On a scale from 'meh' to 'yikes,' what are the ethics of signing a 17-year-old to a UFC contract?
Raul Rosas Jr. is now the youngest UFC fighter ever. But before we worry about how his young brain will fare in the hurt business, we ought to consider the full context.
Raul Rosas Jr. is technically kinda, sorta still a child. Yet he is also kinda, sorta a UFC fighter now. So that’s a little bit weird. The 17-year-old Rosas fought on this week’s installment of Dana White’s Contender Series, a show where mostly regional talents fight for the pleasure of the emperor in the hopes that he will be amused enough by their performances to extend to them an invitation to court. (Kidding … maybe.)
Rosas won his fight – a competitive 135-pound bout against a solid opponent in Mando Gutierrez – and he looked pretty damn competent in the process.
“I’m very, very impressed with this kid,” UFC President Dana White told the assembled media after the event, correctly using the word ‘kid’ for the first time in a while. “He’s absolutely special. The amount of fighters that were blowing me up, going, ‘Oh my God, this kid’s for real, this kid’s legit,’ [it’s] impressive.”
And it was, especially when you reminded yourself – not that the commentary would ever let you forget – that Rosas is still just 17. He didn’t look at all out of his depth. He never seemed awed by the moment. He went three hard rounds and didn’t gas out the way you’d expect a teenage fighter to do if he was brought in as a pure novelty and found himself in an actual fight against a grown man. Rosas looked like he belonged, even without the UFC hype machine doing its part to cast him in the most positive light.
So now he’s got a UFC contract, making him the youngest fighter to ever sign with the world’s foremost MMA promotion. This is, at least to some extent, something of a gimmick. According to Tapology, Rosas turns 18 on October 8, which is less than three weeks from now. That tells us his underage status was a feature and not a bug for the UFC, because it really would not have been so difficult to wait until he was a legal adult in the U.S. before offering him a fight and a contract.
But then, that’s not as much of a story, is it? Hyping up the 17-year-old kid who’s about to fight in the Contender Series, that works. That gets people’s attention. In the old days of MMA, back when we were constantly clamoring for mainstream acceptance and arguing about what was good or bad for the sport, we might have worried that it was the wrong kind of attention. I mean, children fighting in cages? Against adults? While we watch and cheer? It’s not exactly not some Roman Colosseum type shit.
That whole realm of concern doesn’t really exist anymore. MMA is no longer in its fragile infancy, and the culture as a whole has also become such an insane living satire that there’s almost no such thing as bad attention. Controversies are just conversation topics, and even that only briefly. A minor fighting in the cage with his parents’ express written consent barely even registers outside the MMA bubble.
Still, is it a great idea for this literal kid and his still developing brain to go out there and trade leather with grown-ass men? Well, no. Not when you put it like that. But then, it’s not a great idea for the grown-ass men either. No one’s doctor is advising them to take up face-punching for the sake of their health. This is a hurting game, and there’s an inherent risk built into it.
That risk will be exactly the same for Rosas in three weeks when he’s officially an adult. It’ll be more or less the same a couple years later when he nudges into his twenties. Fighting professionally doesn’t do anyone’s young bodies or developing brains any favors, but then neither does college football or junior hockey, and yet those are practically religious institutions in various parts of North America.
What really matters in the Rosas situation is: 1) what he can do, and 2) what the UFC decides to do with him.
On the first category, things look pretty solid. He’s obviously not a fully polished product yet, and the UFC’s bantamweight division is a tough place to learn on the job, but he’s clearly skilled and experienced enough to protect himself and be competitive – provided he’s not overmatched too soon.
But that gets us to part two of the equation. For the UFC, a signing like Rosas serves a couple different purposes. First, it helps the Contender Series continue to gain traction, since the novelty factor is good for some fresh views. (Sidebar: It really is amazing what the UFC has pulled off with DWCS. It essentially created its own feeder league, technically promoted by a separate entity but using all the UFC’s infrastructure and distribution power, funneling a steady stream of cheap talent into entry-level contracts. It fulfills the UFC’s content-creation needs at a fraction of the usual cost, while also locking down young talent before competitors can get to them. The fighters are penny stocks; even if only one out of a hundred pans out, it’s still a good deal. Plus the UFC convinced the content-hungry MMA media to treat these monetized tryouts as real events demanding weekly, breathless coverage. It’s a work of true genius that ought to be studied for decades to come in the business world’s How To Offer Less But Profit More department.)
Second, say Rosas does turn out to be a really great fighter. It’s entirely possible. He looks very solid, with composure in the cage far beyond his years. The fight world has always loved the appeal of the boy wonder (see also: the saga of “Young” Stribling), so he’s already got a head start in the always difficult battle of getting fans to notice and care. Now the UFC has him under contract. And without knowing the details of said contract? Seems likely that the teenage phenom who comes off the Contender Series is probably locked into a fairly long-ish term deal that won’t cost the UFC a ton of money. If he turns out to be a star, great, he’ll be working cheap for the next few years. If he doesn’t, fine, the UFC can dump him at any time. It’s a no-lose for the promotion.
Lastly, the unique thing about combat sports is that the promoter has a lot of room to decide what the quality of competition looks like for any new prospect. As boxing figured out long ago, you don’t need to fix fights when you have the power of the matchmaker. This has its limits, of course, and we need only look to the CM Punk experiment to be reminded of that. If you can’t fight at all, even the matchmakers won’t be able to save you for long. But if you’re a young fighter with genuine talent who just needs time and resources to grow into something special? A promoter has the prerogative to grant that – up to a point.
That’s why I think that, for Rosas, the actual fighting and the physical risks to his young body and developing brain are not the big issue. Or at least, to the extent that they are, those risks still exist for fighters who are 21, 22, 23 – whatever. Really, it’s the inherently exploitative nature of the fight business itself that’s the bigger threat. And that’s the part that young fighters – being sold on the promise of their own potential and the rewards that are always just up ahead – are especially vulnerable to.
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