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MMA Confidential: What's next for fighters after UFC sale?

The UFC announced that it had been sold for $4 billion earlier this month, changing hands from previous owners Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta to entertainment empire WME-IMG and a group of investors.

When asked to describe his reaction to the sale, which is the largest financial transaction in sports history, one current UFC athlete said, "At first, it was just one big blank."

After an initial shock, many fighters said they immediately began wondering, "What does this mean for me? What does it mean for the landscape of mixed martial arts?"

ESPN.com has spent the last week talking to various fighters and managers on those topics. The short answer is no one knows exactly what will change with this sale. Many of the conversations, however, seemed to center around certain points.

There is a genuine "well done" feeling toward former parent company Zuffa and the Fertitta brothers, who purchased the UFC for $2 million in 2001, along with an acknowledgment of the positive effect they and UFC president Dana White have had on the sport. Cashing out to the tune of $4 billion? Good for them.

At the same time, there is a genuine hope that this sale, whether directly or indirectly, will greatly improve financial aspects for the athletes.

For starters, new ownership presumably has a plan for a return on its $4 billion investment, and more revenue streams flowing into the company is a good thing for everyone, fighters included.

There's also the hope of a more equal revenue share between ownership and athletes. The UFC's financial information is private, so official data on revenue splits is unavailable. Most within the sport, however, estimate athletes receive a percentage well below that of other professional sports. Athletes would like to see more benefits, including retirement packages, health care and less restrictive contracts that allow them to build their own brand.

The possibility of a fighters union or association came up repeatedly during discussions about the sale.

Below are direct quotes from a handful of fighters and managers on these topics. Many of those who spoke to ESPN.com were willing to be on record, but others preferred to remain anonymous. For the purpose of this story, the decision was made to keep all statements anonymous.

This is a relatively small sample size, considering the number of active fighters in the UFC, but efforts were made to speak to a wide range of athletes in terms of age, value of previous fight purses, weight class, etc.

Manager

"Good for [Zuffa] at the end of the day. I think it just shows how healthy this sport is. It's now time to raise the bar for the athletes.

"There's a huge gap in fighter pay between the haves and have nots. There is still this 'unknown' way of negotiating. In the NFL, NBA, MLB -- there is so much visibility on information. You know going into a negotiation that there is a range to your value, and even then, those negotiations can take months. With fighters, a lot of times, it's a fire sale. A big fight has been offered that is only two weeks away and now there's pressure to do a deal.

"A lot of fighters don't necessarily understand things on a real sophisticated level -- not because they can't, that's just not where they're spending their time. But I'm assuming a lot of them are reacting to $4 billion like, 'Why the hell am I only being paid this?' I would dare to say the entire roster is a pissed-off motivated right now. I would guess you'll see a lot more holdouts and a lot more free agency testing because this sale shows how healthy the business is.

"Things are already changing. The last few years, the UFC has probably experienced more than they ever have in the way of an FTC investigation, an antitrust lawsuit against them, athletes pushing the envelope -- it has changed, you know? And I think Lorenzo was like, 'S---, I'm out.'"

Fighter (more than five years with UFC, has fought for title)

"I am cautiously optimistic about what this means for fighters. I feel like their opinion and their attitude toward fighters so far is that we need the UFC more than the UFC needs us. We're expendable. There are 1,000 other guys ready to line up and fight, which is true, but it's kind of a s--- place to be.

"I make a good living doing what I do. I've been one of the more fortunate, but I feel fighters should be more secure. A lot of these guys are paycheck to paycheck, fight to fight. We pay coaches, managers, taxes -- we're taking all the physical risk and only pocketing half our money. When you see a fight purse, 50 percent of that is going elsewhere. We are going to be living with long-term ramifications of competing in a combat sport, and it would be nice to have some security, maybe a monthly stipend for training.

