For Love, Not Money: How Low Fighter Pay Is Undermining MMA

Scott Harris@ScottHarrisMMAMMA Lead WriterJanuary 11, 2017

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 31: David Branch (yellow trunks) throws a left hand at Louis Taylor (blue trunks) during their World Series of Fighting middleweight championship fight at The Theater at Madison Square Garden on December 31, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Ed Mulholland/Getty Images)
Ed Mulholland/Getty Images

Conor McGregor's Lamborghini purrs like Mike Tyson's tiger.

Greener than the border of a fresh dollar bill, the Lambo spits fire like someone just threatened its khaleesi. Henry Ford and H.G. Wells, typing for fortnights on end, could never have conceived of such a machine.

But if you're the king of MMA here in 2017, it's yours. It's good to be the king. The glitz is downright blinding.

So blinding, in fact, that it can be hard to spot the rust on Lauren Murphy's Neon.

You don't see a lot of Dodge Neons out in the streets these days. Murphy's is a 2004 piece. It's careworn. And here that Neon is, cooling its heels in the middle of the Arizona office park where Murphy trains.

The Neon doesn't spit fire, at least not on command, but there is still good news on the vehicle front for Murphy, and the good news is twofold. First, it's paid for. Second, people don't believe her when she tells them it's hers.

"I was at a gym one time working out," recalled Murphy, who, like McGregor, competes for the Ultimate Fighting Championship. "And the guy behind the desk was like, 'Oh my god, you're in the UFC.' He was kind of going on about it. He thought it was so cool. And there was a [Cadillac] Escalade parked outside ... and he goes, 'Is that your Escalade out there?' And I just laughed and laughed."

Lauren Murphy makes the walk to the Octagon.
Lauren Murphy makes the walk to the Octagon.Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

That pretty much sums it up these days for the overwhelming majority of MMA fighters. And it's why MMA is at an inflection point.

Popularity and revenue are growing for the sport and the UFC, its unchallenged standard-bearer. Fans love MMA for the competitive purity, skill, courage, action and, yes, blood. But those things come at a cost. And it's a cost most fighters, even at the highest levels, say they aren't recouping.

Even in the wake of the UFC's $4 billion sale earlier this year to Hollywood superagency WME-IMG, fighter pay remains relatively meager. According to fighters and experts in and out of MMA, that could undermine—if it hasn't already—the sport's continued growth.

Lauren Murphy's Neon
Lauren Murphy's NeonLauren Murphy

"You wake up every day, and you're hurting, and you wake up and you're f--king exhausted," Murphy said. "Where's all the money? Where's the rockstar stuff? You've got to love what you do. It makes me cry a lot. This life is actually pretty hard. You have to love the grind."

When morale depends on love, you're walking a thin tightrope.

According to a UFC document circulated in July to potential investors and later obtained by Bleacher Report, the UFC earned $592 million over the 12 months leading up to the second quarter of 2016.

Of the 18 UFC events held in 2016 for which fighter payouts were publicly disclosed, the median fighter's annual salary was $42,000, according to a Bleacher Report analysis. This includes $50,000 post-fight bonuses handed out to about four fighters per event, but not the modest and widely criticized tiered payments offered through the UFC's sponsorship deal with Reebok. It also doesn't include the locker-room checks and other financial perks UFC officials privately dole out through contracts or their own discretion.

No one is suggesting $42,000 is a bad annual salary. According to Salary.com, that's a middle-income job on par with positions like office manager, accounting clerk or entry-level electrician, to name only a few. But when the massive risks and expenses fighters face are considered, plus the massive wealth accumulated by the modern UFC, the numbers become more striking.

The UFC held 41 events apiece in 2015 and 2016. Assuming revenue and fighter pay follow the trendlines laid out in its document and the public domain, UFC fighters take home 15.6 percent of the revenue pie. And that's before you deduct the costs of training, nutrition and other professional considerations, which fighters cover from their own pockets.

