ESPN investigates UFC fighter pay

January 15, 2012

ESPN examined the question of fighter pay in an article published earlier this week as well as a piece on its investigative show, “Outside the Lines.” OTL ran Sunday morning as it discussed issues of fighter wages and whether the UFC is a monopoly.

Dana White has denounced the article and promised a response. As MMA Fighting points out, White will likely point out factual errors with the piece but some of those errors deal with the fact that Zuffa, as a private company, does not have to disclose financial information which would reveal how much revenue Zuffa generates. The number could show how much it shares with its fighters. The OTL feature compares revenues of other leagues (NBA, NFL and NHL) with the percentage it shares with its players. However, that information is not publicly known for the UFC.

The article specifically looks at fighter pay in the UFC. No other organizations are featured in the piece to compare or contrast. Notably, the piece takes issue with the relatively low pay that entry-level UFC fighters receive – $6,000 a fight. On the other hand, Georges St. Pierre and Anderson Silva make millions per fight with GSP making between $4-$5 per fight. Its not clear whether this amount is the base or (more likely) after inclusion of sponsor, bonus and PPV cuts.

The ESPN article also interviews an unnamed UFC Figher which revealed the following:

“Training expenses in an average year can run $22,000, and that’s with no travel. For a typical fight, you and your corner man share a room. You fly in on Tuesday and leave Sunday and get a $50 per day per diem. If you bring anybody extra, they take it out of your show money.”

He also indicated that locker room bonuses range from $5,000 to $10,000 although most are $5,000. These are the bonuses that are not included in the  salary payroll or 3 bonus categories.

The article shows the difficulty in covering a very sensitive subject. In the ESPN and OTL feature, no UFC fighters would publicly comment with their name. As one fighter put it, “It would be the end of my career.” While ESPN does speak with a “Fighter X” no names are attached so Zuffa could still dismiss the claims made. Also, Ken Shamrock and Ricco Rodriguez have had past troubles with the UFC. Zuffa could easily claim their opinions are merely ones of spurned former employees.

Another issue to point out is that entry-level fighters still have training expenses such as gym, trainers, nutritional supplements and travel. These things are usually covered for top tier guys by sponsors or are written into their contracts.

Some interesting notes from ESPN’s interview of Lorenzo Fertitta:

• Since 2005, the first year the UFC became profitable, the company has paid more than $250 million to its fighters.
• 39 UFC fighters have become millionaires as a result of their earnings from the company.
• 29 fighters on the current roster receive a cut of pay-per-view profits.
• Since 2005, fighter pay has grown at twice the rate of revenue growth

MMA Payout will have more on the issue later this week. The story shows the great divide between entry-level fighters and the main event fighters. Its interesting that the question of a fighter union is not discussed more. Of course, if any fighter tried to put together an effort to unionize, they would be blackballed.

There is the argument that Zuffa is like any other private company. Entry-level workers start out with less pay while the best workers make the most. The company can decide how much (or how little) the worker is paid and what type of pay raise or bonus they may receive. The worker can take it or leave it.

With the UFC trying to move into the mainstream, we’ll see if this issue receives more scrutiny.

11 Responses to “ESPN investigates UFC fighter pay”

  1. anix on January 15th, 2012 11:23 PM

    I see nothing undue here…

    With experience in the fight game (boxing0 anyone who knows what a bottom barrel pug gets and its pathetic. UFC is a for profit company but the insurance theyve instituted, growth of wages shows a progressive curve of payment.

    Also UFC bring an x amount of cache for these athletes that can manifest into sponsorship deals at the lower tier no boxer in the comtemporary level could expect.

    I think ESPN is out to battle with UFC. Fvck ESPN I dont watch them but this stinks of a grudge and muckraking.

    Ill defer to this youtube, and as no word is the final one, this doesnt seem like Lorenzo or Zuffa is ducking anything. SOmeone should ask Bob Arum what his first-to-scene fighters get…

  2. Mike from Brooklyn on January 16th, 2012 9:02 AM

    One major distinction with “boxing” is that it truly is competitive, in that there are multiple promoters putting together fights and events who then compete for site fees, network airing, and sponsorships. That fractured landscape may be bad for creating the perception of boxing as one worldwide “league,” but it does offer options for fighters who feel mistreated or misused by a promoter.

    Also, the Muhammed Ali Act, though not perfect, forces disclosures and other behaviors that are meant to empower the fighters. None of the provisions of the Ali act apply to MMA promoters.

    In the end, the UFC needs to decided whether it wants to be viewed as a legitimate sports “league” on par with the NFL, NBA, MLB, and others, or merely “better than boxing.” I don’t buy the argument that it is “just like any other business.” I definitely don’t buy the argument that paying its fighters “off the books” is anything other than an attempt to distort the market by keeping fighters in the dark about what their peers are making. Incentive bonuses are all good, but it’s the culture of secrecy, and the fear of reprisals for disclosure that should give MMA fans pause. Nobody puts a gun to anyone’s head to sign these deals, but just because everybody knows the system is flawed doesn’t mean we shouldn’t speak out and advocate a better one.

