Imagine if the World Series champion team wasn’t actually the league's winner. Instead of taking the winners of each division and holding playoff games to determine the league champion, baseball’s sanctioning body, Major League Baseball, decided that instead of playing the top two teams in the league, they would stage whatever two-team match would help them make the most money possible.
Imagine that the Houston Astros were the top team in their division at the end of the regular season and reach the final round of the playoffs. But unfortunately for them, they don’t have a very big fan base, so the MLB decides they don’t get to compete in the World Series. Instead, they pick teams in bigger cities, with higher ticket prices, and more fans. MLB decides they can make the most money off of a New York Yankees versus Los Angeles Dodgers World Series. So that’s the World Series they put on, and the MLB rakes in millions in ticket sales, television contracts, and apparel sales.
The Astros won their division and the playoffs, but MLB decided that the Yankees and the Dodgers — neither of whom were at the top of their divisions — get to play for the title and trophy. As for the Astros? Tough. Better luck next year.
The true shame is that this is exactly what’s happening in my own sport of professional mixed martial arts, or MMA, fighting. Without a sanctioning body, promotions determine who fights for the title. The championship belt doesn’t necessarily go to the No. 1 or No. 2 fighter. It goes to the winner of the evening, whose ranking is essentially arbitrary that evening. If the promoter thinks a matchup between the champion and No. 8 contender is going to bring in the most money, that’s who's going into the ring for a shot at the title.
Sanctioning bodies bring consistency to a sport — the kind of consistency that fans can understand and root for. These entities manage the sport by creating a uniform set of rules and ensuring the members follow those rules. It is the reason sports are able to function, grow, and thrive.
The vast majority of the professional sports in the U.S. have sanctioning bodies. The National Football League, Major League Baseball, the Professional Golfers’ Association, the National Hockey League, the World Boxing Association, the National Basketball Association, and Major League Soccer are all sanctioning bodies. But one sport without a sanctioning body is the sport of mixed martial arts.
As a professional MMA fighter, I’ve experienced firsthand the destructive and biased effects of fighting in MMA without a sanctioning body. Instead of a sanctioning body, the MMA has independent entities that set up matches between fighters and sell the tickets to those competitions. They can manipulate rankings, matches, and their own fighters to their own financial advantage. However, without a sanctioning body, the promotions lack even a rulebook to follow.
Recently, I won a championship match under a certain promotion. I defended my championship title in a match on New Year’s Eve at Madison Square Garden in New York City and won the rights to keep my championship title. But despite my success in the competition, the promoters subsequently obtained new investors and changed their name and format. I was arbitrarily stripped of my title, because the new investors wanted to see another "championship fight."
And so when I seek to negotiate a new contract, I won’t able to call myself a titleholder, again giving me no leveraging power. The inconsistency of the sport deprives me of the merits of my career which I have fought for — and earned — by working my way up the rankings in competition.
The Muhammad Ali Expansion Act would ensure fair fights and fair contracts through sanctioning bodies. A sanctioning body isn’t stacked with federal bureaucrats or government officials who get to pick and choose winners and losers. It's made up of experts in the sport who ensure fair competition for all. Promotions would still have the ability to put on “fun” fights between the champion and No. 8 contender, but once a year, the No. 1 contender gets his or her shot at the title.
Expanding the Muhammad Ali Act to include MMA, and all other combat sports, gives the sport legitimacy and consistency. After all, who wants to compete in a sport where merit doesn’t matter?
Jonathan Fitch is an American mixed martial arts fighter and Professional Fighters' League welterweight champion.
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