Last Friday, Jake Paul – the controversial YouTuber turned professional boxer – released a rap video targeting Dana White, the president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
Aptly named the Dana White Diss Track, the song opens with a cameo from former UFC champion Cris Cyborg, who is pressured by an actor playing White into signing an exploitative contract that doesn’t even guarantee health care. Paul – who modestly portrays himself as a crusading hero – then launches into the track, which takes aim at White and his business partners Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, as well as notable fighters such as Conor McGregor, Jorge Masvidal, Nate Diaz, and even retired champion Khabib Nurmagomedov.
The definitely not safe-for-work track, which has garnered more than 2m views on YouTube, is Paul’s latest attempt to call for improved pay in the UFC while escalating his personal conflict with White.
“Dana, pay your fighters more. Give them healthcare, you scumbag. I haven’t met a single person who says anything good about you. I passed my drug test and you went silent. I’m keeping my foot on your neck until you tap, bitch,” proclaims Paul in the closing section of the video. “Stop raising your pay-per-view prices on the fans and not paying fighters more. Greedy, old, lonely, bald, bitch.”
Paul and White have clashed repeatedly over the past few months. It began when Paul offered to retire from boxing and join the UFC roster if White agreed to raise fighter pay and provide long-term health care to his athletes. White responded by suggesting that Paul was using steroids. Unfazed by White’s attack, Paul announced last week that he had invested in Endeavor, the parent company of the UFC, with the intent of driving change from within. He then told ESPN’s Stephen A Smith that he planned to start a fighters’ union and that his conflict with White is “really about the fighters.”
Paul’s verbal showdown with White has undoubtedly drawn attention to the mistreatment of fighters in the UFC. However, it also raises questions about Paul’s motivation given his (and his older brother Logan’s) history of monetizing controversy.
The 25-year-old Paul launched his YouTube channel in 2014, which quickly became a platform for eye-popping antics that earned him more than 20 million subscribers. He grew to become one of YouTube’s most popular names until Logan Paul posted a December 2017 video of a dead body filmed in Japan’s infamous “suicide forest.” As a result of the backlash from the video, both brothers lost their sponsors and had their videos demonetized on YouTube. Though Jake Paul continues to be embroiled in various controversies – include throwing a party during the initial Covid -19 lockdown and allegations of sexual assault—he has since turned his attention to his flourishing boxing career, which accounts for the vast majority of his earnings.
Earlier this month, Forbes estimated that Paul made a combined $40m for his three boxing wins in 2021, all of which took place against former UFC fighters. With his eyes set on several other potential UFC opponents, including Jorge Masvidal, it makes financial sense for Paul to bring attention to the organization’s oppressive contracts and its mistreatment of fighters, especially since White vehemently opposed the idea of Paul challenging those under contract with the UFC.
Paul’s conflict with White also expands his popularity in the mixed martial arts community and presents him as a supposed defender of downtrodden athletes while bringing in more viewers to his fights. Given this, it comes as no surprise that Paul is creating videos attacking White while claiming that it is all for the benefit of underpaid fighters.
Nevertheless, while Paul’s conflict with White is most likely self-serving, it would be foolish to ignore the fact that his fanbase and social media presence could provide an invaluable platform to spotlight the issue of fighter pay in the UFC.
Unlike the vast majority of sports leagues and organizations, where athletes receive anywhere between 47-50% of the sport’s revenue, the UFC has historically paid out between 16-19%. In 2019, the promotion reported $900m in revenue, but only 16% was paid out to the UFC’s approximately 600 fighters.
The UFC’s stranglehold led to a half-dozen former UFC fighters filing a $5bn antitrust lawsuit against UFC’s parent company, Zuffa LLC, in December 2014. The lawsuit charges the company with illegally acquiring and maintaining a monopoly over the MMA industry. It claims that the UFC used predatory practices and ran an illegal scheme to eliminate competition, which resulted in fighters being paid “a fraction of what they would earn in a competitive marketplace.”
According to Lucas Middlebrook, a union-side labor attorney representing airline and professional sports labor groups, Paul has both the wealth and influence to play a crucial role in creating collective bargaining opportunities for fighters.
“Jake Paul has the money to throw behind [unionizing fighters],” said Middlebrook. “He’s also got the ability to create media, which he can use as a tool to educate the fighters on the benefits that unionization could bring.”
Middlebrook, who previously advised former UFC fighter Leslie Smith’s Project Spearhead labor association, added that if Paul wants to create real change, he should begin by funding grassroots organizing activities such as hiring former UFC athletes to educate current fighters and coordinate unionization efforts. These activities could be especially effective right now, as the National Labor Relations Board takes steps to investigate workplaces and employers that misclassify workers as independent contractors. UFC fighters are currently classified as independent contractors.
“Once you’ve made the UFC bargain instead of implement, you take away their power and … see the empowerment of the labor. And once you see the empowerment of the labor, things start to change very quickly.”
Paul has a unique opportunity to help countless fighters improve their livelihoods. Whether the YouTube star will follow through on his claims of support or simply stick to his brand of profiting from real-world controversy remains to be seen.