Do UFC fighters need managers? Maybe not (until they definitely do)

Aljamain Sterling was upset.

It was the week before his fight with former UFC bantamweight champion Renan Barao at UFC 214, a big moment in his career, and it seemed like Sterling’s management team barely could be bothered to return his calls.

Did they have any sponsors for him? Had they arranged any after-parties following the event? Were they doing anything at all to justify the 10 percent of his fight purses that they were taking for themselves?

“What they told me was, ‘Look, the phone’s not ringing off the hook for you,’” Sterling told MMAjunkie. “But if that’s how they look at it, what am I paying them for? Just to pick up the phone when it rings?”

The week after he beat Barao via unanimous decision, Sterling put this question to Malki Kawa, the CEO and founder of First Round Management, which represented him. Instead of trying to justify his cut of Sterling’s purses, Kawa suggested that they part ways.

“I’ve got nothing against (Sterling),” Kawa said. “Sometimes personalities clash. It’s not the first time I’ve had to let a fighter go, and it probably won’t be the last.”

Sterling said he was relieved when Kawa suggested the split. It was something Sterling been considering for weeks, and Kawa’s suggestion made it easier. But instead of getting a new manager, Sterling opted to go without one. He’d keep that 10 percent in his bank account. He’d manage himself. And why not?

Sterling is far from the first fighter to think of this solution. For many fighters, it’s strictly about cutting costs. Others figure that no manager could possibly care as much about their careers than they do, or give it as much attention with a stable of other fighters competing for their time and energy.

And in the UFC’s Reebok era, it’s not like missing out on lucrative sponsorship opportunities is a big concern. So what do managers do to earn their cut of the money that a fighter sweats and bleeds for?

“If they’re going to argue that they’re negotiating deals for us, I mean, they’re not getting us any more money than the UFC is going to offer anyway,” Sterling said. “Most of them just take the fights the UFC gives us. Unless you’re a Jon Jones or Daniel Cormier, you don’t really have much say. So what is the point of having a manager?”

Kawa, not surprisingly, disputes Sterling’s claim that there’s little negotiating going on.

“When I took him to free agency and negotiated between two different things, I got him a contract to where he was one of the top-five highest paid guys in the division, and Aljamain really hadn’t done anything,” Kawa said. “At no point in time can he say I just took what the UFC offered.”

But one thing Kawa would readily admit is that not a fighter’s needs are often dictated by what point they’re at in their careers. Champions and contenders? They’d better have a manager looking out for them, Kawa said. But fighters lower down on the totem pole, where the purses are smaller and the options are narrower? Maybe they could get away without one.

If, that is, they really know what they’re getting into by opting to manage themselves.

Aljamain Sterling.

“That’s the thing, is there are all those little nuances that come up during a fight camp,” Kawa said. “The bigger the fighter gets, the more goes into it. But the small guys still need a lot of the same things. Sometimes they think you’re only doing your job if you get them sponsors. No, if I can get your purses up and get you the right fights and get you involved in something that makes sense, that’s the right thing to do. A lot of times they don’t see what goes on behind the scenes.”

That’s a sentiment echoed by Charles McCarthy, who’s seen things from both sides of the fence. When he was a UFC fighter, he managed himself and a few of his teammates. But after he retired, he briefly managed fighters to help others avoid the mistakes he’d made while trying to shepherd his own career.

While he’s out of the fighter management business entirely now, McCarthy still sees the value of having an experienced advocate to guide a fighter through the pitfalls of an MMA career.

“It’s a funny thing,” McCarthy said. “You only need a manager when you need a manager. For a lot of fighters, it’s like insurance. You don’t need insurance every day, but when you need it, you really need it.”

For instance, say you’re a mid-level UFC fighter early on in a four-fight contract. Your purses for your next few fights are all set, so there’s nothing to negotiate there. Sponsors probably aren’t really happening for you unless it’s some local business you contact yourself. Every time your manager calls, it’s to tell you which opponent the UFC wants you to fight next – and rarely does it feel like it’s being posed as a question.

So why are you paying that 10 percent out of your already meager fight purse? Why not drop the manager, at least until it’s time to negotiate a new deal?

But then a day before your next fight the UFC comes to you with what it presents as an exciting opportunity for swift career advancement. One of the fighters in the co-main event just pulled out. His opponent, a former and/or potential future champ in your division, needs somebody to fight. Say the word, and the spot is yours.

What do you do? You could take the fight and maybe get in the UFC’s good graces, but then you’re also facing a much tougher opponent who you haven’t prepared for in the slightest, which means there’s a good chance you won’t be getting your win bonus or moving ahead in your division.

You could turn it down and stick with your original opponent, but that’s not going to make you any friends in the front office.

You could ask for more money in exchange for taking the bigger fight, but how much more? And what if the UFC won’t give it to you?

Here’s where it might be helpful to have a manager who’s been through this before.

Charles McCarthy has spent time as both a fighter and manager.

“It’s easy to be short-sighted as a fighter,” McCarthy said. “You’re living a pretty short-sighted life. So if you can save 10 percent on your next check, especially when you know the contract is already drawn up and the system is set, it seems like it makes sense. But what they’re not taking into account is the way things change. Every fight’s a math equation. Part of a manager’s job is to make sure it evens out, and it’s hard to be honest about some of that stuff when it’s your own career, because you’re too close to it emotionally.”

Of course, the way Sterling sees it, having an emotional connection isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It might be preferable to a manager who sees you as just another spoke in the wheel or some lottery ticket that’s yet to pay off.

“I think it’s definitely dependent on where you are in your career, but at the same time, a manager is supposed to be managing your career, at whatever point you are in it,” Sterling said. “If they’re not doing that, what’s the point? I’d rather give that money to my coaches, spend it on something that actually helps my career.”

And, at least so far, Sterling said he’s happy with the decision. Communicating directly with UFC matchmakers isn’t so different from what he already was doing even when he had a manager. Running his own social media, checking his own messages, setting up his own after-parties, none of that has changed. It’s just now he won’t give up a percentage of every fight purse while wondering what it’s for.

But while there are plenty of fighters who’ve managed themselves at one point or another, there aren’t a ton who’ve done it over the long haul, or kept doing it all the way to a major title. And sometimes, you don’t always realize what someone else was doing for you until they stop.

“It comes down to, you get what you pay for,” Kawa said. “Most guys who have tried doing it on their own eventually go back to having a manager, whether it’s coming back to me or finding someone else that they might work better with. Sometimes those are the best clients. The ones who leave and come back, they realize the grass isn’t always greener.”

For more on the UFC’s upcoming schedule, visit the UFC Rumors section of the site.

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Source: MMA Junkie