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The Cost of Doing Business in MMA (Part 1)

Here is a question that never gets asked: What is what what is? You can read that a couple more times if it helps. It would be the proper response to the ridiculous and nonsensical phrase, “It is what it is” if only it was thought about for a second.

Whatever the modern Shakespearean wants to mean when they are saying what it means (or what it is) to be involved in MMA, it seems most people are content to let things be what they are. It is easiest on the fan of MMA to just let its producers and promoter (singular on purpose) tell us what we should want. And then if questioned on whether there is something to reconsider – how much fighters should be paid for example – we are essentially just told: It is what it is. Then we walk away and wait for them to give us what it is.

Thought experiment: What do these names mean to you the reader? Miguel Torres, Tyson Griffin, Melvin Guillard, Mike Pyle, Leonard Garcia, or Evan Dunham? Whatever they mean to the reader, it is safe to say they mean less to the UFC regardless of their individual and/or collective contributions to that promotion over the years. About the best those retired and should-be retired fighters are going to get right now from the promotion is to get to use an ice bath at the Performance Institute – assuming one of the stars has not made sure the place is all to themselves. It might be that the subject of fighter pay is an immediate turn-off to some. It is clear to most that follow Mixed Martial Arts that the subject has not really gained anything like traction in the public consciousness. The proverbial sausage-making is a non-starter.

For our purposes here, it is more question than complaint. Why is such a dedicated fanbase, who seem to recognize the stakes for the chosen profession of their favorite athletes, so averse to paying attention to what the athlete is being paid or leaving the sport with? Is it possible the fans fell for what the promoter or its president says in that its athletes are getting paid “tons of money?”

Yet those above names do not even have pounds or ounces to show for it – let alone tons. Is it possible that the fan thinks if the ‘stars’ are in any way representative like they are in sports with collective bargaining that even the lowest person in the organization is making a comfortable living? In other words, Lebron James is a wealthy star and the lowest paid athlete in the NBA with literally zero years experience making $1,017,781 a year (in 2022).

Therefore, this might have us thinking that Conor is making millions, so a new MMA fighter must be making a decent living, right? Well, no. If a new fighter (with the common contract) gets three fights in the UFC in a calendar year, wins two and loses one, their pay will be around $60,000 for that year. This does not take into account management if they pay them, gym fees, equipment, etc. Does an NBA player have to pay their team’s facility to use its equipment or go out of pocket to pay coaches? It is not exaggeration to suggest that a first year UFC fighter after expenses might make something like the minimum wage in California. Tons?

This is the part where the jaded commentator or smart guy says, “They don’t have to do it.” Those names listed above that are most likely unknown to the current crop of UFC fans are not complaining (that we can hear anyway). True; they did not have to do it. But it is equally true that a 4.2 billion dollar company does not have to pay their fighters the way they do either.

When pro athletes in other fields (pun intended) get in trouble or wind up in court (another pun?), it is always part of the narrative to say that they squandered an opportunity. After all, “How could they do that when they get paid all that money?” No one has ever said that about an MMA fighter not named McGregor or Jones. And we have yet to even introduce the subject of other promotions which will come later.

In a recent interview with Ariel Helwani, Eddie Alvarez, an MMA stalwart and former UFC (and other organizations) Champion, said the answer to these types of issues is not collective bargaining which is often suggested as a solution to the fighter pay issue (and those related, i.e. healthcare, pension, etc.). In fact, he inadvertently made his own point very clear that opponents will not ever likely work together when he spoke of the time when he and Michael Chandler had a sort of gentlemen’s agreement as opponents to join in negotiating their Bellator contract together.

Alvarez said with a laugh that it did not unfold that way and Chandler had a deal all of a sudden and Eddie was left out of that. Eddie is a very astute fighter and business person in the space. He always speaks candidly about how a fighter needs to be in business for themselves and make stands for their own benefit. Even to the point of saying, “no” if they have to.

There is an undeniable tension between employer and employee ahem, independent contractor. It exists in every field. Somehow when it comes to sports, the fan seems to assume a pro who is not doing a normal job must be getting paid handsomely and therefore has no right to complain or in some cases, even discuss that they might deserve more.

Apparently, only fans can be frustrated about not being paid what they are worth. Does the reader deserve to be paid more at their chosen (yes, chosen) place of employment? Is there contentment if the higher-ups say, “Well, it is what it is”? If your employer were to say in public right now, “our people are getting tons of money,” would you agree?

Stated earlier, this is a question. Do we care what Mixed Martial Artists get paid or how they are treated? If so, how is that proven? If not, why not? How much pay does Michael Bisping deserve for losing an eye in the UFC? Before anyone points to his current success, we must remember, that is not due to his fighter pay alone. Or what about Paul Felder’s lung chunk? Or the countless names we do not remember who are working full-time jobs after their fight careers because the sport did not afford them a comfortable living.

Can we name five financially independent former fighters? Three? This writer knows a former title contender and fan-favorite fighter who is a very good carpenter. Not on a yacht. Not in broadcasting. Not with a chain of MMA gyms. It is a foregone conclusion that fighters need to have a career plan after fighting. This is no longer a fringe back-alley sport. It is in the mainstream consciousness.

The biggest promotion was sold for 4.2 billion dollars and is now more profitable than it was when it was sold. More questions than answers it seems on this subject. One question that remains: Why do MMA fans seem ok with martial artists giving so much and getting so little? Is it what it is?

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