    The right solution is some kind of fighter’s association, be it union or otherwise. They would control the likenesses, trademarks, and other ancillary rights of UFC fighters, and offer some measure of transparency about compensation, so that the fighters can be compensated more fairly. Furthermore, the arbitrary and capricious nature of Zuffa discipline could also be checked, as the Association would have access to attorneys that could challenge certain questionable contract provisions, or other behaviors that others might deem worthy of lawsuits. In time, we might see an arbitration system come into play. These are all worthy innovations, crucial to the development and sustainability of the UFC, long beyond its current incarnation as Dana & the Fertittas’ little “Mom & Pop Shop.”

  3. ironmike on January 16th, 2012 1:28 PM

    I don’t know of any UFC fighters fighting in an armory, high school gyms or any smaller venues. so to compare bottom UFC fighters to bottom boxers there is really no comparison. There are way more boxers in the world than MMA fighters. Lets compare boxers fighting with contracts with Top Rank or Golden boy with UFC fighters. UFC is a promotion, all fighters are under contract, even the lower tier ones.

  4. anix on January 16th, 2012 2:51 PM

    I watched the full interview with Lorenzo on youtube and I really think ESPN is trying to stick it to Zuffa. Be interesting to see if Fertitta’s facts were correct. If so more validation ESPN is just trying to create hype. How the UFC is a monopoly is ludicrous when Viacom just bought Bellatour, and Vaicom is one of the largest media machines in the world.

  5. CAINtheBULL on January 16th, 2012 3:41 PM

    I bet this is great for negotiations for the UFC tv UK contracts. SKY sports is probably getting it.

  6. BrainSmasher on January 16th, 2012 4:06 PM

    I have pretty much boycotted ESPN. The way they have handled the UFC/MMA situation over the years is a joke. The world wide leader in sports. lol. They will call anything a sport they can get their hands on a control. Spelling Bee, skate boarding, Snow boarding, X games, Hot Dog eating contest. Are all built into a “sport or attraction because ESPN has control of them. Almost total control. But then refuses to cover the UFC until they are in the race to get a contract. Now they lost out to FOX. You dont see any UFC highlights on sportscenter. They have come out with negative piece after piece to hurt the sport and UFC. Now they act like they are doing an informative unbias piece and include anyone in the show who has had grudges with the UFC and Edit the one person who has the facts on the subject which was Lorenzo. I have heard fighters complain about Pay many times. But ESPN claims no one will go on record. That is BS. Then the only people they can get for their show is Ricco “Rehab” Rodriguez, Josh Gross, and the guy trying to start a fighters union who the fighters themselves havent had anything to do with. Then Ken Shamrock lol.

    Everyone in the UFC makes very good money. You can argue the very bottom guys are paid low. BUt i disagree. Paying these “experimental” guys more could have a huge negative impact on the sport at all levels. The UFC is seeing if these new guys are deserving of the UFC. They shouldnt get rich for thier trial run. If the UFC has to pay you a ton of money when they bring you up from the minors you will have everyone minor league fighters fabricating their records. All of a sudden fighting in low levels becauses a get rich quick scheme. Now guys are building their records like Jason Rienhardt so they manipulate their way to the UFC. For those who dont know Jason went 18-0 outside the UFC and never beat anyone with a winning record. Most didnt even have a win and some had no fights. He rode that record into the UFC where he has got killed each time. Should he get rich for those couple fights?

    There is nothing wrong with expecting a guy to win 2 fights on his first contract before he gets paid well. Anyone who spends a decent amount of time in the UFC makes a lot of money. These are the guys i would consider real UFC employees. Not guys who didnt last but 1 contract or a few fights. Im talking about the guys who last a few years. The gate keepers of who gets to stay in the UFC and who doesnt. The Chris Lytles, Marcus Davis, Jorge Revira types. They are all making about 100K or more if they fight 3 times per year.

    ESPN is trying to cause a controversy that will break up the UFC and turn MMA into Boxing. What people dont realize is the UFC makes sure the mid level guys get Paid. A guy like Cerrone isnt going to be on PPV in a boxing model. He isnt going to have a TV deal. He isnt going to be making the $54,000 to win and $75,000 sub bonus he got for beating Siver. A lower weight guy like that who isnt a champ would never make that much money without a promotion taking some of the Floyd Maywther Jr or Brock Lesnar money and spreading it to the other fighters.

  7. Jason Cruz on January 16th, 2012 5:35 PM


    Excellent points. I think the Ali Act is something to look at for MMA. It definitely would help with bargaining power.

  8. BrainSmasher on January 16th, 2012 6:21 PM

    Mike From Brooklyn

    MMA has many promoters too just as you said boxing does. But do those promoters hold a candle to Arum or King? No they dont. Just as none of the MMA promoters can compare to the UFC. There isnt a difference no matter how much people want to believe it.


    Top Rank from what i see has about 50 fighters. Golden Boy has about 70. The UFC has well over 300 now not counting SF. I am willing to bet the 50th and 70th guys in those boxing promotions are not making what the 200th guy in the UFC is.

