An alliance of athletes, political activists and trade unionists have detailed plans for a combat sports-oriented trade union, the Global Fighters Union (GFU).

This marks the first time a trade union has been established to represent combat sports athletes, although it is not the first organisation to represent professional sportspeople. For example, the Professional Footballers Association (PFA) has been representing English and Welsh league footballers since 1907.

The PFA has come out in support of its combat sports counterpart, which has been established by Liverpool-born ex-professional boxer brothers Paul and Stephen Smith, siblings to current active pro fighters Liam and Callum Smith.

“I’m one of four brothers who have all competed in boxing at every level of the sport,” Paul Smith, a former English and British Champion, remarked.

“Throughout our careers, we’ve experienced first hand practices which are the norm in combat sports – but ones that  wouldn’t be allowed in any other profession. The GFU will address those practices to make combat sports a safer, better, fairer business for all involved.”

The Union aims to represent fighters across a range of commercial areas relating to their athletic careers, including advice on contracts and campaigning for improved pay and benefits.

In the highly dynamic and competitive world of professional combat sports, this organisation has potential to be a significant game changer – in boxing alone, fighters often have to contend with contracts from different promoters and broadcasting deals, for example.

Outside of boxing, MMA is its own world with its own unique challenges. The sport is no stranger to high profile contractual issues, such as Francis Nganou’s departure from the UFC, followed by his signing with the Professional Fighters League (PFL) and entry into boxing.

Additionally, whilst the UFC is the dominant global promotion, the growing presence of organisations such as One Fighting Championship (One FC) and the PFL – which grew significantly with its takeover of Bellator last year – provides a diverse landscape for pro-fighters to navigate.

Stephen Smith, former Commonwealth Champion turned boxing trainer, said: “The GFU will be on the side of fighters from the very start of their journey in combat sports to the day they hang up their gloves. 

“We’ve compiled an elite team who will unite their knowledge and experience to help improve the lives of fighters everywhere.”

As mentioned above, fighters are not the only parties to the creation of the GFU – the union also encompasses political activists, managers, coaches and entertainment executives.

The GFU will be led by Paul Maloney – a former Southern Regional Secretary of the UK general union GMB – as General Secretary, whilst Phil McCauley, a member of the Executive Committee for Labour in Business, has also played a founding role.

In addition to contactural advice and pay lobbying, the Union also aims to assist pro fighters with health insurance, pensions and retirement planning, offering free legal advice and assistance and educational programmes.

Although announced this week, the GFU will not commence operations until March, when a full launch is planned. Maloney also detailed that the newly formed body is in talks with the Trade Union Congress (TUC) to become a fully-fledged official union.

“I retired from leading a region of the GMB Union in 2021, having been a trade unionist for more than 30 years,” he said. “My working life has been dedicated to improving the working conditions of union members. 

“On retirement, I was approached by several political leaders who wanted me to work with them as an advisor, but instead I decided to run my local boxing club in Epsom. When the GFU approached me and shared their plans, I immediately knew this is what I wanted to do. 

“We are working with the TUC on the final stages of making the GFU an official union which will see us launch officially in the spring. Today’s announcement is to make everyone aware of what we are doing, so we can prepare for our new members.”

Structurally, the GFU plans on modelling itself on similar lines to the Musicians’ Union. This would allow anyone ‘participating or interested in combat sports’ to join, regardless of ability, gender, ethnicity or location.

“We will be working inclusively with all forms of combat sports, all races, genders and ability levels,” Labour Party activist McCauley explained.

“What we want to make very clear is that we are taking a positive approach, and are not here to create – and nor will we seek – disputes with any of the current bodies in combat sports, whether it is promoters or boards of control, doping bodies, managers, or coaches.”

Reactions to the GFU’s plans for a spring launch have so far been limited, but Amir Khan – a former unified light-welterweight world championship – has also been confirmed as another early member of its ranks.

“There is no support for fighters, particularly when they retire; they are on their own,” Khan said. “There is nowhere fighters can take serious issues when they arise, which has happened to me many times. I’m excited to be a part of the GFU and look forward to helping build its membership worldwide in the coming months and years.”

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