As Stevie Ray was approaching the final bout on his UFC contract last year, he was told that fighting out his deal would allow him to reap the benefits of free agency once he was available to go to the highest bidder.
Free agency has become a hot topic in mixed martial arts over the past few years as more and more athletes are finding out what they are worth on the open market. High profile fighters like Eddie Alvarez have joined the UFC while former champions and title contenders such as Benson Henderson and Rory MacDonald have ended up in Bellator.
Of course there’s no perfect right or wrong answer when it comes to an athlete’s worth to any particular organization but Ray got some advice that he was better off turning down a new multi-fight contract with the UFC in favor of testing the waters of free agency.
Unfortunately, Ray ended up suffering a loss in the final fight on his old contract and then the unexpected happened.
The UFC wasn’t calling him to offer a renewal any longer.
Before long, Ray was on the sidelines for several months and even went as far as contemplating retirement because the UFC didn’t get back around to offering him a contract. Frustration bled into depression until Ray was finally contacted by a new manager willing to offer him some advice.
“Basically I was with another management team and they thought it was a good idea to fight out my contract,” Ray explained when speaking to MMAWeekly. “Speaking to Ali [Abdel-Aziz] after that, he explained to me how free agency only works really well for a few fighters. Even though I had a pretty good record, I feel [free agency] only really works for really big names or really big personalities. I think I should have signed the deal that was offered before I fought it out. I still ended up with a good deal with the UFC.
“The thing is I wouldn’t have been in limbo for so long so it was just bad advice from my old management team.”
— Steven Ray (@StevenRayMMA) February 18, 2018
Abdel-Aziz, who manages several high profile fighters in the UFC including Khabib Nurmagomedov, Fabricio Werdum and Cody Garbrandt, offered to help Ray get back in contact with the UFC after more than six months away from the cage.
Perhaps the toughest part about his brief free agency stint was that Ray always wanted to end up back with the UFC and never intended on going to another promotion anyways. In fact, Ray says that ACB — a promotion based out of Russia — had reached out to him with a deal just recently but he was still holding out hope that the UFC would come through with another offer.
The toughest part for Ray was that when the UFC initially offered him a new deal ahead of his last fight against Felder, he was happy with contract but he says his old management advised him not to accept it.
“I wanted to stay with the UFC. Even at that, the UFC offered me a really good contract before I fought out my deal but my management told me I was worth a lot more and if I beat [Paul] Felder, we could push for it,” Ray explained. “It was a risk but I didn’t realize I was risking not getting a contract. I never thought that would be an option.
“I learned from it. Now it’s time to get back in there and make a statement.”
According to Ray, he stayed in contact with Abdel-Aziz for several weeks as he made overtures to the UFC while still not actually managing the lightweight. Eventually a spot opened up on the upcoming UFC Fight Night card in London and Ray was suggested as a replacement on short notice.
Rustam Khabilov suffered an injury and that left Kajan Johnson without an opponent. Before long, Ray was offered to step in as a replacement — along with the same contract that was offered to him previously before he fought out his old deal.
“I am happy with the deal. The UFC offered me the same deal as before when they could have gone back and offered me something worse just to punish me,” Ray said. “It’s good. I’m looking at keep going up though. If I can go 3-0 on this new contract, then it gives me a chance to get an even better deal on my next contract.”
More than anything right now with the contract woes behind him, Ray is just anxious to restart his career with his upcoming fight against Johnson in London.
“I’m hungry to get back in there,” Ray said. “I’ve been training for the past four weeks so I’m feeling good. I’m feeling sharp, my weight’s low and I’m just buzzing to get back in there.”