by Jeffrey Zielinski
By Matt Saccaro
I wish I would’ve drove truck last 10yrs, then at least is have insurance to see a counselor. Ufc left me broken with nithing
— Chris Leben (@cripplerufc) February 16, 2014
Any sentiment related to the UFC and how they take care of their fighters (whether it’s about pay, insurance, or what have you) is bound to be controversial. Leben’s tweet suggesting the UFC discards their fighters once they’ve outlived their usefulness and leaves them as empty, “broken” husks was no exception. A firestorm erupted on twitter and other Internet locales, with many fans insulting Leben and bashing the TUF Season 1 veteran. Their argument: Leben made more money than me, so fuck him. His drug issues are not my problem. Harsh words for a man who risked his mind and body to entertain so many.
A shame fans didn’t express these sentiments while Leben was in the UFC and clearly had issues. But then he was a BANGER, a WARRIOR. Now, since he doesn’t collect a UFC paycheck, fans think he’s a pathetic, burned out mooch who deserves nothing but agony. We’ve said it before, but MMA fans are terrible sometimes. Furthermore, Leben was distraught over the death of his dog, which prompted his above tweet about the UFC. It’s terrible to deride a person in such circumstances.
Ailing animal aside, Leben’s tweet brings a question to the fore: Should the UFC start a rehabilitation program for their fighters?
As the UFC roster balloons and the old guard of MMA ages, more and more Chris Lebens—athletes who fought hard but perhaps partied harder—will enter the confusing, empty-feeling life of an ex-fighter. What’ll those fighters do? They can’t all get ridiculous jobs from Zuffa, nor can they all become commentators. Some will find gigs as coaches and successful gym owners, but what about the rest who lose their way and fall to their drug habits—habits they acquired because of the MMA lifestyle?
Zuffa might help distressed fighters they’re partial to (guys that WARRED), but ideally the UFC would mimic the WWE’s model of rehabilitation assistance, the goal of which is “to help any former talent that may have a substance-related dependency problem.” The WWE covers all costs and “maintains regular contact with talent who have entered a rehab program or reached out for WWE assistance.”
The professional wrestling industry has a history with drug use. The grueling, 300+ day schedules combined with the constant wear and tear of taking bumps night after night is too much for some. They turn to drugs and alcohol to cope with the pain and pressure.
While competing in the UFC doesn’t require constant travel, fighting isn’t an easy occupation on the mind or body—not at the high levels, where the “Rock Star Life” can consume fighters, nor at the low levels where $8,000 to show doesn’t come close to covering your costs for the fight, and training often has to be juggled with a day job. Financial struggles are only half the problem. No fighter enters the cage injury-free. But they can only get paychecks from fighting. When injuries mount and bank accounts run dry, competing hurt is the only option. Fighters, such as Chris Leben and Karo Parisyan, turn to painkillers. Other athletes might turn to different kinds of drugs.
Perhaps it’s the UFC’s responsibility to offer some aid to competitors who succumbed to drugs to cope with the physical and mental pressures of fighting. For all of Dana White’s/Zuffa’s grandstanding, the UFC would be nowhere without the fighters. Where’s the harm in bankrolling rehab for fighters who gave the best years of their lives (and their long-term health) to the UFC?