Why UFC Fighters Are Severely Underpaid

Levi Nile@@levinileContributor IIIMarch 25, 2013

Feb 23, 2013; Anaheim, CA, USA;   Nah-Shon Burrell (red gloves) kicks Yuri Villefort (blue gloves) during their UFC welterweight bout at the Honda Center. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

When people daydream about the life of a figure of interest in the world of professional sport, they imagine incredible fame and a great deal of money based upon their undeniable greatness in their realm of preference, be it basketball, football, or maybe, a UFC fighter.

Given how the company has grown over the past 10 years (pulling the sport along with them), fighter compensation has become a debated issue.

If you ask Dana White, he says that what his company pays their fighters “smokes” what you see in boxing, pointing his finger at how the numbers drop drastically on a boxing card between the marquee fighters and the rest of those toiling on the undercard.

But does it really?

Obviously, the pay in the sport of MMA and the UFC has grown sharply over the past years, but is it really such a drastic increase that it can not only rival what the sport of boxing pays, but also surpass it?

It seems only fair, when looking to make such a comparison, that we look at the “average” UFC fighters and boxers: men who are on the lower tier, fluctuating between being on the undercard and the lower portions of the main card.

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The amounts that the big stars of each sport make cannot honestly be compared. Right now, fighters like Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather Jr., not to mention past fighters like Oscar de La Hoya and Muhammad Ali, all made far much more money than their UFC counterparts.

In addition, there is the sponsorship monies that men like Georges St-Pierre and Jon Jones make—figures that cannot be easily quantified. 

So we are left to focus our attentions to those fighters on the rise: men and women looking to make a name for themselves as best they can, sometimes taking fights on very short notice.

After all, the exception is not the norm, and not every UFC fighter on a PPV is getting the big bucks, thus not all UFC fighters should be seen as reaping those kinds of rewards.

It’s not like it used to be in the 1950’s, where a fighter (top name or not) was fighting sometimes as many as 14 times a year, if not more.

Now, the average fighter fights somewhere between four to seven times a year, and if he is in the UFC, he fights fewer times given the sheer size of their roster compared to the amount of available slots on a given PPV or Fox card in a calendar year.

Most who have examined this topic with nothing more than a passing curiosity have seen the figures for the fighters on the bottom of a UFC PPV, noting with alarm at just how much it seems those fighters make.

At UFC 157, Dan Henderson topped out at $250,000 while Yuri Villefort made $6,700, with the $700 being granted to him because his opponent, Nah-Shon Burrell, missed weight and a percentage of his purse was given to Villefort and the athletic commission.

Obviously, there is a great difference in the paydays of both men, but that is to be expected and is seen in all combative sports; Dan Henderson is a known name and a proven commodity, where as Villefort is not, as of now.

The rest of the UFC 157 main card (h/t MMAWeekly) payout is as follows: Ronda Rousey: $90,000 (including a $45,000 win bonus), Liz Carmouche: $12,000, Lyoto Machida: $200,000 (no win bonus), Urijah Faber: $100,000 (including a $50,000 win bonus), Ivan Menjivar: $17,000, Court McGee: $40,000 (including $20,000 win bonus), Josh Neer: $16,000, Robbie Lawler: $105,000 (including a $10,000 win bonus) and Josh Koscheck: $78,000.

The undercard for UFC 157 was a bit more steady: four fighters received $8,000 for defeat, with Villefort being the low rung on the totem pole at $6,700.

The total payout for UFC 157 was $1,173,300 and what you can see from looking at all the numbers is that in the big show, winning the bout helps pad a fighter's pocketbook: $217,000 was paid out in bonus money for victory, not including bonuses for Fight of the Night, Knockout of the Night or Submission of the Night—and of that bonus money, $92,000 went to the undercard.

Contrast this with the disclosed figures for the Manny Pacquiao vs. Timothy Bradley fight card (acquired by Dan Rafael for ESPN) in 2012.

Pacquiao was paid $26,000,000 and Bradley netted $5,000,000. These figures did not include profits paid to each fighter for PPV percentages.

The rest of the fighters on the televised portion of the card were paid as follows: Jorge Arce: $300,000, Jesus Rojas: $25,000, Mike Jones: $105,000, Randall Bailey: $100,000, Guillermo Rigondeaux: $103,000 and Teon Kennedy: $70,000.

