Commentary: Boxers, Fighters, Wrestlers Risk Bodies Without Physical, Financial Security

No fan of MMA, boxing, or professional wrestling can deny that we invest time and money watching because it’s a “blood sport.” We glue ourselves to the television to see consenting adults put their bodies on the line, cutting decades off their lives, pummeling each other for our sheer entertainment.

You would think the Don Kings, Vince McMahons, and Dana Whites of the world, raking in millions of dollars off their athletes, would invest some of that cash in protecting the health of the employees that generate that revenue, right?  The fact is that organizations such as Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), and the alphabet soups that make up boxing’s sanctioning bodies, consider their talent “independent contractors”. According to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Web site:

“An individual is an independent contractor if the payer has the right to control or direct only the result of the work and not what will be done and how it will be done. The earnings of a person who is working as an independent contractor are subject to Self-Employment Tax.”

In a nutshell, UFC fighters, WWE wrestlers, and boxers are not considered employees of their respective companies, but rather individual performers who must pay their own Social Security, pay their own income taxes without payroll deduction, and are not entitled to the standard employment benefits such as health, life, dental, disability, retirement, vacation, and paternity/maternity leave.

What’s worse is that if a competitor pulls out of an event; such as when Rashad Evans pulled out of his UFC 128 title bout because of a knee injury suffered in preparation for the fight; not only does the athlete not get paid the agreed upon purse, but his medical bills do not get covered.

“During fight night, we’ve always had that protection. It’s the eight, ten, twelve weeks before that you always have the problem with,” Frank Trigg told the “MMA Hour.” “You get hit in the eye and get stitches; you have to pay for it out of pocket.”

The list of broken bodies and empty pockets – names such as Joe Louis, Wilfredo Benitez, and Meldrick Taylor – left by the wayside is endless, in boxing’s storied history. According to Keith Kizer, the executive director of the Nevada Athletic Commission, most boxers do not consider getting health insurance until after they are champions – especially considering the impoverished background in which many of these fighters come from.

“They either don’t have the money or don’t want to pay for supplemental insurance,” Kizer told the Las Vegas Review Journal, back in 2010.

In fact, most boxers rely on the $50,000 boxing promoters have to pony up under state law, to hold an event.

“Their life often is not an easy one,” said Jayme Martinez, a member of a legal team from the UNLV’s Boyd Law School, looking to push for better health-care for fighters. “Very few get the money of world champions, and they just struggle to make it. But they want to make it on their own. They don’t want to have insurance problems.”

In 2008, the World Boxing Council (WBC) attempted to remedy the problem by providing insurance for injuries sustained by their boxers. However, it did not cover injuries incurred in the ring.

Only in the world of boxing does this make any sense.

Pro wrestlers haven’t had it any better. Everyone knows that wrestling is staged but the long-term aches and pains that come with the profession are very real. “We’re the guys out there sacrificing ourselves. You’d think they’d throw us a bone,” Brian Heffron – known to fans as The Blue Meanie – told Politico.com, back in 2009. “It was like being in the circus. You’re shipped here, perform there; it’s almost like you’re disposable.”

Heffron, who suffered a severe injury in 2005, said that the WWE covered his in-ring injuries. Since retiring, Haffron had part of his lung removed, a procedure that ran him an $80,000 medical bill – which he paid out-of-pocket and through help of several charities.

Many wrestlers willingly forgo health insurance, working through injuries, for a shot at glory and a “Wrestlemania moment.” Just this month, the WWE instituted a new policy requiring all in-ring talent to carry health insurance.

However, the company will cover none of the costs since, as independent contractors, the talent can write the policy off as a business expense.

That’s great if you make John Cena money. Not so great if you make “jobber” money.

Cynics believe that the WWE made this move in an attempt to keep up with the Joneses – or rather keep up with Dana White. The wrestling organization’s announcement came on the heels of UFC’s new groundbreaking health insurance policy: effective June 1st, nearly all of the 350 fighters in the UFC/Strikeforce roster will be covered up to $50,000 in supplementary, year-round insurance that will protect them in case of injuries sustained in training and between bouts. This includes 24-hour worldwide doctor services, laboratory tests, and physical therapy.

“If a fighter were injured in an event, the policy related to an event would kick in and cover that,” said Zuffa general counsel, Lawrence Esptein, to MMAFighting.com. “And if a fighter were injured in training or as the result of an auto accident or other accident, the second policy would cover that injury.”

“This is a huge step for all the fighters,” said Randy Couture to Sports Illustrated. “There are still issues – regular health insurance and retirement. But it shows me that they’re listening.”

The thing that stands out the most is that Zuffa knew it would be extremely difficult to find an insurance company willing to cover people who give and take ass-whippings for a living.

“They start asking about your occupation and those sort of things, and then it becomes an issue because most people see us as being a high-risk group,” said Couture, who had difficulty setting up health insurance for his Xtreme Couture employees. “I don’t know if that’s necessarily true or fair. Maybe a few more superficial dings and cuts, but they’re really just that. But perception is everything, and certainly when you’re dealing with businesses.”

“As you can imagine when you walk into an insurance company and say, ‘Yeah, we want to get full coverage for 400 ultimate fighters that includes all of their training and all of their lives,’ they pretty much slam the door on you pretty quick,” said Zuffa co-owner Lorenzo Fertitta, during the teleconference announcing the big news.

White says he’s willing to go a step further and try to set up pensions for his athletes. “If we can figure out something for a fighter pension, that’s something we’d love to do,” he told MMAJunkie.com. “We’re trying to prevent a situation where guys retire and they retire with nothing.”

Conspiracy theorists may try and spin this as a selfish chess move by White to prevent his athletes from forming a union. But White doesn’t seem fazed by unionization talk or doubters. “That’s up to the fighters. That’s not up to me. I care less. It doesn’t matter to us.”

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