The age-old issue of pay discrepancies in MMA

Graphic by Lewis Badun @toadmule

When you fight the best you’d expect to be paid the best, right?

Pay discrepancies for fighters in different MMA organizations are now larger than ever. UFC fighters want better pay and insurance.

The UFC is valued at $9-10 billion, whereas Bellator (seen by many as being the second-best MMA organization) is valued at roughly $17 million.

Given those numbers, you’d expect UFC fighters to be paid much higher, but that’s not the case.

Bellator’s fighter pay percentage was estimated at 44.7 per cent of their total revenue between 2010-16, whereas the UFC pays their fighters an average of 16-20 per cent. 

UFC prelim fighters in the lowest contract tier can make anywhere between $10,000 to $30,000 per fight, whereas ranked contenders can make up to $100,000. Champions qualify for a pay upgrade and can earn between $500,000 and $3 million.

On the other hand, Bellator’s top fighters make between $100,000 and $300,000 but given the size of the promotion, it makes sense. They also get the chance to compete in a divisional “Grand Prix” which can net the winner an additional $1 million payout. When a fighter leaves the UFC to go to Bellator (or another promotion), they get a substantial raise as these smaller promotions need elite talent to draw viewers.

Therefore, many high-profile free agents are now choosing to sign with promotions like Bellator and PFL due to the higher compensation. UFC vet turned Bellator fighter Corey Anderson mentioned on Twitter that “In 2 fights 6 months with Bellator, I’ve made double of what I did in 15 fights (11 wins 2 bonuses) 7 years with UFC.”

Pay discrepancy is becoming more of an issue for the UFC as more fighters are beginning to hold out for better pay.

We originally saw it with former champions like Demetrious Johnson, Jon Jones, Henry Cejudo, and now more recently, heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou. The issue lies with the fact that UFC fighters are not unionized and are essentially independent contractors. This puts the fighters at a severe disadvantage when it comes to negotiating. Along with having little to no leverage, they’re just one wrong kick or punch away from a career-ending injury.

UFC president Dana White has always been very opinionated when it comes to fighter pay. He mentioned in an interview with GQ that it “will never change” while he’s in charge, effectively enraging a lot of people.

The UFC’s upper-echelon fighters do very well for themselves as they are compensated with pay-per-view points and lucrative brand deals, but it’s more difficult for prospects and veterans to have any financial stability.

“I think any professional would like to get paid more but it’s a running business,” said 13-year UFC veteran John Makdessi. “It’s very hard because of the unpredictability when you get hit. Fighting is not like any other sports that have security, like hockey players or football players. As a fighter, you don’t have any insurance or any pension.”

Although many fighters want to be paid more, they are still glad to be able to fight in MMA’s premier promotion.

“The UFC might not pay the most but they’re the most established and recognizable MMA company,” Makdessi said. “It’s a privilege for me to be associated with the UFC since 2010.”

Even with the traction gained through various MMA outlets like Bleacher Report, MMA Junkie, and Bloody Elbow, it seems unlikely that fighter pay will be on the rise in the UFC. Younger promotions such as the PFL, Bellator, ONE, and KSW are more likely to recruit fighters.

One thing is for sure though, you need to have an acute mind for business and seize opportunities whenever you can when it comes to MMA.

“We have to be responsible with our earnings and how we spend our money because you can’t fight forever,” said Makdessi. “Everyone knows that we live in a high-paced world, you need to have multiple sources of income.”

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