Trade unionism is lacing up its gloves with the Global Fighters Union (GFU), and the new organisation’s founders believe it will be a game changing force in combat sports.
The GFU was announced last Tuesday, marking the first time a dedicated trade union has been set up to represent athletes across all the disciplines of combat sports.
Following the launch, founding members and former pro-boxers Stephen and Paul Smith broke down the union’s plans in an exclusive interview with Insider Sport.
Combat sports are unique disciplines among other professional sports – not just in the highly intense, demanding and dangerous nature of training and fighting, but also in terms of commercial arrangements. It is these issues that the GFU hopes to address.
“It’s more in terms of contracts,” Stephen remarks when asked about the biggest commercial issues facing professional fighters. “You sign up to a promoter for a six fight deal or whatever it may be, and be sat waiting for fights. You need security for the fighter and contracts.”
“The fighters are often the one left out, and we want that to stop.”Stephen Smith
One of the defining commercial features of combat sports is the presence of multiple promoters, such as in the case of boxing, and multiple promotion organisations in the case of MMA.
Take boxing for example – Matchroom, Queensbury and BOXXER are just some of the most widely known promotions, but many smaller ones exist. Meanwhile, MMA may be dominated by the UFC, but the PFL/Bellator and One FC are making a name for themselves.
For a professional boxer or martial artist, whose primary goal is training and competing whilst earning enough to support themselves and their families, this commercial landscape can be a tough one to navigate.
Stephen continues: “Fighters, more often than not, they can fight but they aren’t aware of the things in the background and the legal side of things, and you need someone to look over the contact and make sure you’re not getting the bad end of the stick.
“You need things to weigh in your favour wherever possible, with earning as much as you can and making sure you can contractually secure that. The fighters are often the one left out, and we want that to stop.”
Stephen and Paul are no strangers to how commercial matters outside the ring often play out for fighters. The brothers – two of four boxing brothers from Liverpool, and elder siblings to active fighters Callum and Liam – have fought professionally 66 times between them.
These bouts have included several world title challenges, whilst Stephen held the British featherweight and super-featherweight as well as the Commonwealth featherweight titles, and Paul was British middleweight and super-middleweight champion.
Through their careers, the Smiths have experience dealing not just with promoters but with other sporting stakeholders, such as broadcasters. The media environment is yet another commercial world for fighters to contend with, as promoters ink out deals with big-budget companies such as Sky, DAZN and ESPN, to name a few examples.
“Myself and Paul have been through a lot ourselves, and we know some of the pitfalls and what can happen with boxers,” Stephen says.
“We’ll be the first to voice our opinion on that, and if we can be there to help any fighters to give in depth experiences of things that have happened and we’ve been through ourselves, we’re sure they’ll have open ears on what’s best for them.”
Lived experience of combat sports is of course central to the GFU’s activity and objectives, but it is not the only thing the union brings to the table, as Paul explains.
Setting up a fighters’ union is not a new idea. Paul notes that Barry McGuigan had tried to establish one before, but the union struggled to find success. The Smiths believe the GFU will be different because it brings in a broad range of expertise.
“Don’t try and do something unless you’re qualified to do it, we’re big believers in that.”Paul Smith
To ensure that it has the means necessary to take on both the task of engaging with and advising fighters, but also dealing with the day-to-day of running a union, the GFU has secured veteran trade unionist Paul Maloney and activist Phil McCauley as members.
This focus on expertise is what Paul Smith believes will make the GFU an influential force in combat sports, and will help it address some of the biggest issues he and Stepehn believe boxers face.
“Don’t try and do something unless you’re qualified to do it, we’re big believers in that,” he emphasises. “You’ve got people who are doing jobs in government who are not qualified to do the job. You’ve got people in charge of finance who don’t know about finance, you’ve got people in charge of health who don’t know about health.
“For me, you need to have experts in fields, and there’s experts in boxing here and also expats in unions, and how things should be and how contracts are.
“We will have experts from across the board, from medical experts, contractual experts, commercial law experts, boxing experts, MMA experts, and we will make sure that they know the rules inside and out.
“One of the biggest issues for me is the Commissions or the Boxing Board of Control are watching fighters get their hands wrapped and the inspector from the Board of Control doesn’t know the rules.
“They’re there because their volunteers are not paid, and they don’t know the rules of hand wrapping. They don’t know the rules of boxing and hand wrapping, and fighters can cheat and get away with things, because the inspector doesn’t know what they’re looking for.”
Bringing the conversation back round to the discussion of pay, this is a key area the GFU aims to make a difference in when it comes to fighters – whether they be boxers or MMA fighters – relationship with other commercial stakeholders.
There have been a lot of headlines lately about the big money fights occurring in Saudi Arabia as part of the Riyadh Season, but whilst those involved will certainly be making a good pay cheque, this is not the same for many other athletes.
Reflecting on the situation in MMA, Paul observes that in comparison to other sports, fighters often see very little – in the UFC the estimate is around 15% – of the income the tournament they compete in generates.
An ideal outcome would be the creation of a minimum wage standard for fighters, which he acknowledges is a big ask – but the GFU is confident in its ability to positively work with promoters and other stakeholders.
Again, part of this is due to the experience the union has on its team as well as its work with exciting sports unions. It was noted in last week’s announcement that the Professional Footballers Association (PFA) has come out in support of its combat sports counterpart.
Paul shares that in the build up to the announcement of the GFU, with plans for the union to commence operations in March, he, Stephen, and other founders had been speaking with the PFA extensively.
Support for the union and its objectives to assist boxers with all stages of their commercial and professional journey has already been received from the fighters themselves, Stephen adds, not just the union movement.
This is particularly the case not just because the GFU intends to support fighters with contractual and commercial arrangements, but also to help these athletes plan for their life once they step out of the ring.
“So many fighters and former fighters have reached out and talked about how once they’ve finished boxing they feel lost, there’s too many fighters lost who don’t know what their career is anymore,” he says.
Meanwhile, the brothers’ expect boxing and MMA promoters and fans of the sports to engage and come out in support of the GFU and its objectives.
Stephen remarks: “I’m hoping that any decent promoter will be happy and onboard. A decent promoter will want their reputation to ground, so that they look after their fighters. It will only be the ones trying to get away with things that won’t want us on board.”
On the reception from fight fans, he adds: ”If you’re a decent fan of the sport, you want the fighters to get looked after properly.”
The GFU is confident and prepared, the brothers assert. As Stephen summarises, the group has got ‘experienced men on board’ in the form of both experienced trade unionists and fighters.
With the new union planning on a full launch in March, Paul and Stephen are certain that, in the latter’s words, “we’ve got everything that needs to be covered. If anyone’s got a problem, we’re sure we can combat it”.