Golf and boxing — could two sports be more different? Both have been around for centuries, but on the opposite sides of the class spectrum — golf historically (and, some may argue, presently) reserved for the “gentlemen” of society, an extremely exclusive hobby that has long prided itself on its decorum and propriety, the sport that executives play when discussing a deal. Boxing, though, was the most commonly available sport to the poor, the immigrants, the ones hoping for a way out in the 19th and 20th centuries. Barbaric, gritty, gory — everything that golf isn’t and wasn’t, boxing is and was.
And yet we find ourselves at an interesting crossroads in this moment, where the two sports have, in their professionalization and monetization, come together in 25-year-old boxer Jake Paul and 51-year-old PGA legend Phil Mickelson.
Paul, a former vlogger who gained fame before becoming a professional boxer in 2020, has begun a “social impact” campaign that includes demands for a greater percentage of UFC revenue to be shared with mixed martial arts fighters as well as improved health care benefits for the fighters, who have a high risk of CTE due to the nature of their sport. He offered to sign a one-fight deal with UFC if the demands were met, as well as publicly going after UFC president Dana White’s mistreatment and underpayment of the fighters. And while UFC is a mixed martial arts promotion company — not to be confused with boxing — the two are alike in that they are both fighting sports and therefore both pose a decently sized risk to their athletes’ physical health.
Paul’s pre-existing fame has brought in new viewers to boxing (many of whom want to watch him get knocked on his ass), and with his non-boxing ventures providing an outside source of income, Paul is in the unique position to be able to use his influence to go after the prime promotion company in mixed martial arts, which many fighters have reportedly felt that they are unable to do out of a fear of reprisal.
“There will be more pressure on the organization as time goes by, especially with the voice and noise of someone like Jake Paul,” said boxing promoter Eddie Hearn on The MMA Hour. “Jake Paul’s a disaster for those guys… I think he’s on a mission.”
Meanwhile, veteran golfer Mickelson, who, at 51, is chasing a U.S. Open victory to complete his majors grand slam, told Golf Digest that he is extremely unhappy with what he perceives to be the PGA’s exploitation of players and the association’s “obnoxious greed.” As rumors of a Saudi-backed competitor league called the Super Golf League poaching big PGA names float around, Mickelson’s name has come up time and time again. He seems to think that there’s a possibility that the SGL would provide some incentive for the PGA to return media rights to the golfers, which Mickelson referred to as the “biggest” of “many issues” with how the PGA distributes revenue to the players.
“It is the tour’s obnoxious greed that has really opened the door for opportunities elsewhere,” Mickelson told the magazine. “Take this Netflix project that is underway. None of the players are getting paid. But the tour is getting paid a lot of money.”
Much like the Super Golf League, Paul’s demands open up the possibility of a competitor league that could make a real run at the dominance that the UFC has reached in the sport of mixed martial arts, to a point where most successful athletes are essentially forced to work within a single organization to continue their success. And if you’re saying, well, that’s just how all sports work, you’d have a point — but there’s a distinct tie bringing together golf and MMA that distinguishes their athletes from those in other popular sports.
Both the PGA Tour and the UFC employ an independent contractor model of business, which means that the athletes are largely expected to pay their own way in terms of travel, lodging, training, entry fees, and more. They also rely on prize money rather than participation money, unlike, say, NBA or NFL players. Earlier this week, Forbes published a report that most professional golfers “struggle to merely support themselves” despite the PGA bringing in over $1 billion in revenue in 2019.
“While marginal athletes in other sports earn a comfortable wage, golfers who are at the bottom of the tour struggle to earn a basic living. The 200th rated golfer made $175,000 in PGA earnings, and the 250th made just $6,000,” the article reads. The tour also severely limits golfers’ autonomy to compete in non-PGA tournaments and in terms of sponsorship money.
In the UFC, the athletes’ independent contractor status cuts them off at the knees in any attempts to unionize or demand better benefits or workplace protections, despite the brutality of the sport in which they are participating. Fighter pay has not matched the increasing revenue that UFC has seen in the past several years, which Paul is fighting to change.
So for those complaining that Mickelson and Paul are simply being greedy, I challenge you to look at it another way: because of their status and fame, they’re able to use their influence to make their sport better for athletes from top to bottom. Pro golfers and fighters throughout their leagues would benefit from the demands that the two men are making in their respective sports. It’s not a simple money-grab for Mickelson and Paul, and even if it were, the side effect would present an enormous benefit to the lower-ranked, less-famous golfers and MMA fighters.
Perhaps it is emblematic to have two such different men representing the interests of two such different sports, and there are certainly distinctions between their paths of advocacy for their fellow athletes that are very reflective of not only the nature of their sports, but of their ages and experiences as well. Mickelson is far more respected within the sport itself than Paul is (he hasn’t done an MMA fight yet, and has only boxed professionally in five matches), but Paul is no doubt a prominent public figure in the fighting world. Their coincidentally parallel fights for the rights of independent contractors present a fascinating case study in a corner of the world of professional athletes that often goes unnoticed.