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What is the Muhammad Ali Act & What Would it Mean for MMA?

Last Updated: December 24, 2022
With the US Senate potentially revisiting an expansion of boxing’s landmark Ali Act to protect mixed martial artists, let’s talk about what the law actually does — and what it doesn’t do.

While Dana White forms what appears to be a professional CTE league masquerading as “slap-fighting,” ESPN raises the price of UFC pay-per-views once again, and mixed martial artists continue to catch needless hell for turning to platforms like OnlyFans to make some extra cash, there’s still not a beaming, glorious light at the end of the dank, dark tunnel of MMA athlete compensation — but there’s a glimmer.

In 2023, the US Senate is gearing up for an intriguing discussion regarding fighter pay that might just be the last issue under the sun that Republicans and Democrats can agree on. As retired UFC middleweight contender Nate Quarry tweeted earlier this week, US Congressman and soon-to-be-inaugurated US Senator Markwayne Mullin of Oklahoma wants the upper chamber to expand the protections and enfranchisement of the Muhammad Ali Act to cover combat sports athletes beyond the bounds of boxing.

For more than two decades, the Ali Act has provided valuable assurances and safeguards to boxers in the United States. In MMA, there is no such protection at the federal level, and combined with the lack of a robust, recognized labor union for fighters, it’s far easier for promoters like the UFC to continue to keep upwards of 80% of their revenues, leaving just 19 to 20% for fighters.

Let’s get acquainted with the Muhammad Ali Act and explore what it would mean — as well as what it wouldn’t mean — if an expansion went into effect covering the world of mixed martial arts.

What is the Ali Act?

Originally sponsored by Rep. Michael Oxley of Ohio, the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act — which built on the Professional Boxing Safety Act enacted in 1996 — was passed by both houses of Congress in 1999 and signed into law by President Bill Clinton on May 26, 2000. Oxley was a Republican, but of the bill’s eventual 16 co-sponsors, nine of them were Democrats.

In the big picture, the Ali Act sought to apply the most basic federal-level oversight (if not full-on enforcement) of best practices meant to reduce the likelihood that boxers could be exploited by an existing system of governance that was as decentralized as it was unregulated, opaque, and corrupt. While the act did not create a single top-down governing body for the sport in the US, it empowered state athletic commissions to put clearer rules and transparencies in place as it relates to a laundry list of factors including:

  • The sanctity of contracts and assurances of compensation
  • Fighter rating systems and how title challengers are determined
  • Conflicts of interest
  • The relationships between athletes and their managers and promoters
  • Yes, folks, full-on criminal conspiracies and racketeering!

For example, the act requires promoters to (1) submit copies of all fight contracts and related agreements between themselves and participating fighters to the relevant state athletic commission and (2) communicate to fighters what their own shares of fight-related revenues are separate from the athletes’ purses.

All told, while the law has drawn several entirely reasonable criticisms — for instance, it grants power to state agencies to enforce new rules without explaining in much of any detail what those rules ought to be, and certain rules simply go unenforced altogether — the Muhammad Ali Act is generally considered a step forward for boxing and the dignity and safety of its athletes, even if just a modest one.

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Has Congress attempted to expand the Ali Act before?

As a member of the House of Representatives, Markwayne Mullin introduced the Muhammad Ali Expansion Act (H.R. 44) in 2017. Quite simply, it meant to redefine who is legally a “fighter” under the language of the Professional Boxing Safety Act of 1996 to “include individuals who fight in a professional mixed martial arts competition or other professional combat sport competition.”

The legislation never developed sufficient momentum to move forward, but it’s not exactly dead now that Mullin is headed to the Senate in 2023.

Is expanding the Ali Act to MMA better than a fighters’ labor union?

This is perhaps the most intriguing question of all. Fighter pay is MMA’s single biggest elephant in the room now that the climate of performance-enhancing drugs isn’t quite as dire as it was from the dawn of the sport through about 2015, and in organizations like the UFC, there are minimal assurances and minimum transparency regarding fight finances.

All told, the goal ought to be doing whatever it takes to ensure the most sustainable kind of growth in athlete equity in mixed martial arts. That could mean expanding the Ali Act. It could mean organized labor. It might just mean both.

The single biggest difference between the business structures of MMA versus boxing is that promoters (UFC, Bellator, ONE Championship, PFL, etc.) operate as effectively closed systems and are not required to grant anything remotely resembling “free agency” — for example, MMA legend Georges St-Pierre stated that despite his last match taking place in 2017, the UFC still asserted non-compete privileges over him into 2022 that prevented him from negotiating a boxing bout.

Nothing of the sort could ever exist in boxing, which wouldn’t know a closed system even if it showed up chomping on a cigar with a briefcase full of unmarked bills. The promoters (Top Rank, PBC, Matchroom, Queensberry, etc.) are a key component of the event when fight night rolls around; in MMA, the promoters basically are the event.

Given the consolidated nature of someone like Dana White and UFC owner Endeavor’s power, the path toward unionization stands to be an infinitely more difficult one than an Ali Act expansion if those were hypothetically the two options. Others have tried and failed to organize a fighters’ union in the past — including Georges St-Pierre himself.

Perhaps GSP can join up with Jake Paul and Anderson Silva and give the union idea another push. Perhaps an ongoing class action lawsuit against the UFC on antitrust grounds will produce lasting wins and set new standards for fighter treatment. But as 2022 gives way to 2023 and a new Congress begins, it would be uncontroversial to suggest that expanding the Muhammad Ali Act to include MMA fighters would be a meaningful first step and a potentially potent catalyst for bigger wins.

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About The Author
Sam Dunn
Sam Dunn
Sam Dunn is the Managing Editor of Boardroom. Before joining the team, he was an editor and multimedia talent for several sports and culture verticals at Minute Media and an editor, reporter, and site manager at SB Nation. A specialist in content strategy, copywriting, and SEO, he has additionally worked as a digital consultant in the corporate services, retail, and tech industries. He cannot be expected to be impartial on any matter regarding the Florida Gators or Atlanta Braves. Follow him on Twitter @RealFakeSamDunn.