How much do UFC fighters really make?

Many UFC fighters don’t make nearly as much as you’d think.

You might assume that, in the 21st century, getting punched and choked as entertainment for the masses is a high-paying job. UFC star Conor McGregor earned $47-million in 2018, after all, and he only stepped into the octagon once that year. And the man he beat in that fight, Khabib Nurmagomedov made $11.5-million in the same period.

But the reality for most UFC fighters is quite different. UFC freshmen earn only $10,000 per fight, and an additional $10,000 per win. While that may sound like a good money for one night’s work, there’s a high price to pay for being a professional fighter, and not just physically.

“Fighters probably spend the best part of $4,000 on their camp, and they usually pay their manager 10 per cent of their purse – sometimes more,” says renowned MMA journalist Jim Edwards, who has covered the sport since 2014. “By that point they’re already $5,000 down. You then have to think about food and nutrition – a few hundred here and there – which adds up over the course of their camp.

“If you’re on the bottom rung, the UFC only pay for the travel costs of one cornerman, so then you’ve got to fly in another cornerman. Even if you were staying in London, look at the hotel prices – it’s probably the best part of $1,000 for a few nights at a decent hotel. By the time you take tax out of that as well, you’re left with what? A few grand? Maybe even a few hundred dollars if you lose. A lot of these guys basically live fight to fight, barely making any money.”

Even before the UFC (like all other sports) was shut down due to COVID-19, the earning power of UFC fighters had already been suffering in recent years because of a Reebok outfitting deal. Fighters had been free to accept deals with a variety of sponsors, mixing and matching branded apparel and logos on their fight attire, which increased their earnings significantly. Now, or prior to the shutdown, all fighters are required to wear a Reebok uniform exclusively. Reebok pays $3,500 per fight to fighters with standard contracts, or up to $40,000 per fight for the champions, but the majority of fighters have experienced a major drop in sponsorship earnings.

“Before that deal came in, there was quite a lucrative sponsorship market within MMA. There was a lot of sponsorship money going around, people were endorsing fighters left, right and centre,” says Edwards. “Now, it’s pretty safe to say that it’s only that upper echelon of fighters that are getting paid sponsorship. There used to be people making more money through sponsorship than they were from their actual fight purses – Reebok destroyed that.”

The following infographic was created by Betway Online.

For a lot of fighters, especially those who only recently signed UFC contracts, the absence of financial security means they have to take on other work and not devote themselves entirely to MMA.

“The reality of the situation is that most of these guys, especially before you get to the UFC, will have another job,” Edwards adds. “A good example is Jai Herbert, who literally just signed to the UFC. He was Cage Warriors champion – the cream of the crop in Europe – and only just quit his job as a bricklayer once he got a UFC contract. Another is Jack Marshman, who was in the Army for a heck of a long time. He only gave up his Army duties in July 2019, after six fights in the UFC.”

Looking at the structure of the industry is key to understanding why athletes at the top of an incredibly lucrative sport — the UFC made nearly $1-billion last year — are struggling financially. Since 2000, boxers have been protected by the Ali Act, legislation that keeps the power of promoters in check. Conversely, MMA is dictated by its governing bodies: the UFC.

“It’s not like boxing — there’s no Ali Act between fighter and promoter,” Edwards explains. “The promoters hold the cards. That’s just the situation in MMA.”

Therefore, up-and-coming fighters who aren’t yet making big money for the UFC have limited power in contract negotiations. One possible solution is a fighters’ trade union. Unions have allowed NBA, NFL, MLB and NHL athletes to negotiate collective agreements with owners. The notion of a union for MMA fighters has been debated for a few years, but up till now the obstacles have been insurmountable. Such an organization would have to be backed by star fighters who hold sway with the UFC due to their sizeable pay-per-view draws.

“The most influential fighters are the best paid, so it’s not in their interests to do it,” says Edwards. “In their mind, they don’t want to bite the hand that feeds them.”

This resistance among top-level fighters leaves those who are lower in the rankings at the whim of the UFC.

“Essentially, they have no power. If someone spoke out now against the UFC, they would be cut.”

Despite these issues, would-be fighters continue to flock to the UFC. Mixed martial arts is stronger than ever.

“You do it because you love the sport,” says Edwards. “There is a certain buzz with MMA – it’s not like anything else. MMA is just a batshit crazy sport and these fighters know there is nothing like it. That’s why it gets away with not being the best paid.”

At the end of the day, however, that passion for the sport and with competing professionally can only go so far. 

“Money matters to fighters just as much as the rest of us, but the balance of power in the sport means that they just don’t hold the cards. Everyone wants to provide for their family at the end of the day. Look at Conor McGregor – look how much money he’s made, yet he’s still obsessed with making more.”

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