Count two-time UFC lightweight title challenger Gilbert Melendez amongst the high profile UFC fighters to speak out against the Reebok sponsorship deal. The former Strikeforce champion spoke to Sherdog this week and said it was “a bummer to see” the deal, which is reportedly costing some fighters tens of thousands of dollars. He goes on to state several reasons, not the least of which being pride in wearing sponsors who helped him when he was starting out.

He’s one of many, but he brings an interesting perspective to the table. Though a top name in the stacked lightweight division and a two-time UFC title challenger, Melendez has fought just three times in the promotion, which would put him in the bottom of the Reebok deal’s payout structure. Beyond that, as Melendez pointed out to Sherdog, some of his sponsors have been with him from the start. They’ve become part of the team, part of the family; they were what got him by when he was an up-and-coming fighter struggling to make ends meet.

It’s not like Melendez is hurting for money today: he wisely played the UFC off Bellator when signing his last deal (the UFC retained Melendez’s services by matching a superb offer from their primary rival). That said, were Melendez getting his start in the UFC, rather than having fought his way to prominence in other organizations, and had this deal been in place when he was coming up, he might not have even made it to this point.

Melendez is far from the only voice to speak out. Jose Aldo, the promotion’s only featherweight champion since the division was brought in, stated this month that the deal is “a huge setback” for fighters in an interview with Combate. Brendan Schaub has been extremely vocal as well, stating that he’s at risk of losing six figures as a result of the exclusive deal — a number Dana White has disputed, but that Schaub has been adamant over. In fact, at this point, Schaub has suggested he’ll only step back in the octagon to fight against top names, in order for it to be worth his while. Sara McMann isn’t happy, and suggested the deal is biased against the women’s divisions in the UFC, being that they’re the newest and as such female fighters don’t have as many fights as the men.

All of these fighters have strong cases, and the chorus of discontent (which brings along with it words like “anti-trust” and “union” which the UFC simply cannot be happy to hear) will only grow as the deal grows closer.

So what will the UFC do to address it?

Thus far, it has been a public relations disaster. Dana White’s insistence that the fighters “get a little crazy” over change and are resistant to it hasn’t helped. Frankly, when launching a program such as this, fighters should have been consulted up front — even if just a small sampling. When any major organization enters into such a business agreement, the details and potential pitfalls need to be examined and addressed in advance. Instead, the UFC has sort of blindly stumbled forward, and while it has been more flexible than expected, it never should have come to this.

A few steps have been taken: the minimum wage, never really an official number, seems to have gone up as late, with fighters earning $10,000 to show and $10,000 to win. Rumors have also begun to swirl that the promotion is offering more money in contracts, perhaps to soften the blow from fewer advertising dollars. Perhaps that’s why Chad Mendes recently re-signed: after all, clearly the money was good. Then again, how many will follow Phil Davis over to Bellator?

The reality is, the top guys in the UFC will be hurt just as much, if not more, than the mid-card fighters and lesser names, but like Melendez are better situated to absorb the blow, and will likely stick around due to a desire to fight the best. However, at least a few talents are likely to walk come contract time, and it will be those that simply aren’t making enough to overlook the sponsorship issue. As much as fighters want to fight the best, at the top levels of the sport, it’s also a career. It’s about feeding your family. And if you cut out a part of the greater fight family, like sponsors, it becomes that much harder.

It’s a situation that could have, should have been avoided. The Reebok deal is not a bad idea in theory, but in execution, the UFC has fumbled the ball, and how they plan to recover at this point remains to be seen. In the meantime, as the launch date for the program looms, expect to hear more and more about the deal from both sides.

About The Author

Senior Staff Writer

Covering the sport of MMA from Ontario, Canada, Jay Anderson has been writing for various publications covering sports, technology, and pop culture since 2001. Jay holds an Honours Bachelor of Arts degree in English from the University of Guelph, and a Certificate in Leadership Skills from Humber College under the Ontario Management Development Program. When not slaving at the keyboard, he can be found in the company of his dog, a good book, or getting lost in the woods.