UFC: Could Georges St-Pierre effect change for fighters’ rights?

The UFC and its former welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre appear set for a legal battle after the Canadian fighter declared himself a free agent this week.

St-Pierre has been on hiatus from MMA since his split decision win over Johny Hendricks at UFC 167 in November 2013.

The 35-year-old, who is still under contract with the UFC, now wants to return to the Octagon but has thus far been unable to come to an agreement with the fight promotion over how much he will be paid for his comeback.

The UFC believes that he should be held to the terms of his existing contract, but St-Pierre feels like the goalposts have shifted since his last bout.

In 2015, the UFC struck a deal with sportswear manufacturer Reebok to provide its official apparel. The deal meant that fighters would no longer be allowed to wear clothing made by their personal sponsors, and would not be allowed to sport the logo of any other brands on their “fight kit”.

Instead, fighters now receive a portion of the money from the Reebok deal based on the amount of times they have fought in the Octagon.

St-Pierre has a lucrative personal sponsorship with rival apparel company UnderArmour. The Canadian would no longer be allowed to wear UnderArmour clothing in the cage and would therefore miss out on the large fee he used to receive from them.

The former 170lb king reportedly feels that the UFC should compensate him for this loss in income, whereas the Las Vagas-based organisation are insisting that, if St-Pierre wants to return to action, he should do so for the rate laid out in his existing contract.

This week, St-Pierre was a guest on The MMA Hour, a weekly online show hosted by prominent journalist Ariel Helwani. The Montreal-born fighter stated his intention to fight again and declared himself a free agent. “At least I’m a free man,” he said. “Now, I know I’m free. I have other options. I’m not caught up legally with a contract. I’m a free man.”

The UFC has since released a statement which states: “Zuffa [the UFC’s parent company] intends to honour its agreement with St-Pierre and reserves its rights under the law to have St-Pierre do the same.”

The back and forth between the fighter and promotion has been played out in public through UFC president Dana White’s repeated accusation that “GSP” doesn’t really want to return.

“GSP wasn’t crazy about fighting when he was fighting!” White said. “Now three years later he’s just dying to fight? He’s not. I don’t think he is.”

St-Pierre angrily responded by saying: “Dana White doesn’t know what it is to be a fighter. I know what it is to be a fighter. I’m a fighter and I will always stand and support fighters.”

If St-Pierre is serious about sticking to his guns and refusing to fight under the terms of his old contract, a lengthy legal battle could ensue.

Many fighters have expressed their disappointment with the Reebok deal, but most who are still contracted to the UFC refuse take a stand for fear of recrimination. They rely on their fight purses to make a living; to speak out would be to risk losing their livelihood.

St-Pierre, however, is already a wealthy man and, having held the welterweight title for seven years, has nothing left to prove in the sport. He wants to come back for himself and on his own terms.

Furthermore, he has both the means and the inclination to take the UFC on, head-to-head, over what he feels amounts to a breach of contract.

It has been questioned many times whether the UFC’s classification of their fighters as independent contractors, rather than employees, would stand up in court; we may be about to find out.

Should a company be able to dictate what uniform an independent contractor should wear? Should they be able to own the image rights of a worker in perpetuity if that worker is considered independent? Should they be able to prevent a worker from supplementing their income with a competing organisation?

These are requirements that the UFC has of its fighters, and these are the questions many people – UFC fighters included – would be interested to see answered.

It has often been suggested that fighters would be well served unionising to collectively bargain for better deals – just like footballers do with the Professional Footballers’ Association; the NBA and NFL have equivalents. But few UFC fighters are comfortable speaking about the possibility, feeling that any such movement would not be looked upon kindly by the UFC.

If St-Pierre is able to enter into litigation against the UFC and win, it could prove to be a seminal moment for fighters’ rights.