"The issue I have with Bellator is that they say, 'We're not going to use any ex-UFC guys,'" Kawa explained. "But then you end up going to the old UFC network. Now you're about to do your first pay-per-view with stars the UFC built up. Sure, guys like Tito Ortiz, Randy Couture and all these other guys did a lot to help build the sport, but at the end of the day, it was the UFC platform that built them up.
"And listen, I really hope Bellator makes it, and I hope Bellator gets it right completely across the board because it really will open up other opportunities. But I think it has to be like the CFL to the NFL, not a direct competition. That would be cool. But before somebody is going to come out and tell me that they're No. 2 just because they're on Spike TV, your operations need to be tight. There's people that fight for them that haven't had fights for a year."
Kawa, who used to manage former Bellator champ Hector Lombard, said he believes that promotion is still very much in its infancy and doesn't quite yet grasp the importance of fighter relations. While former UFC champions and new Bellator signees Quinton "Rampage" Jackson and Tito Ortiz are currently singing the praises of the California-based promotion, Kawa insists those fighters' experiences aren't typical of what he witnessed.
"They don't treat everybody that way," Kawa said. "It's not exactly what they make it out to be. I've had guys fighting in the main event of the UFC, and I call (UFC President) Dana White and say, 'Dana, I need 10 extra tickets. Not one or two or three or four. I need 10 extra tickets. This guy has family flying in.' And I've had Dana say yes. I've had him say no to other guys on the card, but he's always going to take care of the main event guys or the co-main event guys.
"I had a guy headlining a Bellator card a few years ago that was in his hometown. He asked for four extra tickets for his kids to go to the show, and they said no. They said to have him buy them. I've sat around and waited for 45 minutes for vans to come pick up fighters. Undercard guys who weren't given a per diem. Situations where there was no transportation to a place where a fighter could cut weight, and he had to end up paying for access to the hotel facilities. I watched guys get told certain things and them not come through on it. I've watched them promise sponsorship to guys, and it not come through. I've never seen any of that in the UFC.
"I don't want to smash Bellator. I just want people to understand there's a real difference between Bellator and the UFC. I'm not trying to say one is better just because they're bigger or whatever, I'm just saying the UFC has figured it out. They have a lot of stuff that's already been done correctly, where with Bellator I think they're still learning and growing as they go. So when I watch these guys talk about the UFC and how their boss doesn't put stress on them, a lot of it to me is just a lot of bulls---. I know Dana White can be abrasive and aggressive and all that type of stuff, but it doesn't mean you're not able to work with the guy."
But what about the UFC? After all, fighters like Jon Fitch, John Cholish and Tim Kennedy have all been vocal in their criticism of the UFC pay structure and how difficult is for fighters to make ends meet while making the personal and financial sacrifices needed to compete at the top level of MMA.
Much of that talk has garnered sympathy from fans, but Kawa said they're approaching the topic from the wrong point of view.
"I find it f---ed up when a guy comes to the UFC from a regional promotion where he was making $500 and $500 per fight," Kawa said. "No one in the UFC is making less than $7,000 or $8,000. Then they complain it's not enough? It's way more than you've ever made.
"I represent undercard guys, main-event guys and champions. The champions are getting paid pretty well, and most of my guys that deserve it are getting it. But the guys that deserve more money aren't the undercard guys. They're the guys that are carrying these cards, the headliners and the co-main event guys. These guys that are getting paid $50,000 instead of $300,000 or $400,000 to fight, those are the ones I think deserve to be paid more money. Sure, the UFC always rewards them with a nice discretionary bonus, but the guaranteed contracts can be negotiated, too. At the end of the day, those guys have the leverage to say, 'Hey, I've fought in front of four sold-out arenas; I was a headlining guy,' and try to get more money. When you're a guy that's on an undercard and says, 'Well, I'm 3-2 in the UFC, and I only made this amount of money over two years,' it's a little bit unfair."
Kawa points to Fitch as a fighter who was often criticized during his UFC run as an example of how things can play out for athletes financially when they don't have the support of the MMA public.
"I remember reading a lot of forums and a lot of posts where people didn't like Jon Fitch," Kawa said. "People would be pissed when he was in a co-main event or on a main card. Now he's upset because he got cut and he didn't get paid a certain amount. At the end of the day, the people that are getting paid are the ones who are putting people in the arenas and selling pay-per-views. That's really the bottom line, and if people haven't figured that out, it's unfortunate.
"Look at a guy like Chael Sonnen. Whether people like it or not, Chael Sonnen sells seats. People buy tickets and want to watch him fight because he hypes it up so well. Chael Sonnen can go in there and say he deserves more money. And you don't ever hear people like him griping. I'm not saying people on the undercard don't deserve more money. At the end of the day, I'm in management, and I get paid when guys get more money. But these are the types of things that you have to sort out, and when you go in to negotiate, it all has to make sense. You have to know what you're expecting."
And therein lies the biggest obstacle: balancing what's best for the fighter with what's best for their employer. But Kawa believes those two things can go hand in hand if approached correctly.