With all this in mind, 2016 was still a banner year for UFC fighter pay. The record for the biggest single-fight payout was broken twice. Brock Lesnar set a new mark with the $2.5 million he earned for his appearance at UFC 200, then McGregor broke it barely a month later with a $3 million payout for his rematch with Nate Diaz at UFC 202 (Diaz got a healthy $2 million).

McGregor and Diaz at UFC 202.
McGregor and Diaz at UFC 202.Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

McGregor then purportedly exceeded his own record in November at UFC 205, the first UFC event in New York City (it's impossible to know for sure since New York's athletic commission, like many others, does not release fighter pay information). And Ronda Rousey earned a disclosed $3 million take for her loss to Amanda Nunes at UFC 207 in late December.

This is all great, but there is no evidence of a trickle-down effect. Among the 18 salary-reported events of 2016, 79 fighters earned $20,000 or less, according to Bleacher Report's analysis. On May 29, Thomas Almeida made $25,000 for fighting in the main event of UFC Fight Night 88. On Dec. 17, Michelle Waterson took home $80,000 (including a post-fight bonus) for defeating up-and-comer and Dancing with the Stars runner-up Paige VanZant in the main event of UFC on Fox 22. On July 9, Nunes made a disclosed $100,000 for winning the UFC women's bantamweight title in the main event of the blockbuster UFC 200 card.

This all illustrates impending danger, fighters and analysts say. Why take the risks a fighter does while foregoing relatively common benefits like a retirement plan and year-round health insurance if substantial financial rewards reach only a tiny minority? Why deal with the instability of never knowing when your next payday will come? Instead of being an MMA fighter, why not be an MMA instructor or a schoolteacher or a baseball player or an accounting clerk? How many stars has the sport lost because athletes preemptively decided on greener pastures?

Fighters are beginning to take notice. They are beginning to carry their combat instincts from the training room to the boardroom. Something, as they say, has to give.

"Big-name fighters are demanding more money because they understand they're the draw," said Michael Colangelo, assistant director of projects at the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. "You could bring in fighters who are willing to fight for lower money, but the quality of your product can go down, and that's the last thing the UFC wants."


'A Common Misconception'

Even the greatest MMA gym in the world smells like sweat and feet. It's a Tuesday morning at the Jackson Wink Academy in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and the building is packed and noisy. Wet-haired fighters shuffle shoulder-to-shoulder through striking drills. To one side, in an elevated Octagon, two young men in headgear spar as coaches bark instructions. "Shake, Rattle and Roll," the old Bill Haley tune, takes everyone through their paces, a fitting if inadvertent mantra to the simple, demanding, strangely glorious life of a fighter.

Jon Jones trains here. So do Carlos Condit, Holly Holm, Donald Cerrone and a slew of other well-known champions and contenders. You might think the UFC's fighter-pay issue doesn't touch this place. But it does.

On the gym's second level, near the business offices, Lando Vannata reclines on a couch and thinks about life. At that time and since, he's had a pretty good run. Despite only two fights in the UFC Octagon, he's probably the hottest commodity in the lightweight division, McGregor notwithstanding. Not bad considering two years ago he was chopping cucumbers at Subway in between contests on regional circuits.

"I was living in poverty," he said. "I was making about $18,000 a year. I didn't have a vehicle. I was living in the tiniest apartments I could find—under $500 a month. I was in here every day teaching private lessons, trying to make as much money as I could. ... There was a point where I was eating 18 eggs a day. I was eating tuna out of cans."

Landon Vannata
Landon VannataBrandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Perhaps no one in UFC history has capitalized more on the UFC's pay structure than Vannata. He had two UFC fights in 2016, two spectacular displays of violence, and netted two $50,000 performance bonuses. Vannata is now the proud owner of a truck. If he wants tuna, he doesn't need a can opener. He even socked a little money away.

