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What happens to mixed martial arts athletes when the fighting is over?

Fighting doesn’t last forever.

Retired mixed martial arts fighter and San Jose native Josh Thomson knows that now.

The 44-year-old, who grew up on the east side and earned the nickname “The Punk,” came up at a time when the sport — which combines a wide range of martial arts styles from jiu-jitsu to karate — started gaining widespread popularity.

In the early 2000s, around the time of his debut, he remembers making $4,000 from a fight. As an early 20-something, he thought he was rich. Then the money was gone.

“I was at the club that night, bottle service, buying bottles, I was going on vacation the following week and literally it was gone within a week and a half to two weeks,” said Thomson, whose 5′ 10”, 155-pound stature put him in the lightweight division.

It’s a problem he knows is still common among young fighters today — many of whom, he said, never learned how to save or invest their money.

“They don’t get it,” he said. “They are used to ‘I work out for 8 to 10 weeks, I fight in the cage and I receive a check and that’s it.’ The stock market is the long game. They’re not used to the long game.”

When their body is spent and it’s time to hang up the gloves, Thomson said a lot of them don’t know how to walk away — and have nothing to fall back on.


A California state legislator is trying to change that.

Assemblymember Matt Haney (D-San Francisco) has introduced Assembly Bill 1136: the MMA Fighters Pension Fund, which would create a pension fund for retired fighters over the age of 50 who have fought in at least 14 fights in the state. The pension, which will be overseen by the body that regulates MMA — the California State Athletic Commission — won’t be taxpayer-funded; instead, it will be financed from money made by promoters from ticket sales, sports paraphernalia and souvenirs.

State officials are currently considering a $1 assessment on each ticket.

Haney said the pension makes sense since California is the largest state for MMA.

“We have the most fights and the most fighters, and as a state, we have a direct interest in making sure that if we license a sport, that the people who participate are protected and taken care of,” he said. “I think it makes a lot of sense for our state, at no cost to taxpayers, to make sure [for] combat sports like MMA that the fighters have support and protection when they retire.”

As a retired MMA fighter himself, California State Athletic Commission Executive Officer Andy Foster says the bill is “close to his heart.”

Some of the most popular major league sports — the NFL, MLB and NBA, for instance — provide pensions for their players as part of their contracts with the league. The California State Athletic Commission also oversees a pension fund for retired boxers, which was signed into law in 1982, and is the only state to do so.

Since the commission has regulated MMA since 2006, Foster said it only makes sense that former fighters also have access to a pension, since MMA and boxing are both combat sports.

“It’s not life-changing money, but it’s something that’s helpful, and it’s my hope that MMA fighters will be able to have this for their future,” he said.

The commission has doled out 171 pensions to boxers since 2012, according to Foster, with an average one-time payout of around $19,000. The former fighter said he’s heard of retired boxers using the money to help them go to a trade school or get their business off the ground.

James Page, the former welterweight world boxing champion from Pittsburgh, Calif., is one of them.

Known as the “Mighty Quinn,” Page was on top of the boxing world in the ’90s. But from the late ’90s to the 2010s, the East Bay resident had multiple run-ins with the law and served several prison sentences for a slew of bank robberies.

James Page beats Sam Garr at Madison Square Gardens in New York on SaturdayMarch 13, 1999. (Al Bello/Allsport)
James Page beats Sam Garr at Madison Square Gardens in New York on Saturday<br />March 13, 1999. (Al Bello/Allsport vis Getty Images) 

He got out of prison in September of 2019, and within a couple of months, he said, he found a job. He’s been working steadily ever since and is now training kids, amateur fighters and even some pros at an Easy Bay gym. It was his wife, Marquita Page, who reminded him about the pension money.

He told the Mercury News that he used the money to catch up on some bills, stashed away some in savings and bought his daughter new clothes for school. It wasn’t life-changing, but it helped him out a lot and was a reminder that he “did something positive” in his life.

“It’s not like I have the big money anymore, but I’m happy. That’s what matters,” Page said.

As Thomson notes, many fighters have had coaches telling them what to do their entire lives. The serious fighters sometimes don’t have an outside job so they can focus on training morning, afternoon and night. And most, Thomson added, count on being champions.

But unless you make it to the top, the payout can be low, leaving many fighters struggling as they exit the cage with the awakening that their old life is over.

Thomson recognizes he was one of the lucky ones. He was able to snag a championship title — and the purse that comes with it — and invested his money wisely.

Retired MMA fighter Josh Thomson spends time with his longtime friends over lunch at Bamboo Sushi in Santa Clara, Calif., on March 17, 2023. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group)
Retired MMA fighter Josh Thomson spends time with his longtime friends over lunch at Bamboo Sushi in Santa Clara, Calif., on March 17, 2023. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group) 

While the bill could help many retired fighters in California, the nature of MMA often has them traveling to different states for fights — which could make it difficult for many to qualify, even if they do call California home.

Even though she’s based out of San Diego, Ilima-Lei Macfarlane — known as “the Iliminator”  — said most of her 14 fights have taken place outside of the state. Only four were in California — two in Temecula, one in San Jose and another in Fresno. She said that’s pretty typical in MMA, especially for higher-level fighters.

When she first heard about Haney’s bill, she questioned just how much it would impact the sport. While she recognizes it may not happen in her time as a fighter, she said it’s still promising for the next generation.

“We really do put our bodies on the line, and we don’t get enough support from anyone, really,” she said.” There’s no safety net for us post-fighting.”

Bellator MMA commentator John McCarthy agrees.

The former referee is a recognizable name in the sport, with a barreling voice that would signal the start of his fight with the catchphrase, “let’s get it on!” He’s watched UFC grow from its very early days and has seen fighters like Thomson, with whom he co-hosts an MMA podcast called “Weighing In,” push the sport into new directions.

California’s bill, he hopes, is just another catalyst.

“I think that if the state of California does this, eventually the state of Nevada will follow, then the state of Florida, then the state of New York and then the state of Texas,” he said. “You’ll have the ability to have an effect on the sport and the participants of it in a grand way, not just from the state of California’s perspective.”

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