"We're technically independent contractors, but we're subject to things like the new Reebok deal, where we have to wear something required. We have limited health care, but we don't have health care for our families. We have no retirement. It would be awesome to be getting even a fraction of what other pro athletes are getting paid. These new owners might be able to expand the brand and get more opportunities to continue taking MMA mainstream. I'm cautiously optimistic that could include some of the these things.

"I think if fighters organized we would definitely have a lot more leverage. I don't know what that's going to look like with regards to the new ownership. I know the Fertittas have been fighting unions in their casino business for years, that's fairly well known. With them out of the picture, I'm wondering if it would be easier for us to organize. But if there were something like a fighter strike, there's a lot of 'ifs' involved. We're in a tough position. The UFC keeps the top guys happy, and those are the key figures you're going to need in order to have any leverage. Without them, you don't have s---."

Manager

"Somebody just spent $4 billion. So, if you expect them to come in and say, 'We just spent $4 billion based on the numbers these guys have had on the books, now the first thing we're going to do is raise the numbers for our athletes and dwindle our profits?' The chances of that happening are slim to none, but I think it's something that can happen over time. The new ownership needs to come in and create more income streams. When they do that, there will be more money for everyone, including the fighters.

"I'm assuming all contract negotiations go through Dana White now. Whatever deals [UFC matchmakers] Joe Silva and Sean Shelby don't do, those will go through Dana. I doubt these new guys would get involved with something they don't really know yet. I don't know if you can call [WME head] Ari Emanuel and have him negotiate an MMA deal tomorrow.

"In the past, the negotiating process was different for each athlete. Some guys get on better with Dana, others got on better with Lorenzo. Now that Lorenzo is stepping down, you would hope there's some sort of balance added to Dana. In other words, I'm hoping that whoever comes in will be a good balance with Dana. If there's a fighter Dana isn't high on, is there a CEO or someone else who would understand that and say, 'I should handle this one.'

"I think there would be more worry if Dana wasn't staying on, if these guys were selling and walking away completely. But I also only believe Dana White will stay for a transitional period. I don't think he's going to be with the company for a long time. It's hard to wake up every day and listen to somebody new when you have $400 million in the bank."

"Fighters, a lot of times, are uneducated. They're happy to get their $20,000 scraps and say, 'Whatever, man, I'm just happy to work.'" UFC fighter

Fighter (less than five years with UFC)

"I'm very lucky in that I'm a younger guy. There are people who have paved the way for me through blood, sweat and tears. I've been hearing athletes say, 'We're going to get that professional athlete money now.' Let's be honest, we're not near that yet.

"The former owners were so invested in it because it's something they created. It was theirs. In many ways, they believed, right or wrong, the UFC was their brand so they should be making 70 percent of the profits or whatever it was. This company taking over maybe doesn't have that same emotion. Maybe they'll look at it as, 'It will help our product if our athletes make X amount of money, because now they can focus more on it.' There's another punch to this, and that's the next generation. Soccer moms taking their kids to soccer, maybe that turns into MMA. If you're looking at it through the perspective of the parents, if there's a future in MMA, maybe they'll push them in that direction.

"The sport is only 20 years old. Everything is relative to time. You look at hockey or football, whatever, there were times when, yeah, those guys were professional athletes, but they still had day jobs. In boxing, you have all this history behind it, the Muhammad Ali Act, the systems that are now in place, that's all part of the culture. This sport doesn't have that yet. This, like any other sport in many ways, is an opportunity for rich men to -- what's the word I'm looking for? -- we're chess pieces for billionaires to take on other billionaires.

"But I think it's great to have a Hollywood agency in charge moving forward. With Bellator MMA, you have Viacom behind them and everything they do on the television side. That's part of some of the contracts Bellator has written, that you can have a television show built around you. I look at myself and see the free agency as a huge positive right now, with the sides that are involved."