The bonus structure speaks to the risks fighters take to get paid. They go for big knockouts and submissions to nab incentives that bump their pay from, say, $10,000, which most entry-level UFC fighters receive for their debut, to $70,000—the base $10,000 money for showing up to fight plus the standard entry-level $10,000 for a win plus $50,000 for a bonus.

And that's to say nothing of the health risks, which are exacerbated by the fact that many debuting UFC fighters, Vannata among them, must accept the big show's call on short notice, coming as it usually does when another fighter falls injured late in camp.

In short, fighters regularly compete at less than 100 percent and with extra aggression, because they literally can't afford not to.

LAS VEGAS, NV - NOVEMBER 16:  Georges St-Pierre is interviewed during the UFC 167 event inside the MGM Grand Garden Arena on November 16, 2013 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

"Most fighters in the UFC, they are starving," Georges St-Pierre, the longtime UFC welterweight champion, told The MMA Hour (h/t Marc Raimondi of MMA Fighting) in October. "And for UFC, it's very easy when you keep a lot of your staff starving, they are easier to control."

On the other hand, as the MMA business booms and understanding of the sport's economics deepens, fighters like Vannata are gaining more awareness of the numbers—and their own indispensable role in generating them.

"You see the brain conditions that some people have had. ... We're putting ourselves through a lot of trauma for the fans and for making the UFC the money that they make," Vannata said. "Unless you're at the very top making a lot of money, you're still not making anything above average for the average income in the U.S. I think a lot of people think because we're professional athletes and we fight on big cards, we fight on Fox, that we make a lot more money than we actually do. It's a common misconception."

An inside look at the UFC's finances suggests it doesn't have to be this way.

According to the confidential document obtained by Bleacher Report, of the $592 million the UFC earned in 2015, 76 percent came from "content," broadly defined as UFC event broadcasts and the various ways in which those broadcasts are monetized, from pay-per-views to Fight Pass, the UFC's subscription streaming service.

In other words, fights.

In contrast to the estimated 15.6 percent of total UFC revenue fighters earn on average, NFL players receive 40 percent of local revenue, 45 percent of sponsorship money and 55 percent of revenue from media deals.

In contrast to the UFC's $42,000 estimated median salary, the NBA's minimum salary was $525,093 in 2015; rookies in the NFL made $435,000, $507,500 in Major League Baseball and $575,000 in the NHL.

But, one might say, these sports are more established and lucrative than the UFC, and they have unions that collectively bargain on the athletes' behalf. Fair enough. More similar, then, may be the PGA or ATP, neither of which are unionized and both of which garner similar TV ratings. (TV ratings are themselves imperfect comparators, because the UFC's marquee events air on pay-per-view, but they can provide a reasonable measuring stick.)

On April 16, UFC on Fox 19 pulled in a Nielsen rating of 0.8, according to TV by the Numbers. After performance bonuses, three of the card's 22 fighters earned reported salaries of $100,000 or more, with the main event winner, Glover Teixeira, taking in $170,000 to top all earners.

On the same day, the third round of the PGA's RBC Heritage drew a 1.2 rating on CBS, per SportsBusiness Daily's Austin Karp. Thirteen golfers at the event earned $100,000 or more. The eventual winner, Branden Grace, took in $1.06 million.

Of the 622 golfers on the PGA Tour's career money leaders list, 483 have earned at least $1 million.

Of the 1,393 UFC fighters MMA Manifesto listed by career fighter earnings, 95 are career millionaires, while 211 have earned $10,000 or less.


Making Ends Meet

Murphy and her husband, Joe, rent a house in the Phoenix suburb of Peoria. It's not the worst neighborhood in the world. It's also not Scottsdale. Razor wire is a common accessory, spiraling half-rusted over junkyard fences and backyard walls. Restaurants without drive-thrus are few and far between.

On top of dozens of hours of weekly training, Lauren handles most of the cooking and cleaning for herself, Joe and her 15-year-old son, Max.

