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MMA's first major "trade" – putting the UFC-One Championship deal for Askren & Johnson into context

MMA Fighter Cage
Thursday, 31 January 2019 By Jacob Debets

On 27 October 2018, an historic and unprecedented transaction involving the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) and Singapore’s One Championship was finalised1, with the UFC “trading” former flyweight champion and pound-for-pound great Demetrious Johnson for One Championship’s retired welterweight champion Ben Askren.

This article aims to dissect this deal and the rich history of “trading” athletes in professional sports, before assessing what legal and cultural implications -- if any -- it may have for the MMA industry at large.

  • It first provides an overview and history of the trade “systems” that occur in league sports in the United States, underscoring that today, these trades are highly regulated by virtue of collective bargaining agreements, the relevant players association/unions and (historical) litigation brought against management (readers already familiar with this background may want to skip immediately to the next section).

  • It then briefly describes the major differences between single entity MMA “leagues” and their stick-and-ball counterparts, spotlighting the various legal and extra-legal tools that the UFC has traditionally used to restrict fighter mobility and depress fighter wages.

  • It finally provides an overview of the Johnson/Askren deal, highlighting its essentially ad hoc and fact-specific nature, before assessing the impact that this deal is likely to have on the MMA industry. It concludes that although it may lead some promotions and fighters to explore the “trade” route in limited circumstances, its overall impact will likely be negligible.

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Written by

Jacob Debets

Jacob Debets

Jacob is a freelance writer and recent JD graduate from Melbourne Law School. He will be commencing as a trainee lawyer in 2019 for Arnold Bloch Leibler, in their Workplace Advisory team. In the interim, he is working on a book analysing the economic relationship between the UFC and its athletes, as well as academic papers on the influence of technology on legal education, and the labour dimensions of the "gig economy". You can view more of his writing at jacobdebets.com.

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