larger piece of the pie. I’m very aware of what my value to the UFC is. I don’t expect Conor McGregor money. But I don’t expect to be making what I’m making now either. Hopefully we can find some middle ground.
I’ve heard some fighters and managers mention that, the price tag of the sale, as the thing that opened their eyes to the financial reality. But the UFC has been saying it’s worth billions for years. How much did it affect your thinking to see a hard number come out from the sale to WME-IMG?
The number that people should being paying attention to is the split. I’ve seen estimates of anywhere from 8-to-12 percent of (UFC revenues) going to fighters. In other sports, the split is much more generous to the athletes, much more evenly divided. That’s the number we need to be paying attention to.
Because, yeah, that $4 billion or whatever it was, that opened my eyes. This company is profiting a lot. If a group like WME-IMG is investing that kind of money in this, it’s not because they’re just big MMA fans. It’s because there’s that much money in this. And if there’s that much money to be made, it means there’s that much money to be paid.
The tough thing about MMA, because it’s a developmental sport and because it’s a live-the-dream type sport, a lot of times you take what you’re offered and you say thank you and you make the sacrifices necessary for that to work. Only a select few have pushed past that point.
Do you think it can be done that way, one at a time, with fighters like you stepping up at the end of a contract to say, ‘I need to be paid more’? Because a lot of people seem to think collective action in a union or an association is the only way to do it.
It’s tough to say, because there is some precedent for individuals getting what they’re worth without the help of anyone else. And it’s not just Ronda (Rousey) or Conor, but if you look at the disclosed pay for some guys, like (Gabriel) Gonzaga, I remember looking at his disclosed pay and realizing, wow, that guy is making significantly more than fighters at his level on the same kind of card, so why is that the case?
There’s obviously some precedent for managers to negotiate and position their guy well. In individual sports, that’s the most realistic path to getting the financial rewards without relying on Tim Kennedy and (Donald) Cerrone to get me more money.
You look at athletes in other sports, even the ones who aren’t superstars, they’re still comfortable. And they’re comfortable because they’re sacrificing and getting paid on a level commensurate with that sacrifice. Every fighter needs to demand that and stop saying, ‘Sure, I’ll take $8,000 to show up and fight for the biggest organization in the world.’
You’re a guy who seems to have done the extra stuff to get your name out there and make yourself memorable. You’ve always got something fun planned for weigh-ins. You’ve got a sports talk radio show. You’re definitely the only fighter I know who’s written and published a novel. Is that what it takes to stand out in the UFC if you’re not one of the few superstars? Is winning just not enough?
Ilir Latifi and Sean O’Connell
Well, you have to win. When the UFC talks to you and says, ‘Here’s what we’re going to pay you,’ they use your win-loss record as the first jumping off point. I don’t have much leg to stand on if I say, ‘Hey man, that silly weigh-in compilation video I did has 40,000,000 views on YouTube.’ Which, it got up to that number at some point. But they don’t care. Or even if they care, they’re not going to tell me that they care. It’s a results-oriented business. You don’t have a lot of leverage if you’re not winning.
That seems tough in a sport like this, where you can do all the right things and still lose. Especially at light heavyweight, where almost everyone hits hard, and especially with some questionable judging from time to time, there are a lot of ways to put on a great fight and still lose.
It’s tough, but you have to accept this sport for what it really is. I don’t know how many people agree with me, but I feel like both times I’ve gone to a decision in the UFC, I’ve been on the wrong end of a bad decision. Were they both very close fights? Absolutely. But when I go back and watch those I always think, ‘Man, I won that fight!’
And everything is compromised as a result. You get less money. You have no job security. You’re worth less to the company. They put you on cards that almost nobody is going to be watching, on Fight Pass the day before a pay-per-view. It damages everything.
So you have to accept that reality that, until you’re one of the favored sons or daughters of the UFC, it’s all about the outcome. You can’t delude yourself into thinking, ‘Well, if I go out there and put on a good performance, that’s enough.’ Because I’ve put on good performances many times in my career, and they say, ‘Good job.’ But they don’t give you your win bonus. It’s in the contract. So it is a lot of pressure, but that’s the nature of this sport.
Your last fight with Steve Bosse, for example, that was a brutal one. It was fun to watch, but you both took a beating. Does that factor into your thinking when you’re aiming for a pay raise?
Sean O’Connell and Steve Bosse
Absolutely it does. When you have a fighting style like mine, I’m taking years off my life. That’s not the UFC’s fault. That’s my choice. But they are reaping the benefits of it. That was a big fight on the card that, I don’t know how many people watched it live, but it got recycled on social media and elsewhere as many times as the UFC would allow it. If we were higher profile fighters, maybe it was a fight of the year candidate.
That’s my fighting style, that’s what I do as often as I can, and that means I’m risking more than some guys are. And I don’t care what other people are making. I just know what I want to make. I’m confident in what I’m worth and hopefully the UFC and I can reach an agreeable point and I can continue my career there, but I have to weigh the risk versus reward. If one outweighs the other, then I have to consider other options.
What do you make of the MMA Athletes Association? It has some high-profile fighters involved. It also has the former Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney. Are you encouraged by the chances for something like that to improve things across the board for UFC fighters?
First of all, I’m very impressed with all the guys who stepped out on that limb. Georges (St-Pierre) and “Cowboy” (Cerrone) and Tim Kennedy and Cain (Velasquez) and T.J. (Dillashaw), all those guys. That’s a difficult position to put yourself in as a UFC fighter.
Now, I think all of them have enough clout within the organization and enough cache in their name value that it might be a little less of a risk for them, and if a fighters association is ever going going to work, which I’m highly skeptical of, it’s going to take the support of the biggest stars. Those guys took an important step.
I’m skeptical for a lot of reasons, Bjorn’s involvement being one of them, but I don’t think it’s going to happen any time soon. Saying, ‘Hey, we created this organization,’ it’s great, but I don’t think it creates any kind of results in real time, real life for guys like me. I don’t know how long it’s going to take for it change how the UFC negotiates contracts or offers peripheral benefits, but it won’t be soon enough to help someone like me with my next contract.
At the very least, though, it will make (the UFC) think, make them talk to lawyers, make them consider ways to avoid these pissing matches with guys like GSP. But in this sport, we’ve kind of seen the proof that no fighter is bigger than the organization. We all have to pick our battles. But I’m a believer that if you pick those battles intelligently and if you win your fights, ultimately you’ll get the result that you want. I hope so. That’s where my focus is right now.