    On the Pacman/Mosley card there was 8 fighters on the main card. 3 of them only made 50k, 40K, and 22K. That was one of the biggest boxing cards and outside of the top 2 guys the other made less than a average UFC ppv. UFC 137 had 12 guys paid more than that cards 8th best. Plus the UFC card had 6 more fighters to pay. The UFC closest to a Pacman PPV would be UFC 100. It had 7 fights that cost more than the Pacman cards 4th fight.

  9. BrainSmasher on January 16th, 2012 7:06 PM


    “Excellent points. I think the Ali Act is something to look at for MMA. It definitely would help with bargaining power.”

    Why would any fan want that in MMA? I cant see how anyone who lives in reality would want this in their entertainment. The fans want the athletes to control all and get every penny and they are the first ones to compain when they players go on strike and there is no baseball, basketball, etc. You remember what the strike did to baseball in the 90’s? Why do fans want to mess with what is working? Releasing the UFC numbers isnt going to give all fighters any leverage. It will give the Headinlers leverage to demand a bigger chunk while the lower guys get even less than they do now. The bottom guys cant demand anything and it wouldnt matter how much they know the UFC makes. So basically the Ali act will allow Brock to demand 15 million per fight and the rest of the card get 6,000. It could lead to a union but that would be the worst thing for the sport imo. I prefer my UFC to have the money to battle NYC to legalize MMA, take the sport to new countires even if not profitable at first, make MMA global, half multiple top ranked fighters on each PPV. Why would anyone want to lose all of that because they feel some guy with a couple fights from Wild bills fight night should get more money? Maybe you can help me understand your way of looking at it. What do you think The minimum should be? Keep in mind the low guys used to get 2/2 and people used to complain and say it should at least be 5/5. Now it is past that and for most way past that. Most of the guys i think should be at the minimum are making 15-15. So if you thibnk they should get a little more then you must realize after the above example that even that will not be enough everyone always wants a little more. If it was 15/15 people would want 20/20. If you think it should be a lot more say 50/50. Why? Many of these new guys are brought in to lose to better fighters. They have little skill and are just a body. They have 5 wins over bad comp in low talent back alley events in Alaska. Why should that guys take money from the sport so he can leave after 3 fights and never fight again. Your Ian Loveland type fighters who are 14-9 and now 0-2 in UFC. This is the bum taking all the money. Your Denis Sivers and Ross Persons will be around and make lots of money. Any fighter who is even going to be a Siver level fighter will make money. IMO there isnt any need to assure the fraud fighters who should have never been in the UFC get rich goin 0-3.

  10. CodeMaster on January 24th, 2012 5:44 PM

    If ESPN had proven by their actions they were interested and engaged in the sport of MMA–their show might have some credibility. I enjoyed watching Inside MMA, but the network treated the show like a leper.

    The motives of ESPN are suspect–and they are very short on facts in the whole debate.

    I don’t worry about fighter pay because I am confident that it will rise as the UFC rises. Currently, there are a number of fighters who are multi-millionaires–and a large chunk of 6 figure earners.

    The UFC and MMA is a relatively young sport, and only in the past 5 or 6 years has it begun making money. Although the UFC does not publicly disclose their salary information due to being a privately owned company, fighter agents have a very good idea what kind of money they can ask for and get.

    I see the rights of the fighters being balanced with the rights of the company and promotion. From my own research, I think most UFC fighters do pretty well financially–but not compared to Football, Basketball or MLB….yet.

    But MMA is not nearly has big as the most popular sports, nor does it attract the kind of advertising revenues they do…yet.

    I think in the next 5 years the UFC will evolve and grow bigger, as will fiighter salaries. Then it will be a case of feeling sympathy for the fighter who only makes 2 million a year instead of the 15 million a basketball player is. Sorry if I cannot summon tears for the plight of either one.

  11. Denni on February 2nd, 2012 1:55 PM

    Thank you for bglgoing about this… The more I learn about the machine that is the UFC the more ruthless it seems…After reading your books, Dan Hardy really proved himself a warrior in his last fight with GSP- his mental strength (and flexibility!) kept him from tapping.In general I wanted to thank you for the path that you’ve taken… I’ve been searching for an explanation of why I love fighting… Why I love competing… Why I’m obsessed with Brazilian jiu jitsu… Your book helped me articulate my thoughts… Even stranger is that fact that I am a woman. I love kids, flowers and puppies… And choking out my friends… I get my ass kicked by big guys in gyms across the world. Had my nose broken, ankle/foot broken, meniscus tears in both my knees… I actually read the Fighter’s Mind while recovering from surgery, followed by 2 months off the mat. I really feel that it helped me stay mentally sharp. (along with watching videos, shadow grappling and reading The Art of Learning etc) we’ll see when I’m back on the mat at Renzo Gracie nyc next week…Please keep bglgoing, and educating the public… And I will buy anything you write!ps A Fighter’s Heart was fantastic too…

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