Fighter (more than five years with UFC, has fought for title)

"I feel like what MMA will become some day and how fighters will be treated, I probably won't feel that during my years in the sport. That's something I've accepted. I'm getting the most out of it while I can.

"The genius part of what the UFC did is they were able to write all these different responsibilities into the same contract. And they can provide additional opportunities or take them away. No matter how good you are at one thing, they can pull you off in a second and replace you with someone else. We're all just spokes on a wheel. The UFC was able to sell for $4 billion because they were able to create a situation where, as athletes, we're promoting the business. We don't promote ourselves as individual athletes without promoting the overall business of the UFC.

"What do I do to change that? You tell me. I'm a spoke on a wheel and I've accepted that. What if the UFC were to tell me, 'We'll take every fight you've ever had and we'll hold it. We'll stop showing it. Every fight you've had with us does not exist now. We'll cut your contract.' That's it. I don't exist now. It's not that they would do that or have ever threatened to do that, but I understand the realness of the situation. I think being sold for this amount of money is a step in the right direction. Is a fighters union something we all might need? Possibly, yes. But I'm looking at it realistically and saying that during my career, I don't see it happening. I will have helped the company out more than my own brand. I need the UFC platform to grow, so I'm going to continue helping it grow. I like having a job. I need this job. I'm a blue-collar individual. I'm not rich. When you've worked as long as I have, you learn how to be happy with what you get when you get it."

Fighter (more than five years with UFC, has fought for title)

"If I had 50 cents for every action figure I signed, I'd be a millionaire. The UFC tells me to sign autographs, and I don't see any money from that. I turn on a UFC video game and see myself on there, and I'm asking, 'When did I sign a contract that let people put me in a video game without paying me for it? How am I allowed to sign that contract?' I don't know if that will change or not with the new owners. These are guys are smart, powerful people. I hope so."

Fighter (more than five years with UFC)

"Fighters, a lot of times, are uneducated. They're happy to get their $20,000 scraps and say, 'Whatever, man, I'm just happy to work.' The idea of a union is tough, because you have a few guys who can afford to say, 'I don't have to fight for a year.' Then you've got a whole bigger group of guys who say, 'F--- that, I've got to fight.'

"What is this going to turn into? What does the sale have to do with it? I think it has lit a fire under people's ass. You're going to have to take one of the biggest champions, one of the brightest stars, to go to a press conference and drop the ball and say, 'F--- everybody, this is what I'm doing.' That's what it would take. Who in their right mind would do that? It's really risky, to say, 'I'm going to turn down $10 million to fight on pay-per-view but I'm going to put my name in history forever to start this thing.' That, in my mind, is what has to happen."

Manager

"I think Lorenzo especially saw there were other avenues for other interests he wants to pursue, and it was his time to move forward. We don't know what Dana's role is going to be. He can say nothing has changed, but in the corporate world you understand how it works. People don't put money into something to not have control.

"When this new ownership takes over, I hope there's a window of opportunity for a collaboration between fighters, managers and agents to change some of the things that are very controlling in their contracts. They are very limiting. And I think some of the UFC's growth has been stymied by the leash that has been put on the fighters. I do think this opens a big door for a fighters union, because I think there is a lot of interest now in what's being done in this sport. I think it has to change. WME understands the acting and sports world. The athletes they represent in other sports have associations to back them. Actors have the Screen Actors Guild. I just don't see how that is not pursued in this sport within the next couple years."

Fighter (more than five years with UFC, has fought for title)

"I think it's good. I know that WME was a big part of the UFC's success and Ronda Rousey's success because they represented her. Now it's going to be interesting because there are going to be two sides of this thing. They're going to try to build fighters as big as possible, which they have the means to do that with access to so much media, but then they're also, as the owner, going to try to keep the fighter pay to a minimum.

"So I think it's going to be a good thing overall. The bigger a person gets, the more notoriety and clout they get, the more they can demand. I think all in all, having this entertainment group behind us is going to be a good thing."