Mixed Martial Arts and the historic “trade”: What does the future hold?
What has been billed as the first major trade in the history of Mixed Martial Arts (“MMA”) was announced late last month with former Ultimate Fighting Championship (“UFC”) Flyweight Champion Demetrious Johnson moving to ONE Championship (“ONE”) and former ONE Welterweight Champion Ben Askren moving to the UFC. While this situation was unique in how both organizations approached the transaction, it does not constitute a “trade” in the sense of most major league sports.
This transaction required both fighters to be released from their existing contracts and then sign new contracts with their new organizations. It appears everyone involved identified strategic value in this arrangement. Notably, Demetrious Johnson had lost his world title in his previous outing, and Ben Askren has not competed in ONE for a relatively long period of time. It is possible this development signals a shift towards increased mobility for fighters between promotions based on individual circumstances.
Legal practitioners representing fighters would do well to track how fighter contracts with organizations like the UFC could change or evolve. Historically, fighters tended to compete exclusively for one promotion, such as the UFC, and their contract would limit their ability to compete elsewhere. If the Johnson-for-Askren transaction is the first of many, it would be a shift towards a greater variety in the types of contractual terms agreed upon based on individual fighter circumstances. This type of variety is already seen in the professional wrestling industry. For example, Brock Lesnar is a World Wrestling Entertainment (“WWE”) star. He had a rapid rise during his UFC stint which saw him become the Heavyweight Champion relatively quickly. He has since returned to WWE, but his current contractual arrangement is flexible. His recent deal has been described as short-term and reportedly allows him to have at least one fight in the UFC. Allowing Lesnar to compete in the UFC, where he would have scheduling obligations and a significant risk of injury, impacts his value to the WWE but it emphasizes the ability of a popular name to exercise influence while still bringing a significant amount of value to each of the parties involved. Lesnar, the WWE and the UFC all likely stand to gain from his appearances, even if limited in number.
Since MMA promotions most often hold bargaining power over fighters, organizations are able to impose their own interests over that of a fighter’s. Promotions are often concerned with ensuring a fighter stays healthy and available enough to compete within their promotion for the duration of their careers. However, fighters with more brand power, for example Conor McGregor or Georges St. Pierre, could conceivably negotiate more flexible terms. This would represent a shift in the current power dynamic going forward. In fact, the beginnings of this shift appear to have already surfaced with McGregor contracting to enter the world of boxing to take on Floyd Mayweather, while still under contract with the UFC. The current UFC Lightweight Champion, Khabib Nurmagomedov, has also stoked discussions of a fight with Mayweather. Ultimately, as the dust settles on the “trade”, it may represent the maturing of a young sport’s contractual landscape resulting in a broadening of the types of terms contained within MMA contracts going forward.
 Brian Mazique. (October 27, 2018). Demetrious Johnson – For – Ben Askren Trade Reportedly Done: Why It’s a Win for All Involved. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/brianmazique/2018/10/27/demetrious-johnson-for-ben-askren-trade-reportedly-done-why-its-a-win-for-all-involved/#232d54116c10
 Dave Meltzer. (April 9, 2018). Brock Lesnar signs new deal with WWE, but still has option for one UFC fight. MMA Fighting. <https://www.mmafighting.com/2018/4/9/17217846/brock-lesnar-signs-new-deal-with-wwe-but-still-has-option-for-one-ufc-fight>
 Fighters often have much shorter careers than most other professional athletes.