When UFC fighter salaries were released to the general public yesterday, many fans were blown away by the $420,000 Cung Le took home for his effort against Wanderlei Silva, including his $70,000 Fight of the Night bonus.
That Le's official pay was larger than main-event winner Dan Henderson's made it even more shocking to casual fans.
While I'm a bit surprised by the published numbers myself, a few things are worth considering.
Cung Le's San Jose Appeal
Cung Le may not be a huge star in the mixed martial arts world, but he's a homegrown star in San Jose, California, where UFC 139 took place. Le may not have been a big pay-per-view draw, but he still acted as a local draw, and also as a transitional figure for the UFC moving into San Jose, the former home of Strikeforce.
Dana White saw San Jose as an important future market for the UFC and definitely wanted to make sure that Strikeforce's fans would come along. The UFC saw Le as instrumental in that effort, and he was compensated accordingly.
That said, while I still found Le's pay to be extremely high, there are at least a few other things Le's payment should say about the current state of the UFC.
Dan Henderson Probably Made Much More Money than Cung Le
While Le's officially announced pay was larger than Henderson's $320,000, that's not the whole picture.
Official purses are only useful in determining the basement level of what a fighter made for a given fight.
Fighter contracts can include signing bonuses, discretionary bonuses, pay-per-view percentages or other forms of payment over and above the announced purses. UFC ownership doesn't want fighters to have full knowledge of what other fighters are paid, so the highest-paid fighters usually receive much of their payment outside of the structure that has to be officially reported to the overseeing athletic commission.
Perhaps the best examples of a different kind of payment structure come from the co-promotional payments for M-1 fighters Gegard Mousasi and Fedor Emelianenko. When he fought for M-1, Mousasi was reportedly paid only $2,000 for his fight with Rameau Sokoudjou. Likewise, Emelianenko was reportedly paid less money than opponents Tim Sylvia and Andrei Arlovski when he fought for Affliction.
Simply seeing that Tim Sylvia "officially" got paid more than Fedor Emelianenko should be enough to tell you that something funny was going on. As a general rule, it's probably fairly safe to assume that the bigger name and better draw usually gets paid more than whatever the lesser draw is making if they're fighting on the same card.
Dan Henderson is a much bigger star than Le, is on a longer winning streak, and was coming off far more impressive performances. All three of those things should tell you something.
Le's contract was probably structured mostly around a high base-fight purse, while Henderson's pay will come in other forms, either from pay-per-view revenue or another kind of bonus.
If anything, Le's payment should only suggest that Henderson and the other headliner, Mauricio Rua, each probably made far more than $320,000 when all other forms of payment have been taken into consideration.
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