Does it pay to be an MMA fighter?

MMA—a sport that was once dubbed “human cockfighting” is attracting all the hype, and has in fact become the fastest growing sport in the world. With some help from ESPN, the art form has moved from the fringes to the mainstream across America—discussions of football and basketball are now often accompanied by those of mixed martial arts. 

The sport has gained notoriety in only three decades, something that took sports like cricket and soccer more than a hundred years. This rise to the top is rightfully accredited to the UFC, a fight league that has gone to great lengths in legitimizing MMA. As a first mover and a pioneer, the organization has become synonymous with the sport and maintained a foothold in the industry. 

With the inherent marriage between the UFC and MMA, the organization is naturally held accountable for the sports’ dynamics and circumstances. A more recent concern that has emerged is fighter compensation. Are fighters being paid enough for their work? 

The growth of the combat sport and the UFC has brought attention to the lifestyles of professional fighters. Top-tier martial artists like Conor Mcgregor have taken to social media to flaunt their bout earnings, which often accumulate to well over seven figures. Meanwhile, the vast majority of lesser-known fighters are struggling to make ends meet and to pay for their training camps. 

The reality is that the most visible fighters do not represent the majority, and behind the flashy instagrams are grueling careers. Determining whether it pays to be an MMA fighter, depends on understanding the context and the investment athletes make into their careers. From working multiple jobs to pay for surgeries, to taking out loans to cover training camps. The sacrifices that go on behind the scenes are less highlighted, partly because of athletes’ self-pride, and incentive to please their employers.

The Ultimate Fighting Championship is a $4.025 Billion enterprise owned by the WME-IMG group which has 724 actively enrolled fighters in its roster. These are the toughest, meanest, and the most fierce athletes in the world. UFC martial artists generate one of the largest audiences, the largest  Pay-Per-Views,, and get sponsorships by the biggest business brands such as Reebok, Monster, Budlight.

Being an MMA or UFC fighter is not without its perks, but does the career justify its hefty price tag? 

How does a fighter make money?

Typically, MMA fighters are signed to contracts that enable them to fight a guaranteed set of fights over a number of years. The contracts are not the same for everyone, some fighters earn as low as four figures and some can claim six figures. This is all dependent on a fighter’s background, stats, experience, predictions, hype, fame, and style.

In the UFC, fighters are eligible to win bonuses depending upon their performances in the Octagon. The bonuses are divided into two categories: Fight of the Night (FotN) and Performance of the Night (PotN). These two are awarded based on the exceptional performances in the octagon which mainly come via a flashy knockout or an exceptional battle between two opponents.

Since 2014 the standard payout for the bonuses is $50,000. This is a great initiative by the organization to push the fighters to perform better and even if a fighter loses, they can get a bonus.

On top of that, the UFC president Dana White is famous for impulsively awarding fighters with thousands of dollars based solely on his perception, “There will be a night where some crazy sh*t happens throughout the whole card and I’ll write ‘em anywhere from $10,000 to $25,000”.

White claims that in 2020 alone, the UFC paid fighters $13 million, and out of that amount, $4.6 million were these impulsively driven awards.

Apart from base salaries, bonuses, and awards. There is another factor that will determine your pay. That is the ability to generate Pay-Per-Views. That is exactly why someone like CM Punk, a WWE wrestler with no martial arts background, was able to have two fights in the UFC.

The UFC business model

With a net evaluation of $4.025 billion in 2016, to almost $10 billion in 2020. The UFC ranks ninth in terms of money all over the world. Since 2013, the UFC has seen a 19.5% participation growth and the numbers keep growing.

Still a nascent sport, the UFC has millions of followers all over the globe. All accredited to the athletes that brought the sport where it is. Fighters like Conor McGregor are able to generate millions of dollars in Pay-Per-View and in attendance. He is also the biggest draw in the game followed by other notable fighters such as Khabib Nurmagomedov, who has taken his retirement now.

Fighters at the top of the pyramid take anywhere between $250,000 to as much as $3 million as base salaries, on top of that, they can receive sponsorships, endorsements, and a percentage in the pay-per-view. This allows them to rake in millions per fight.

But the new entrants, up and comers are paid in four figures which barely cover medical, living, expenses, coaches’ fees, and whatnot.

