How the UFC Turned Its Bonus System into a Weapon

Steven Rondina@srondinaFeatured ColumnistSeptember 21, 2016

Apr 4, 2015; Fairfax, VA, USA; Al Iaquinta (blue gloves) gestures to the fans after fighting Jorge Masvidal (not pictured) during UFC Fight Night at Patriot Center. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports
Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

The UFC's bonus system has long been one of the promotion's most powerful tools for both attracting and retaining fighters. In a sport where every high-level competitor believes they're the best in the world, the possibility of receiving an extra $50,000, or even $100,000, for one big win is downright tantalizing.

That's even more pronounced when looking at the payouts for higher-level promotions like World Series of Fighting or Invicta FC, where fighters will compete for as little as $500, and even champions will earn figures like $6,000 to show, with a $6,000 win bonus.

Unfortunately for fighters, the lottery they sign their lives away to play is won solely on the whims of UFC executives, and while they may occasionally find themselves on the top of the "Wheel of Fortune," they're far more likely to find themselves being crushed underneath.

Invicta's champions and top draws rarely even make a base UFC salary.
Invicta's champions and top draws rarely even make a base UFC salary.Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

One of the fighters at the bottom of the Wheel right now is Al Iaquinta.

The lightweight has long been regarded as one of the better fighters at 155 pounds, but claims to have found himself in the UFC's doghouse—a situation that threatens to end his career. During a series of interviews on Monday, Iaquinta opened up on the UFC's practice of weaponizing their "Performance of the Night" and "Fight of the Night" bonuses against fighters, in order to have them bow to the company's will.

"Five weeks out from my fight, it was supposed to be Bobby Green, the UFC wanted to fly me out to a fighter summit in Las Vegas, which would have been a time difference for a week and it would have been five weeks out from a fight," he said in an interview with Fox Sports' Damon Martin. ... "I would have had to go to Las Vegas, get mediocre training away from my team, away from my coaches and not get paid a thing."

Charlie Brenneman @charliespaniard

.@ALIAQUINTA says what most were afraid to (myself included). I heard those same comments fr Silva. https://t.co/EPTChnKZUx

According to Iaquinta, he got the UFC's permission to skip the summit on the condition he attend another later on. Speaking to MMAFighting.com's Ariel Helwani on The MMA Hour (Warning, NSFW Language), he explained that UFC executives, specifically Vice President of Public Relations Dave Sholler and Director of Athlete Development James Kimball, took issue with an Instagram post of him on the beach around the time of the function.

That led to a conference call that ended with news of a strange, but incredibly, harsh punishment. "They listened to every word that I said, and when I was done they said 'well we're still going to stick with the same punishment; you're not going to be able to win a post-fight bonus for three fights.'"

At face value, this doesn't necessarily seem like a big deal. Fighters, as is so often pointed out, are paid to fight. Bonuses are supposed to be the dessert after their usual dinner. The reality, however, is that those bonuses are an important component of fighter compensation in the UFC, and given how incredibly paltry the purses are for the majority of fighters, gambling that decision-makers will metaphorically drop a quarter into their cup is often the only way to get the capital to take their training to the next level. 

Examples of this are plentiful, with the most recent being Scottish strawweight Joanne Calderwood. Despite widely being considered a high-level strawweight (she entered the month of September ranked No. 8 on the Bleacher Report 115-pound rankings), she revealed in an Instagram post that she wasn't able to afford training full time at Montreal's elite TriStar Gym and began making plans to return to her native Scotland after not receiving a bonus for her knockout win over Valerie Letourneau. 

But while the UFC ultimately went out of their way to give her a bonus—and made sure to do it in the most public way possible, on their newly launched UFC Unfiltered podcast—Calderwood was the top pound-for-pound talent from a potentially lucrative market. Fighters like Iaquinta who aren't a turnkey commodity, however, haven't been so lucky.

While Iaquinta's past misbehavior was admittedly a factor in this, citing an incident in his hotel following his fight with Joe Lauzon and his post-fight interview at UFC Fight Night 63 to Helwani, other fighters have suggested the UFC will deny bonus opportunities as a means of preventing fighters from pursuing any raise. In a 2015 interview with Bleacher Report's Mike Chiappetta, former UFC fighter Josh Thomson said the following:

I couldn't tell you what it was like to do business with the UFC, because there never was a business side of it as far as, there is no negotiation. There were times we've heard there's talks and negotiations, but you really don't need a manager because, 'This is the deal you're going to get.' There's been talks like, 'Sure, you can negotiate for an extra two or three grand, but don't expect to get any backroom bonuses.' So then you question, is it really even worth negotiating that extra two or three grand?

Looking back on other recent examples of openly discontent fighters, it's easy to find dots to connect.

On MMAjunkie Radio, per Steven Marrocco, flyweight Zach Makovsky discussed the lower paydays fighters faced competing on Fight Pass in 2014 (which was immediately followed by White quipping that it's "not [his] f--king problem"). He was seemingly stiffed of a Fight of the Night Bonus for his UFC Fight Night 60 barnburner opposite Tim Elliott.

Sterling lifted Eduardo off the ground by his throat with a guillotine choke, but still didn't get a POTN bonus.
Sterling lifted Eduardo off the ground by his throat with a guillotine choke, but still didn't get a POTN bonus.Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Iaquinta's teammate Aljamain Sterling had a contentious contract dispute with the UFC in 2015. He has yet to receive a Performance of the Night bonus, despite posting impressive stoppages over Takeya Mizugaki and Johnny Eduardo.

Sam Alvey drew the UFC's ire for repping a sponsor with a spray-tanned message during his UFC Fight Night 65 bout. He didn't receive a bonus for the bout, which he won via knockout in under a minute, and hasn't gotten one since, despite posting numerous devastating stoppages.

While the UFC's bonus system has produced a number of heartwarming rags-to-riches stories that have popped up over the years, the reality is, these windfalls aren't just fun. They're the last remaining opportunity for fighters to supplement their income in a climate where sponsorships have been eliminated and pay-per-view points are exclusively available to the sport's top draws.

Alas, this isn't unexpected from a company like the UFC. They have a long, long history of using any and all means to force fighters into doing whatever they will, no matter how outrageous.

Unfortunately for the fans, and for Iaquinta, the UFC is more than willing to shelf a top-10 talent. The Wheel just keeps turning.