Do not mess with Lauren's slow-cooker skills.

"If I don't do the Crock-Pot, sometimes we just end up having to go to In-N-Out Burger," said Murphy, sitting at her kitchen table and eyeing a kale smoothie as the smell of chicken wafts through the air. "Then I don't feel great, and I don't train great."

Credit: Scott Harris

Even so, Murphy is one of the lucky ones. Joe is a master sergeant with the U.S. Air Force Reserve. Between them, they get the bills paid. To supplement their income, Lauren previously fired up the Neon before sunrise to go teach martial arts, but she recently quit to train full time.

Martial arts instruction is not an unfamiliar job for any number of fighters at all levels of the sport. Neither are plenty of other jobs.

Take Bryan Barberena, who trains alongside Murphy and a host of other standouts at the MMA Lab in Glendale, Arizona. He's one of the lucky ones, too. You may know Barberena best as the guy who derailed the Sage Northcutt hype train last January with a choke-out of the ballyhooed Texas prospect.

Barberena might be considered lucky for a reason besides his UFC career, because apparently being a repo man isn't nearly as difficult as it used to be.

"I have this car, and it's got cameras on it," Barberena explained. "Basically, I just drive around, and if the camera sees a license plate they're looking for, it beeps and I call the tow truck."

He doesn't even have to fight anybody.

"Nah," he said with a smile. "We're told to leave if anyone comes out. We're not supposed to confront anybody. We just leave."

There's just one problem: He doesn't knock off until 3 a.m. If he has a fight coming up, he can get out a little earlier, but by and large, he runs on about five hours of sleep a night.

"It takes away from my sleep, but it's what I have to do to help out my wife and kids," he said.

Bryan Barberena
Bryan BarberenaBuda Mendes/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Not even one of those big performance bonuses could stave off the repo job. Barberena took home a $50,000 Fight of the Night reward in 2015 following a losing effort against Chad Laprise. To hear Barberena tell it, when you're a fighter with a wife and three children, the money's gone before it comes in the door.

"It didn't really change that much at all," he said. "You know, it's a big chunk of money, but after taxes and after paying out your management team and all the fees of training and stuff—it definitely helps, but it's not a life-changer."

Barberena's not the only one burning the midnight oil to make ends meet. Bouncing and personal training, along with combat instruction, are common side jobs. According to his UFC bio, heavyweight Timothy Johnson's "current means of income are driving a truck, working at a bar, and the Minnesota Army Guard." Fellow heavyweight Adam Milstead is a pipeline technician. Irish flyweight Neil Seery works in a warehouse. Welterweight Alan Jouban is a model. Another welterweight, Anton Zafir, is a high school teacher. Brazilian lightweight Michel Prazeres is a "Para State Military Police Officer." The list goes on.

There's been attrition in high places as a direct result of the lack of compensation in the UFC. Al Iaquinta, a popular lightweight, walked away from the sport at age 29 and with a 12-3-1 record to work in real estate, citing contract issues as a reason for his inactivity. In 2012, Cole Konrad retired as an undefeated champion in Bellator for a job trading agricultural commodities, calling MMA a "dead-end job."

That phrase may mean more than Konrad intended. Low pay combined with the fact that pro fighters must handle the costs of their own training and nutrition make it hard for athletes to reach their peaks. That's why the product is vulnerable, though MMA couldn't be any hotter or more visible, with a shiny and surely lucrative new TV deal looming in 2018. Second jobs, fighters contend, can distract from fighting, weakening their performance, pay and future opportunities. It's a vicious cycle they say hurts all involved.

"If you get more money, you can make sure you're eating right, make sure you're cutting weight right, make sure you're training right," said Nick Urso, a Jackson Wink flyweight who competes on smaller circuits. "You'll have the proper training partners. So, in the end, you're going to get a better product and a better fighter across the board."


