Why Dana White Is Right and ESPN Wrong About UFC Fighter Pay

Jonathan SnowdenCombat Sports Senior WriterJanuary 16, 2012

HOLLYWOOD, CA - SEPTEMBER 20:  UFC President Dana White speaks during the UFC on Fox: Velasquez v Dos Santos - Press Conference at W Hollywood on September 20, 2011 in Hollywood, California.  (Photo by Victor Decolongon/Getty Images)
Victor Decolongon/Getty Images

UFC star Frank Mir is a family man.

When I visited him at his gym in Las Vegas a couple of years ago, he was working out with his dad, Frank Sr. His wife was there too with his young child in tow.

If it seems an idyllic scene, that's because it is. The Mirs are rich, filthily so, and enjoying every minute of it. It happened in the blink of an eye. A single phone call that changed their life.

Signs pointed to something very, very bad when the phone went clattering to the ground. Mir's wife wondered what was wrong. There were tears in the fighter's eyes, unusual to say the least.

Her worries were soon a thing of the past. No one had died. There was no family emergency. Mir had just gotten the word about his locker room bonus for his UFC main event with Brock Lesnar. He'd cleared almost an extra million dollars. That's enough to bring any man to his knees.

When Mir was UFC champion the first time, before the Fertitta family turned the sport of mixed martial arts around, he had to keep his day job as a strip club bouncer at the Spearmint Rhino.

In the post-Ultimate Fighter world, he's a millionaire. It's a touching story about a family that woke up to find they were living the American Dream.

And it's an anecdote that explains why ESPN's latest expose on the UFC's salary structure is so misleading and plain wrong.

LAS VEGAS, NV - JANUARY 10:  UFC fighter Alistair 'The Reem' Overeem speaks during a presentation by Qualcomm at the 2012 International Consumer Electronics Show at The Venetian on January 10, 2012 in Las Vegas, Nevada. CES, the world's largest annual con
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

In an article masterminded by veteran MMA reporter Josh Gross, ESPN and its sources estimate that the UFC pays only 10 percent of its revenues to the fighters who are the lifeblood of the sport. But ESPN's claim doesn't stand up to scrutiny.

Based on athletic commission reports, provided after a request from Bleacher Report and other media outlets, that 10 percent figure could conceivably be true if you look only at the surface numbers.

Mir's story, however, shows just how misleading those official numbers can be, as do publicly reported performance bonuses for fighters with the best knockouts, submissions and fights on any given card.

Another clue to the truth can be found in a recent lawsuit between heavyweight star Alistair Overeem and his former management team.

The court case reveals that Overeem's official salary is just the beginning of the cash that awaits him after every UFC bout. His contract also included a $1 million signing bonus that is paid out $333,333 at a time over each of the first three fights.

He is also set to receive $2 per pay-per-view buy after the UFC reaches $500,000 in revenue. For his recent main event against Brock Lesnar, it's estimated that the payout equals a cool $1.5 million for the Dutch fighter.

That's a total of $1.83 million in unreported pay. That money isn't listed by the athletic commission when they inform the public of fighter salaries as required by some state laws.

ESPN knows this of course. They provide the misleading numbers anyway, lending credence to Dana White's claims that this was a hatchet job by Gross, a reporter with whom he's long had a contentious relationship.

Suspecting ESPN would run an attack piece, White came out swinging when the first article hit the web.

“In an attempt by Gross and ESPN to do a hack job on us, we were ready this time!,” White wrote on Twitter. “We are gonna blast these hacks!...Trust me, I have been part of ESPN hack jobs, that’s why I don’t do those BS shows and why we filmed it.”

Instead of White, ESPN spoke to Lorenzo Fertitta, the billionaire casino magnate with a passion for the fight game. He and his brother Frank bought the UFC in 2001. Fertitta was forceful, calm and articulate while defending his company's business practices. More importantly, he was believable, especially when combating the claim that the UFC was a monopoly.

"We have a better product, we put up our money and we were smarter than everyone else," Fertitta said during the ESPN piece. "...We're giving these guys tremendous opportunity to be able to make more money, get bigger exposure, get bigger sponsors. And when you throw out the term monopoly, that's the most ridiculous thing anyone could ever say."

ESPN also highlighted the relatively low pay on the UFC's Undercard. Citing an initial contract that pays fighters $6,000 to fight and $6,000 to win, the Worldwide Leader in Sports attempts to compare neophyte UFC fighters with rookies in mainstream sports like football and baseball. 

The truth is, the only fighters who are conceivably underpaid on the UFC roster are headliners who make $1-5 million when they should probably make $5-15 million for high performing shows.

It's not a popular opinion, but I don't think the typical UFC fighter is underpaid. The UFC is actually extremely generous with their undercard fighters.

Sure, no one is getting rich fighting on the UFC undercard, that's true. But they are making more money than they generate for the promotion. In fact, up until you discuss the top stars in the sport, most of the UFC's fighters are essentially interchangeable.

Despite that, the UFC goes out of their way to reward them for performance. Maybe those rewards are arbitrary and on a whim, but they are no less real because of that. I think Dana and the Fertittas like fighters and they like great fights.

Their decision to compensate fighters based on their willingness to let it all hang out, instead of guaranteeing cash regardless of the quality of performance, is a big part of the UFC's success.

The Fertittas have nothing to be ashamed of. UFC fighters know exactly what they need to do to get paid. They simply need to put on great fights. For fans, it's a winning policy that has propelled the new sport into the mainstream.


Jonathan Snowden is the author of Total MMA: Inside Ultimate Fighting and The MMA Encyclopedia. Follow him on Twitter and right here at Bleacher Report where he covers combat sports.