Where we begin to see some similarities is in the monies paid to the fighters not on the televised card—the low-rung fighters of the night who are looking for exposure: Mikael Zewski: $8,500, Ryan Grimaldo: $4,500, Wilton Hilario: $6,000, Andy Ruiz: $2,500, Tyler Larson: $1,200, Jesse Hart: $4,000, and Manuel Eastman: $1,200.

The first thing you notice is the massive difference between the big stars in the sports, but after that you see that there were no bonus monies paid for victory for the boxers.

Now, it is unknown just how often these boxers fight in a calendar year, or what kinds of sponsors they have (if any), but Mikael Zewski fought five times in 2012, which is fairly common among boxers trying to claw their way into the big time.

It also gives them more money per year to live on, which is important and might help explain why sources like SimplyHired and eHow.com (based on figures from The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics) estimated that the average boxer makes about $32,000 to $39,000 per year.

This is approximately $11,000 more per year than a fighter like Brock Jardine (who was one of the fighters that earned $8,000 at UFC 157) would make fighting in the UFC three times a year.

Of course, that assumption fails to take into account how much their purses would rise or fall depending on performance. Should a man like Jardine get a bonus for victory, or a Fight of the Night, he is suddenly well above the standard earning of most boxers.

So, when one looks at the numbers, it’s pretty clear that the UFC pays very well for combative sports, at least when it comes to the average fighter who wins. For those who don’t, the UFC is paying the sport standard because they are the sport standard.

How much more should they be paying? It is hard to say, given that a boxing card is the enterprise of more than a few companies that share the debt of creation, where the UFC does most of their work in-house and pays for most of it on their own, relying on FOX to televise it.

But it is clear that at least some increase needs to occur. Not every UFC fighter is going to earn the additional monies that sponsors give to men like GSP, Jon Jones, Frank Mir, Anderson Silva, and so on.

This is especially true when you consider that at one time or another, companies such as Dethrone, One More Round, Rolling Stone and countless others have all been on the UFC’s list of banned sponsors, whereas in the sport of boxing, it seems as if sponsorship is an open door.

Sponsorship reckons highly into a fighter's life as a way to supplement their income and feed their families. Without sponsorship monies, the average UFC fighter trying to slug his way into title contention may have to end up taking on additional employment to make ends meet.

In 2012, Dong Hyun Kim spoke about the subject of fighter pay in the UFC and treatment of Asian fighters.

“It's ultimately very hard to be a UFC fighter. If you go to America, there are a lot of fighters who are barely eeking by financially. I see some fighters who have fights a few days away doing personal training. A lot of that has to with the UFC being too stingy about sponsorships. Also because of UFC's policies it is really hard to get sponsors for a lot of fighters.”

During 2009, in pieces by MMAPayout.com, MMAJunkie.com and Sports Illustrated, it was noted that not only will a sponsor need to pay the UFC $100,000 just to have the right to sponsor a fighter for an event, but the UFC itself looks to become the central conduit by which sponsorship dollars flow to the fighter.

This gives the UFC greater leverage over contractual stipulations and lessens the role of managers with their fighters.

But is that the business model in practice by the UFC today?

Really, it is ultimately unclear just how the UFC deals with business, especially now that they are in partnership with FOX, but the UFC has always wanted to control their product; it’s one of the main reasons why the company (and thus the sport) has survived as long as it has and grown as large.

In truth, it is hard to fault them for this. One of the big things that has kept boxing from making the fights that needed to be made (and pleasing the public in the long run) has been too many chiefs and not enough Indians, as the saying goes.

In boxing, there are so many parties that need to be appeased in order for a contract to finally be signed that it’s no wonder why so many big fights fall apart.

In the UFC, they make the fights because they have control, and thus the fights come to pass far more often than not.

The importance of this cannot be understated—it’s the primary reason why the sport has grown in the midst of a bad economy.

Granted, some fights the company sanctions don’t really make sense as far as divisional ramifications are concerned—Chael Sonnen vs. Jon Jones is just one example of this—but the sport is still growing.

Yet, in spite of all of this, I still say that UFC fighters are indeed severely underpaid.

I say this because if a fighter is trying to make his way up the ranks—while making do with $8,000 for a fight—then he should be afforded the chance to train full time.

He shouldn’t need to hold down an additional job because the company he works for (the Superbowl of mixed martial arts) thinks that being better than boxing is good enough, because it’s not; it deprives the fans of the right to see a fighter fight at his bestand that isn’t nearly good enough for MMA.

I say this because when it comes to pay for the average fighter they are simply stepping over a bar set so low one could trip over it.

I say it because the UFC shouldn’t object to being held to a higher standard, they should object to holding themselves to a lower one. 

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