Doing It for the Love

UFC fighters know they have reason to be grateful. Beyond the prestige that status confers, the financial gulf between the UFC and the rest of the MMA world is stark. After arguably the biggest fight of 2016 for the Bellator MMA promotion, which is owned by media giant Viacom, top stars Michael Chandler and Benson Henderson each earned a disclosed $50,000. Justin Gaethje and David Branch, arguably the two biggest names in the World Series of Fighting promotion, max out at about $100,000 per fight.

Farther down the ladder, on the regional circuits, fighting is the second job.

That's why hair stylist Eli Tamez, who has a 9-0 record while mainly competing in the well-regarded Legacy Fighting Championship, puts in six hours a day at the salon in his hometown of Rockwall, Texas. He works with both men and women, does both cut and color—whatever you need. Flexible scheduling means he can train in his spare time.

Al Iaquinta🗽 @ALIAQUINTA

@ChaelSonnen @MoTownPhenom @BrianStann retired ✌🏼️

"It does get pretty crazy," Tamez acknowledged. "I wake up early, I get my son ready for school, I train, come to the salon, go home for a couple hours and then train at night. ... You have to have a job, unless you just have a ton of money lying around. Fighting for me is more like hobby money. ... I love it because I love winning. It's really addicting."

In Albuquerque, Urso took home $2,000 for his last bout, a win in the Resurrection Fighting Alliance. He's getting involved in the business end of Jackson Wink, helping head coach Greg Jackson train instructors for new gyms, among other things. Not a bad perk for training at the greatest MMA gym in the world.

But Urso sticks with fighting. Why? Just one simple reason: He loves it. If he didn't love it, for all the talent his 9-2 pro record suggests, he likely would have gone back to Florida and his job as a legal clerk.

"If not for this [new job], I probably would have stopped fighting years ago," Urso said. "It's hard to live paycheck-to-paycheck when you don't even know when the next paycheck is coming. ... If there was no money being made, we wouldn't argue with you. I'm fighting for peanuts because I love it. I think if I didn't love it, I wouldn't do it."


The Impact of New Owners

Fighters are tough. By and large, they don't complain. They get stuff done. Shake, rattle and roll. More and more, though, they are asking questions about the reality of their compensation.

MMA is at a high-water mark in terms of a move toward unionization, but so far the fighters and impresarios can't get out of their own way.

Still, sports business analysts say, it behooves fighters in the long run to stick with their efforts if they want their pay to increase, as it did for other sports leagues following unionization.

"If you track the history of pro sports, athletes all start out receiving very little of the overall revenue," said Scott Rosner, an attorney and faculty associate director at the Wharton Sports Business Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania. "As the sport grows, the athletes get more, too. [WME-IMG] will probably fight against it, and how that turns out is anyone's guess. But [fighter] leverage is increasing, just because their names are out there more."

Credit: Eli Tamez

WME-IMG executives have stayed mum on the topic of fighter pay. Their actions, however, are giving some the creeps. In October, Ariel Helwani of MMA Fighting reported the UFC laid off as many as 80 corporate employees, about 15 percent of its workforce. Not long after, it released 13 fighters.

Could deeper roster cuts be far behind? It's an open question for now, but indications are the bloodletting won't be as severe—at least on the fighter side—as the gloomiest observers predicted.

"Cutting the roster limits the number of fights you can actually have," USC's Colangelo said. "That cuts down on how many pay-per-views you have and maybe what you can charge for Fight Pass."

According to the confidential document obtained by Bleacher Report, WME-IMG leaders borrowed nearly half of the $4 billion price tag to purchase the UFC.

More fighter cuts can and probably will occur, but the document points to operational redundancies, a more "cost-effective marketing machine" and the "professionalization of business" as the choicest areas for trimming fat, as opposed to reducing the fighter roster or fighter compensation.

"Their cost-cutting is more about WME-IMG using their scale to leverage deals better," Colangelo said. "They're going to make sure everyone on the staff side has a job. ... WME-IMG is a little more buttoned-up in how they handle things. There's going to be a difference."