  •       Highest paid UFC fighter and champion in 2020: Khabib Nurmagomedov ($6 million)
  •       Highest paid non-UFC champion in 2020: Conor McGregor ($3 million)
  •       Lowest paid UFC champion in 2020: Petr Yan ($230,000)
  •       Lowest paid UFC fighter in 2020: Cole Williams ($9,500)

 

Why are the fighters complaining?

The average fighter makes $148,000 when bonuses and base salaries are added up. But this number does not paint the whole picture. Even though this makes UFC fighters, one of the highest-paid athletes in the world. It does not equate to the amount of sacrifice a fighter puts in, nor is it worth putting their lives on the line just to make a living.

An athlete has to go through grueling training sessions each day, spanning for months. When the fight nears, they have to suffer through murderous weight cuts. Then the Octagon closes and you get your face punched in for 15 minutes straight, get a couple of ribs broken, some concussions, and sometimes a broken foot.

It is all good if you win, but if you lose, it is a whole other world. You have bills to pay, mouths to feed, and anxiety about getting your contract canceled. This is exactly why some fighters were driven to take on ridiculous personas so that they could bring in viewership, which in turn would save their contracts.

With all this in mind, fighters have every right to complain about being underpaid. Because in the fight world, Boxing still overshadows MMA. Not just boxing but Football, Ice Hockey, Soccer, Cricket pay their athletes more than the UFC pays their athletes.

According to the 2018 UFC Fighter Salaries, the UFC made an estimated revenue of $700 million and paid their fighter $79 million. Which amounts to only 10% of the total revenue generated. Now compare this number to other sports leagues and the revenue generated versus the salaries paid percentage will tell you whether the fighters are exploited or not.

  •       NBA: $7.4 Billion: 51% Revenue Split
  •       MLB: $10.3 Billion: 50% Revenue Split
  •       NFL: $14 Billion: 48.5% Revenue Split
  •       NHL: $4.8 Billion: 50% Revenue Split
  •       UFC: $700 Million: 10% Revenue Split

The UFC Monopoly

Since the inception of MMA, the leading promotion in the world is the UFC. Many other promotions are desperately trying to compete with the UFC but they barely match up with the caliber of the UFC. It is the A league of MMA.

However, to be where they are, the UFC has employed a couple of nasty tricks that restricts fighters from leaving the company. Fighters can only compete within the UFC, and only on the contracts that they are given. There are virtually no options for the little guys, but to compete.

The company controls 90% of the revenue generated from MMA fighting and dishes out only 10% of it to its fighters. Furthermore, the top-ranked athletic pool is bound by contract to stay with the UFC. And they are paid only a fraction of what they would earn in a competitive marketplace.

If they leave the organization for a better offer, then they will probably be sued by the UFC for breaching their contracts.

Let us look at it from a boxer’s perspective. If Floyd Mayweather was under a UFC contract, he would have been forced to fight Manny Pacquiao in his prime. He would have had zero options, and would not have been successful in evading Manny until he fell out of his prime. And even if Mayweather had won that bout, he would have been paid only 5% of what he actually earned in his bout with Manny.

As we speak, two fighters Kajan Johnson and Clarence Dollaway have sued the UFC for monopolizing the sport and controlling the MMA market.

Solution

If the fighters that have sued the UFC are successful then that would benefit all fighters employed by the UFC. If not, then what we propose is that fighters try to diversify their revenue streams.

Some fighters have started their YouTube channels, OnlyFans accounts, some have gone into the media as commentators. Some have become entrepreneurs, selling their own products. Like the Diaz brothers with their cannabis, Conor McGregor with his Proper 12 Whiskey.

But if a fighter trains hard, trains smart, makes the right decisions then they can end up pretty well. For example, the only undefeated champion in UFC history: Khabib Nurmagomedov – who left the game while he was ahead. He lives comfortably now, with enough money in the bank to last him for his life.

On top of that, he uses his fame and clout to gain sponsorships, supports his teams, and even created his local MMA league called the Eagle Fighting Championship (EFC). Other notable champions include Georges St-Pierre, Henry Cejudo, Frank Shamrock, and Bas Rutten.


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