John Cholish Explains How Much It Costs to Be a UFC Fighter

Damon Martin@@DamonMartinContributor IMay 23, 2013

The subject of fighter pay in the sport of mixed martial arts has been an ongoing debate for several years with no one coming to a consensus on whether the salaries are good, bad or otherwise.

Most recently, former UFC lightweight John Cholish, who retired following his last fight at UFC on FX 8, came out against what he perceived to be poor fighter pay structures, and it eventually led to his exit from the sport.

Cholish, who still works a full-time job as a commodities broker on Wall Street, says that he didn't even break even for his most recent fight where he traveled to Brazil to face Gleison Tibau on the undercard at UFC on FX 8.

He's spoken out quite a bit lately about the fighter pay issues since his fight on Saturday, but he doesn't expect many others to follow suit because of their need for the UFC paycheck.

"Zuffa is a private company so they don't have to disclose a lot of their information, and again this is my personal opinion, I'm not saying it's for anyone else but I've spoken to a vast array of fighters from top level guys to mid-tier guys to lower level guys and I feel at least the guys I've spoken with kind of have that same feeling of maybe they're not being fully compensated the way that they should be. But guys are scared," Cholish stated when speaking to MMA's Great Debate Radio. 

"If you don't have a secondary source of income, if this is your primary source of income and your full-time job and Dana (White) has been very clear this past year they are going to be cutting a lot of guys from the roster. Top name guys like Jon Fitch that was a huge debate at the time when it happened when he got cut and moved to a different organization.

"I think people are scared and fear the repercussions. I'm in a position where I can kind of speak out and I don't need the fighter income."

Instead of just making a blanket statement about what he believes is poor pay for the fighters, Cholish broke down exactly what it costs (in his case at least) to train, travel and prepare for a fight in the UFC. 

 The money involved in Cholish's case are probably similar to other fighters, but he makes it clear that he can only speak towards what his contract and financial situation with the UFC was for his fighting career.

"Just to be clear I've not seen any other fighters' contracts. Maybe I'm this one guy that has this terrible contract," Cholis said.  "Although I doubt it because it's probably a carbon copy, but this is just kind of my experience and what I've dealt with."

(It also must be noted these figures do not account for sponsorships that Cholish may have received—only the base pay he reported from the UFC.)

Training Camp Costs: $8,000 to $12,000

Before a fighter even steps foot in the Octagon, there is a long process of getting ready for the bout.  Typically a fighter will receive six to eight weeks to prepare for a bout (although that timeline can be shorter or longer depending on the notice given for a fight), and that's how he structures a camp to get ready.

Cholish trains primarily out of the Renzo Gracie Academy in New York City under coaches like famed jiu-jitsu instructor John Danaher, and with other trainers like Phil Nurse, who works with several high-profile UFC fighters including welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre. 

"This is just gym fees, travel expenses, making sure you're eating the right stuff, and not talking day-to-day stuff like breakfast, lunch and dinner. More like supplements, training gear, all that top to bottom. I'd say roughly between $4,000 to $6,000 a month when you look at it," Cholish revealed.  "Again, I live in New York City so I understand costs may be a little bit higher than they are other places, but it's expensive to train at top places and with individuals."

Those numbers seem in line with what other fighters have stated in the past regarding a top-notch training camp. 

UFC featherweight Chad Mendes, who was supposed to fight at UFC 157 before several opponents dropped out due to injury, had to postpone his training camp to prepare instead for a fight in late April at UFC on Fox 7. Speaking with MMAJunkie.com at the time, Mendes' numbers were very similar to those given by Cholish for what a professional training camp should cost.

I go through a camp, and I spend my own money. I'll go $6,000 or $7,000 or even $10,000 in, and then right before the fight it falls through. I don't get that money back, so that in itself is frustrating, let alone having to kill myself for nothing.


Pre-Fight Medicals

Before a fighter steps into the cage to compete in the UFC, he must first undergo a series of medical exams to gain clearance for a fight. Those tests can range from a typical physical to blood tests to a CAT scan or eye exam if necessary. 

Cholish says after suffering an injury before his last scheduled fight in December 2012, he had all of his pre-fight medicals done, but some of the tests required by the commission expired before his next bout so he had to redo many of them again.

While he can't speak to the exact costs of medicals required because his own personal insurance (paid by his brokerage house employer) picked up the tab, he did happen to get a bill by accident for some of the bloodwork that was required before he traveled to Brazil.