"When you add it all up and you take your sponsorships into consideration, if you're winning, you're making a six-figure salary or pretty close to it," Kawa said. "And if you're not, it's because you're losing and don't deserve to be there anyway. But the opportunity to be in the UFC means you have an opportunity to make more money than you would in almost any other promotion. Now, if World Series of Fighting comes in and says, 'We'll give you $30,000 to show and $30,000 to win,' and the UFC says, 'We'll give you $10,000 and $10,000,' and that guy decides to go to the UFC, he cannot sit there and tell me the UFC sucks and should pay more. You understood the system. It's not that I'm trying to say the system is perfect and the money is always tremendous and everyone should shut up, but you have to be realistic about the situation.
"I know a fighter under contract right now with the UFC who has yet to even fight for the company. He ended up with an injury. Well that injury was a blood clot in his brain. He hasn't even fought for the UFC yet, and all of his medical bills have been picked up, bills that are more than $30,000 last I was told. Me and Dana don't necessarily get along all the time. I've had my differences with him in the past, especially around UFC 151 and his criticism of Jon Jones. But the reality is when he says he's going to do something, he does it. Nine out of 10 times they won't deviate from exactly what they say they're going to do it."
Some observers have suggested a fighter union is the only fair way to make sure fighters are getting exactly what they're entitled. But Kawa isn't so sure that's the answer. Besides the obvious difficulties of organizing such an undertaking, Kawa believes in some ways a union would help to cripple the free market that does exist in MMA. After all, many professional sports leagues have regimented salary structures that do a fine job of guaranteeing healthy minimum salaries but also wind up limiting maximums, as well.
"A lot of people seem to think we need a union," Kawa said. "What I don't think they realize is that with unionization, like in football, the managers and the athletes are both regulated by these unions, and everything ends up becoming slotted. So you fall into a slot, and that's what you get paid. Unless you're at the very top of the game, that's just what you're getting paid, and you really don't have an opportunity to make more money. There's a minimum standard set, and because of that, the manager's rate may go down to as little as 2 percent or 3 percent, because there's no more negotiations. I would much rather there be negotiations so I can try and get more than the minimum standard for my client.
"Maybe a guy doesn't sell pay-per-views the way Georges St-Pierre does, but he still sells tickets. You make an argument for that guy. You can say, 'Hey, he deserves it. You make money off this guy.'"
But what about the limitations the UFC places on its fighters, the ones that keep them from crossing over into boxing, professional wrestling or other other such one-off endeavors? Bellator's willingness to entertain such options seems like a positive opportunity for some of the promotion's talents, and Jackson, Ortiz and Muhammad "King Mo" Lawal have already taken advantage of the arrangement. Kawa said that's an arrangement based more on need than providing opportunity.
"Bellator and TNA are both, at the end of the day, second-tier organizations," Kawa said. "No disrespect to any performer there or any fighter. It just is what it is. That's the reality of it. When a fan sits down and looks at it and says, 'Aren't you happy Bellator is around so you have a second option?' well, a second option would be great if they were paying what the UFC is paying guys. It would be great if there was an opportunity across the board for other guys equally.
"I don't want fans or fighters or anybody to misunderstand what's going on. You look these Bellator cards, guys are getting paid like regional fighters. Guys are making $2,000 or $3,000. Guys are not making money across the board the way they're doing it in the UFC. You can be stuck fighting once a year, twice a year at best. In the UFC, there's so many fights, most guys are getting three fights, sometimes even four based on the guy and injuries and all that. To me, there's just a lot of unfair blame going to the UFC. When I hear Bellator starting it up and knocking the UFC's practices and talking about how their tournament style is better and this or that, it just kind of angers me a little bit. They had no part in helping MMA get to where it's needed to get to at all."
Kawa, of course, represents a number of key UFC fighters, so it's perhaps no surprise that he favors that company's practices. But the high-profile manager said his strategy and insight are by design.
"I want to do business with the NFL, not the CFL," Kawa said. "I don't mean that disrespectfully, but it's the way I choose to approach the handling of my clients."
And he believes the economics of MMA still provide plenty of opportunity.
"If Jon Jones was saying what Tim Kennedy was saying or Benson Henderson was saying what John Cholish was saying, I would tell you there's a huge problem in the UFC because those are guys who are selling tickets and who people want to watch," Kawa said. "I'm not trying to bash Kennedy or Cholish or Fitch. I've met them, and they're great guys. But let's not throw out all the hate and the blame on the UFC and call Dana a jerk and Lorenzo Fertitta greedy. At the end of the day, Viacom has more money and more reach than a lot of people, and you still have fighters making $2,000.
"Of course when you become a champion, things are different. You fly first-class. You get some of the extra amenities and perks that others don't. But that's the point. When you're the champion, you get to enjoy those rewards. When you see former Bellator fighters come to the UFC, they'll tell you that the biggest difference between the two organizations is the way the fighters get treated. The UFC has never, ever done any of my fighters dirty, and I'm not going to sit back and just listen to all the criticism, especially from people who don't have all the facts.There's always two sides to every story."