Ali Act amendment could expand federal law's coverage to MMA

A bill expected to be introduced to Congress would expand the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act to all combat sports athletes. Jeff Gross/Getty Images

A piece of legislation that could significantly alter combat sports is expected to make its way to Congress next week.

Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-Oklahoma) is expected to introduce to Congress an amendment to the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act of 2000. The bill aims to expand the federal law's coverage to all combat sports athletes, including mixed martial artists.

Mullin, a former MMA fighter, believes the current balance of power between athletes and promoters is unfavorably tilted in the latter's favor. Mullin believes an expansion of the Ali Act, as it's commonly known, would address the issue.

"This isn't about going after an organization," Mullin told ESPN.com. "This is a sport I love and something I enjoyed doing for years. This amendment is to make sure that both fighters and organizations are in it for the long run. It can't be slanted one way, and right now, it's slanted towards promoters. Fighters are treated not as an asset, but as a commodity."

Enforcement of the Ali Act has been routinely criticized since its adoption -- but it still affords boxers certain rights other combat sports athletes lack. One of these is access to financial information related to his or her bout. Under the Ali Act, boxing promoters are required to disclose "the amounts of any compensation" a promoter stands to receive from a fight. Such is not the case in MMA. The UFC only discloses that information to athletes who have negotiated a percentage of pay-per-view revenue into their contracts. In a civil dispute last year, Quinton "Rampage" Jackson accused Bellator MMA of withholding financial information related to a pay-per-view event he claimed he was contractually owed.

Rob Maysey, an Arizona-based attorney who has appeared before the Association of Boxing Commissions to generate support for expansion of the Ali Act, says without that information, MMA fighters are at a disadvantage when negotiating contracts.

"The main benefit of this would be promoters have to disclose revenue to the athletes made from their bouts," Maysey said. "My experience has been that very few actually have these rights and with the UFC, I've been told managers who have actually exercised those rights would never do it again because there have been repercussions."

Said Mullin, "We're trying to make sure MMA combatants are able to negotiate contracts on good faith and have a starting point that is on the same playing field as the promoter."

Representatives from the UFC, the leading MMA promotion in the world, have met with Mullin twice to discuss his amendment, and they disagree on several of the aspects at play. UFC chief operating officer Ike Lawrence Epstein told ESPN.com that although he hasn't seen a copy of the bill's language, his attempts to engage Mullin in discussions regarding fighter safety (including, for instance, the need for better drug testing in the sport) were mostly unsuccessful.

"We recently had our second meeting with Representative Mullin and while I certainly appreciate his perspective, his unwillingness to proactively engage or even consider working with us on a federal law that would be detrimental to the sport and athletes competing in mixed martial arts is frustrating," Epstein said.

"I was especially disappointed with his lack of concern for athletes' health and safety -- an issue that we, at UFC, consider our top priority. Moreover, we continue to believe the federal government would have no productive role in regulating MMA promotions or competitions. Already, states regulate each bout and MMA athletes are well compensated and treated fairly, which is one of the reasons the sport is the fastest growing in the world."

One of the UFC's chief concerns with the Ali Act is its original finding that sanctioning organizations had "not established credible and objective criteria to rate professional boxers. ... Their ratings are susceptible to manipulation, have deprived boxers of fair opportunities for advancement, and have undermined public confidence in the integrity of the sport."

The UFC currently utilizes its own rankings system voted on by media, although a majority of reputable outlets do not participate, in part because athletes outside the UFC are not ranked. Additionally, the UFC does not refer to the rankings when booking championship fights.

Some view this as a positive, as boxing's champions have arguably been watered down by multiple sanctioning bodies with dozens of titles. An MMA promoter's ability to award its own belt, as well as dictate the distribution of title shots, results in the most lucrative matchups -- or, fights fans want. Others, however, see it as another power shift toward promoters.

"When you're talking about a rankings system, that ranking system should mean something," Mullin said. "If you're ranked No. 1 and you have another fighter ranked No. 2, the next title shot should go to No. 2. It shouldn't go to No. 5 because he fell on his knees after a great fight and said, '[UFC president] Dana White, give me a title shot.' Rankings should be independent and they should be something title fights abide by."

Regarding the need for independent rankings and the ensuing matchmaking, Epstein said, "We disagree on the practicality or utility of a federally imposed MMA-wide sanctioning and ranking organization. At UFC, we put on the fair fights that fans want to see and we can't understand why the federal government should decide which fights the fans get to see. We know that there are many competitive promoter options for MMA athletes so we do everything in our power to be the best and be their first choice. That's why we strive to provide the more than 500 athletes who compete in the UFC with the highest compensation, best promotion and greatest opportunity to demonstrate their skills to the most enthusiastic fan base in the world.

"We will continue our dialogue with members of Congress, including Mr. Mullin, as we remain committed to providing UFC athletes and fans with the best MMA experience possible."