Why is the field of MMA fighter management so – how shall we put this – crime-adjacent?

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: A prominent MMA manager is accused of committing some crimes. I know, hard to believe, isn’t it? And yet there it is, splashed across all the usual MMA websites, a story about Iridium Sports Agency CEO Jason House being charged with felony battery for allegedly beating up his own father in a restaurant.

First of all, there is a finite window of time when it is borderline acceptable and possibly even cool to punch your dad. We all know this. That window is generally regarded as the early teenage years, but can sometimes be extended very slightly depending on how much of a dickhead your dad is.

Jason House is 37. His dad, Kevin, is 60. That is well outside the acceptable window for proving your manhood by squaring up with the old man, so you’d better have a good goddamn reason for it. According to reports, House whaled on his dad in a Mesquite, Nevada, steakhouse (bro) in full view of diners and staff (brooooo) after an argument over ownership shares in the MMA management company. So in other words, not a great reason to allegedly punch a 60-year-old man in the face so much that he requires a blood transfusion and 18 stitches.

Granted, this is just one very fucked up incident, but are we the only ones who can’t help but notice that MMA managers seem pretty damn likely to end up being accused of crimes at some point? Many of them are of the violent variety. How many times has Ali Abdelaziz alone come up in the MMA media for attacking fellow managers or busting into someone’s hotel room or bossing up on a rival fighter like some dime store tough guy?

The shit happened again just a couple weeks ago at UFC 268, for crying out loud. And that’s to say nothing of the whole thing where he was leveraged into becoming a damn FBI informant after being arrested on document forgery charges.

But it’s not just Abdelaziz (though it is, and we cannot stress this enough, often Abdelaziz). MMA managers have regularly run afoul of everyone from local police to the SEC. They habitually accuse each other of all sorts of unethical shit – poaching clients, promising things they know they can’t deliver, double-dealing, you name it – but so damn many of them have also been accused and convicted of straight-up illegal shit. (Side note: I ever tell you about the time Shane Carwin’s old manager, Jason Genet, got so mad at Sports Illustrated for reporting the fact that he’d been busted by the SEC for a pump-and-dump stock scheme that he threatened to cut off all access to Carwin back when he was a UFC heavyweight title contender? Lol dog.)

When you’ve been around this sport long enough and seen this shit happen over and over again, at a certain point you can’t help but wonder what’s really going on. There are some genuinely capable and honest people who work or have worked as MMA managers. They also seem to be way more the exception than the rule.

It makes one ask oneself, does something about the job of MMA manager attract shady-ass dudes? Does it take formerly law-abiding types and turn them into all manner of criminals? Or is this just the type of environment where the ones who survive and thrive are also the ones not burdened by an overly stringent moral code? And if it’s that? Well, shit. What does that tell us?

At least some of the issue has to be the extremely low barrier to entry in the field of fighter management. As with pretty much all aspects of MMA, there’s long been a wide-open, wild west feel to the management side of things. You don’t need a law degree or any degree. You don’t need any form of certification. At no point do you have to even prove that you understand the basics of what constitutes a legal contract. All you have to do is convince some fighter to call you his manager and then, boom, you’re a manager.

I’m old enough to remember when there were only a couple different types of MMA manager. At the lower levels, it was almost always a friend or relative. Some fighter’s parent or girlfriend. A guy from the gym who happens to be a lawyer or sometimes a literal used car salesman. A coach or gym-owner. Part-timers in the field of athlete representation, and it usually showed.

Then there was the handful of actual managers. Guys like Ken Pavia and Monte Cox and Ed Soares, who came from adjacent fields and then increasingly made MMA their full-time business. They represented a ton of fighters, knew their way around the developing MMA landscape, but also benefited from a complete lack of regulation or oversight.

Many of us assumed that, sooner or later, MMA would get big enough that major sports management firms would move in and push the less sophisticated players out. There were times when that even seemed to be on the verge of happening. Jeff Aronson, the Cash4Gold guy (another business model built on a foundation of exploitation) who started the Alchemist management company? He came right out and said that he got into this business because his experience sponsoring fighters taught him that their managers were a bunch of amateurish rubes. There was a time there when it felt like everyone was waiting for this part of the game to jump up a notch.

But the thing about MMA? The athletes really don’t make much, especially when compared with the major sports. If you have the education and the credentials to represent NFL players, earning you a piece of their multi-million-dollar contracts, why would you waste your time trying to get your ten percent of some fighter’s forty grand in show money? It’s not worth the headache.

The result is that there are really only two ways to make really big money as an MMA manager. One is to stick to the few big stars who really are commanding huge paychecks (someone like Conor McGregor, who’s repped by Paradigm, a firm with its roots in NFL management). The other is to amass a huge stable of fighters.

There’s always been this built-in tension between the UFC and fighter managers. How often have we heard UFC President Dana White going out of his way to publicly bury a manager for not giving the UFC exactly what it wanted? In the past, the company regularly elbowed managers out of the way, telling top stars like Matt Hughes or Chuck Liddell that they didn’t need some manager taking a cut of their money. Why not just deal directly with us? the UFC would tell them. We’ll take care of you. It worked like that for years.

As a promoter, if you can’t have zero managers, the next best thing is having compliant managers. Managers who actually serve you, the giver of money and opportunities, while only tangentially serving their actual clients. These managers gain access through a good relationship with the promoter. They maintain that good relationship by convincing their fighters to do what the promoter wants, at a price the promoter likes, all without rocking the boat by demanding more. They then turn around and sell that promoter access to other fighters – I’m the guy who gets people signed to the UFC/gets them big fights/gets them title shots – and fighters go along with it because, hey, this guy seems to be getting results.

This is how you create a system where a lack of ethics is a major benefit if not a prerequisite. It also helps that there’s almost zero professional standard or accountability in this field. Remember when Abdelaziz was basically negotiating with himself by acting as matchmaker for WSOF (now named PFL) but also managing many of the fighters who fought for the organization? He was literally paying himself with the promotion’s money. He could give his fighters better opportunities and deny them to fighters who signed with competing managers. That’s pretty obviously a problem.

But when he got caught doing this, which was a pretty blatant violation of Nevada Athletic Commission regulations? There were effectively no consequences. He just gave up the matchmaker job and focused full-time on management. And by then, he’d used his position and his power to gain a better foothold in that business. Now, years later, he’s probably the single most powerful and prominent manager in the sport.

The fact that he has a criminal past (both distantly and very recently), that he’s been deemed untrustworthy by everyone from the FBI to the WSOF, that he’s publicly described how he looks out for the promoter’s business at the expense of his own clients’ interests? It doesn’t seem to matter. To a promoter these are features, not bugs. Wouldn’t you rather deal with someone who’s proven he’ll step on anyone for a dollar as opposed to some slick asshole who actually went to law or business school and has a sense of fiduciary duty to his client?

And his fighters seem to like that their manager will haul off and hit people among civilized company. Truly, they love this guy. They’ll even hand over their Twitter passwords so he can argue with himself in public under their names. It’s fucking nuts, and we’ve just come to accept it as normal.

Is it really any wonder that this might be type of world to attract and reward people who aren’t so hung up on right and wrong? As if, maybe fighter management is not the business you usually get into as a result of asking yourself, hey where can a decent fella make an honest buck for an honest day’s work? No, this is the shady-ass fight game. So naturally it’s dominated by shady-ass people.

And the fact that the UFC is now wholly owned by a giant company that itself started as a talent and sports management firm? Well, that’s just the cherry on top. Agents everywhere you look. Agents all the way down. And the athletes’ share of the revenue is less than half of what it is over in the big sports. Ain’t that something.

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