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UFC confidential: Inside the precarious state of betting on MMA for fighters and coaches

by Marc Raimondi, ESPN

NEW YORK — A well-known MMA coach was sitting up against a locker room wall earlier this year with his fighter and other coaches as the fighter warmed up in preparation for his UFC bout later that evening. There were other fighters and teams in the room as well, a common occurrence backstage at UFC events.

The coach observed one of the other athletes on the card getting ready for his fight and didn’t like what he saw. The fighter looked lethargic, almost like he already had lost a shot of adrenaline. So, the coach quietly pulled out his phone and placed a small bet on the fighter in question’s opponent that night.

“I don’t say a thing,” the coach told ESPN. “I just open up my app, [and] I made a bet.”

Wagering in mixed martial arts, specifically the UFC, has come under scrutiny as of late. Last month, UFC chief business officer Hunter Campbell announced in a memo to fighters that they and members of their teams, including coaches, are no longer allowed to place bets on UFC fights. The memo came after the UFC got guidance from state regulators and noted that in certain jurisdictions, it is a crime for fighters or coaches to bet on fights from leagues with which they are affiliated.

Less than four weeks after that memo was sent out, a UFC Fight Night bout Nov. 5 between Darrick Minner and Shayilan Nuerdanbieke came under investigation by U.S. Integrity, a Las Vegas firm, after several sportsbooks in multiple states reported suspicious wagering on the match. Nuerdanbieke won via first-round TKO after Minner appeared to suffer a left knee injury. A lot of money came in on Nuerdanbieke, the favorite, to win by knockout in the first round – enough to make the line move from -220 to -420. Additionally, bets were heavy on the bout to last fewer than 2.5 rounds, which caused some sportsbooks to take the fight off their boards.

Minner and his coach,┬áJames Krause, who hosts a popular betting podcast and runs a betting Discord group, have not commented on the situation. The UFC released a statement that its betting integrity partner, Don Best Sports, “will conduct a thorough review of the facts and report its findings.”

“There’s absolutely zero proof that anybody that was involved bet on it,” UFC president Dana White told reporters Friday before UFC 281. “There were some signs out there that something was wrong, but there’s absolutely no proof that nobody did anything wrong.”

White is adamant about this bout, but the recent circumstances have shined a light on gambling among members of the MMA community, including fighters, coaches and managers. ESPN spoke to a dozen people in the sport who agreed to discuss the issue anonymously. The most common response was that betting was “widespread,” but not to the point where hundreds of thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars were being wagered.

One well-known coach believes that many fighters and coaches with ties to the UFC are betting on MMA bouts consistently, with the majority wagering anywhere from $20 to a few hundred dollars per fight and a few hundred to a few thousand dollars per card.

“I would say some are doing real money,” the coach said. “But very few. I think if people had more money, they would do more. But for MMA as a whole, there’s not a ton of money in it. I think people are gambling regularly on the fights on a somewhat moderate level.”

No one ESPN spoke with believes that fight fixing is going on or that athletes are losing on purpose. Tae Hyun Bang, a South Korean fighter, went to prison for taking bribes to throw a 2015 UFC fight against Leo Kuntz. Still, the belief at that time, before widespread legalized gambling in the U.S., was that it was just an isolated incident. Bang didn’t even end up going through with the plan, either — he won the bout and returned the money.

However, the consensus in the MMA community around Nuerdanbieke vs. Minner is that many people became aware of Minner’s knee injury in the hours leading into the bout. The coach said a “sharp bettor” in an MMA gambling Discord group he is in (not the one run by Krause, Minner’s coach at Glory MMA in Missouri and a former UFC fighter) wrote that everyone who wagered on Minner should cancel their bets. The bettor wrote, the coach said, that a lot of money — millions — was coming in on Nuerdanbieke, specifically to win in the first round.

That does not mean Minner or his team did anything questionable. Several coaches, managers and fighters said it is common for fighters to go into fights with injuries for two reasons: for the purse (fighters don’t get paid unless they fight) and because if the belief is that their injury came during the bout, the UFC insurance policy picks up the costs rather than the fighter paying out of pocket.

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