"I actually had my medicals for the Yves Edwards fight, which expired by a very brief period of time and I had to get my medicals done again," Cholish explained. "Fortunately, I have insurance that is kind of able to cover it, but the bloodwork alone I got a bill that they misprocessed and didn't go to my insurance was almost $800. Just for the bloodwork."

Cholish says that while he did not incur the costs of the medicals because of his own insurance, his understanding is that fighters are responsible for the cost of those tests out of pocket.

"It's not cheap and it's not free. From my understanding (of medicals), yes it is (the fighter's responsibility)," Cholish said.

Travel Expenses: Estimated for Brazil Near $4,000

As part of his contract for a fight, Cholish explains that the UFC will pay for his flight and hotel for a fight (in this case, his trip to Brazil) along with one coach or corner person. In addition to those costs, the UFC will cover the expenses to pay for a visa to travel to Brazil for both the fighter and his coach ($500 a piece). 

Cholish explains however that while the UFC does pay for him and a coach to make the trip, almost no fighter will go into a bout at that level without at least two other coaches or corner people to work the fight. 

"For me how it was set up for Brazil, I have two flights covered so for me and for one coach and then you get one hotel room. The hotel we're actually staying at only had two single beds in it so there weren't any queen-sized beds, not that I would have four grown men sleep together in a bed. 

"So, for example, when I had my fight in Toronto, you have to pay for two additional flights for two coaches. You have to pay for another hotel room, which they make you get there on Monday or Tuesday. So it's usually for four or five nights so that adds up," Cholish explained. 

"I choose to take care of my coaches' meals while they are there. Again, I don't think they should have to pay out of pocket to be there.  For Brazil as well there was a $500 visa fee, that was included for coaches.

"You also have to pay for your corner licensing, you have to pay for your medicals before the fight, so it might not seem like a lot but when you start adding it together.  Especially a flight to Brazil costs $1,500 or $1,600 a piece and you're only making $8,000, it chips away pretty quickly.

International Taxes: $2,160

When the UFC travels internationally, the fighters that compete there must also pay additional taxes to the country where the card takes place. When a fight takes place in Canada, the competitors traveling there from the United States have to pay Canadian taxes before getting their money for the fights.

Fighting in Brazil, Cholish explains that the tax is 27 percent of the take home pay. In his case his contracted rate to fight was $8,000 (he would have won an additional $8000 with a win). Before he receives any pay from the UFC, Brazil taxes take $2,160 from his $8,000 paycheck. 

"Brazil takes 27 percent before you even get the money. That comes right out," Cholish said. "Same thing as Canada, they take their money before you leave."

On top of the taxes taken by each individual country, the fighters are still responsible for paying taxes in their home country of origin as well. So after paying the $2,160 to Brazil, Cholish still owes taxes to the United States government as well for income earned.

Final Analysis

While there are no hard numbers on what each individual fighter spends on a training camp, in Cholish's case based on the dollar amounts he gave, his bout at UFC on FX 8 would end up costing him more than $6,000 out of pocket ($8,000 show money - $2,160 for taxes = gross pay of $5,840.  $8,000 for training camp + $4,000 for travel with coaches). 

Those figures also don't reflect any additional money Cholish would have paid for his coaches to eat in Brazil or other expenditures, such as medical costs that in this case he did not have to pay for before the fight.

Cholish isn't sure there is a perfect answer to this problem either outside of the UFC paying their fighters a higher sum of money or possibly setting up to pay some sort of fees for training camps, travel costs, etc. 

Many experts point to a fighter union that would run in similar fashion to those in other major sports like the NFL or Major League Baseball, but Cholish admits that at the heart of it all MMA is an individual sport, not a team sport, and that's going to make it harder to convince the fighters making the most to give up something for those making the least.

"I am in no means asking them to step down, you can't blame them," Cholish said about the UFC's top earners. "They worked really hard to get where they're at and they're finally getting paid. Why should they stick their neck out especially when if one or two of them does it, is it really going to be enough? So unfortunately I don't think a union is a base way to go."

Cholish believes that the fans are the real voice that will force the UFC to change the way they pay fighters. He's started a campaign on Twitter called #PayTheFighters hoping to bring this subject up more often to the higher ups at the UFC. 

"I think the biggest impact will be fans and social media," Cholish stated. "UFC is a private company. They work for money, where do they get their money from? The fans."

Damon Martin is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report and all quotes were obtained first-hand unless otherwise noted.