Maybe 15-20 years ago I watched a lot of UFC fights. It was new. It was different. It was exciting. After a while it started to become not very interesting to me.  Part of that was due to my perception as to how the company treated its fighters including dictating who could show up as a sponsor on their clothing.  I’m pro-employee/worker so anything that happens to limit income is a turn off to me.

Over this past weekend there was a UFC event in Anaheim featuring a heavyweight title bout with Francis Ngannou. I didn’t watch it, but read this ESPN article about the weekend that caught my eye.

According to the report, before the fight, Ngannou’s agent got a letter from the UFC threatening to sue him for talking to a boxing promotion about a possible fight for Ngannou.  That appears to be a no-no under the UFC contract.

Ngannou is under a contract that required a certain amount of fights. Saturday was to be his last one if he lost, but since he won he has to stick with the UFC for another year or three more fights, whichever comes earlier. This is known as a champions clause.

He’d like to stay with the UFC, but also wants to box. He’s not happy at how much he’s paid and while he was offered more money for the last fight, that would have involved tacking on more fights to his contract.  Ngannou says it’s “a question of freedom as an independent contractor, which UFC fighters are legally classified as.”

And this is where Illinois law gets involved. Just because you sign a contract saying you are an independent contractor, that doesn’t mean you are one. Under Illinois workers’ compensation law, when the employer has control over you, it shows that you might in reality be an employee. The more control they have over you, the more likely it is you will prove you are truly an employee. If you do that, you win.

Some things that show control include:

  • Preventing you from working for other employers or competitors.
  • Providing a uniform.
  • They provide the equipment you use.
  • Setting your schedule.
  • The company can cancel the contract.

All of these things happen reportedly to UFC fighters.  While it’s not a slam dunk case as fighters train on their own, the things that they have to do to get compensation all seem to make them an employee similar to other professional athletes. If that’s the case and they get hurt in Illinois (or hired in Illinois) then they can file for workers’ compensation benefits here.

It will of course take one brave fighter to be the one to test this out. That will probably end up being an ex-UFC fighter who is either with a different promotion or unable to fight anymore because of injury.  As Ngannou said:

“I just want to be free. We are supposedly independent contractors. [An] independent contractor is technically a free person. That’s the reason why they need some adjustments in that contract. That’s what I’ve been fighting for.”

Just like truck drivers or other workers who commonly get mis-classified as contractors, the facts of UFC work will likely show that they are employees if push comes to shove. And if so, they can get 100% of their MMA injuries paid for by the UFC, get paid for their time off work and paid for how their injury will affect them in the future.