The Conor Factor

That could be reassuring for fighters, but the question of pay and what fighters can do to increase their share of the pie remains.

The UFC did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story. In late 2015, however, Lorenzo Fertitta, who co-owned the UFC before selling it to WME-IMG, defended fighter-pay practices:

The fact of the matter is, fighter pay has continued to increase every single year that we've owned the company. We pay way more than anybody else in the space; that's a fact. And you do have some fighters that maybe aren't happy with what they get, but at the end of the day, the fighters that achieve great things in this sport and get to the level of actually being able to make a career of it—you don't see many of those athletes complaining. That's the fact of the matter. The guys who are rising to the top are making the majority of the money.

That kind of logic points squarely to McGregor.

Former UFC chief content officer Marshall Zelaznik was among last fall's layoffs.
Former UFC chief content officer Marshall Zelaznik was among last fall's layoffs.Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

The Irish sensation, who in 2016 became the first to simultaneously hold two UFC titles, has earned $9.5 million over his career, according to MMA Manifesto's career earnings list. That's an MMA record.

McGregor has used his massive clout as a cudgel against the UFC, with mixed results. It has even been suggested McGregor is interested in starting his own promotion some day, independent of the UFC.

After his UFC 205 win, McGregor insisted on calling more shots in the future.

"They've got to come talk to me now, that's all I know," McGregor said, per ESPN.com's Brett Okamoto. "Both belts, chunk of money, little family on the way—you want me to stick around and keep doing what I'm doing? Let's talk. I want ownership now. I want the equal share. I want what I deserve, what I've earned."

McGregor's camp did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Though McGregor's bold attitude toward the UFC is interesting and unprecedented, it isn't enough by itself to improve conditions, analysts said.

"You need stars and the rank and file to be on the same page," Colangelo said. "You'll hear more and more about this trend toward unionization. It will be interesting to see what Conor McGregor does. LeBron James and stars like that in other sports could sit there and say, 'No salary cap. I want to get paid.' But those stars sacrifice for the ones in the middle, to help all the union members get paid what they're worth."

Some stars are making the effort. On Nov. 30, with big UFC names like St-Pierre, Cain Velasquez and TJ Dillashaw on stage, the MMA Athletes Association was announced. It is the third such association to form, alongside the MMA Fighters Association and Professional Fighters Association.

"Every time we fight, we're afraid," St-Pierre said at the news conference. "This is a different fight. I know a lot of us are afraid. It's time to step up, do the right thing. ... It's time to stand together."

But on the same day, McGregor, as only he can, simultaneously stole and enhanced the spotlight by applying for a boxing license, a bold action that marked a step toward a nine-figure blockbuster with Floyd Mayweather Jr.—potentially without the UFC's permission.

Luke Thomas @lthomasnews

Think how remote a union felt when UFC 151 was cancelled. Consider today saw the launch of a third fighter org + McG & his boxing license.

As McGregor took the attention, the MMAAA began to take on water. Among other problems, people reacted poorly to Bjorn Rebney, who has a leadership role with the association but did not earn a fighter-friendly reputation while running Bellator.

There's no question the UFC, which under previous ownership was fairly hostile to the idea of fighter organization, will continue to hold plenty of cards because of its unique position.

"The UFC has a tremendous amount of leverage," Rosner said. "They can tell the athlete to go away, to pound sand. That makes it tricky and highly risky for the athlete. What they really need to do is bind together."

If compensation doesn't improve in the UFC or elsewhere, the sport could be cutting off its nose to spite its face.

"The dream is you're going to get to the UFC or any big organization, and, boom, you're gonna be set," Barberena said. "You're a professional athlete, and you've made it to the top. It just happens to not be that way."


Scott Harris is a freelance writer who covers MMA for Bleacher Report. He is available on Twitter. All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.


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