Recent MMA retiree John Cholish now lobbying for UFC to raise fighter pay

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

It didn't take long for John Cholish to begin being outspoken since retiring from mixed martial arts. The now former UFC lightweight announced on Saturday via Twitter prior to his UFC on FX 8 bout with Gleison Tibau that win or lose, he was bowing out of the sport. Cholish eventually lost, but he hadn't even boarded a plane back to the United States before he began speaking out about the reasons why he was retiring on why fighter pay in the UFC could and should be higher than what it is today.

"The main reason behind it is just I do kind of have another job that provides for me and it got to the point where I really had to sit back and say, ‘You know, all the sacrifices that I'm making - time away from family, time away from friends - is it really worth what I'm getting in return?'," Cholish told Ariel Helwani on Monday's The MMA Hour. "For the love of the sport I was pretty much doing it the whole time, but then it gets to the point where financially it just doesn't make any sense."

Cholish spends his days as an energy trader on Wall Street after having graduated from Cornell University. While he acknowledges his day job is more than sufficient as an enjoyable, financially-rewarding career, his experience in the UFC caused him to believe his situation was particularly unique and ultimately very lucky. If he wanted to bow out of MMA, he could. "For some of the fighters that fight full time," Cholish observed, "I just don't understand how they can live off the income at this level." Others, in other words, weren't so lucky.

Cholish's story is basically this: he loved MMA and wanted to test himself at the highest level. When he got the opportunity to do so in the UFC, he took it. Yet, along the way, he noticed the financials in his experience were hard to understand. Even at points where he was winning bouts and earning discretionary bonuses, he was barely breaking even. In some cases, like his fight last Saturday, he was losing money just to compete.

"To kind of give a brief overview, why I'm here talking to you today is I just think a lot of fighters feel the exact same way I do, but are just in a situation or position where there, for a lack of a better word, just scared to say anything about it because they're worried about the repercussions," Cholish said.

Cholish believes a look at the UFC fighter pay arithmetic doesn't, well, add up. At least not for someone at his level.

"But just for a basic example. So Danny [Castillo] I know trains out of California. He had to travel to New Jersey [for a bout with Cholish]. I live in New York. I had to travel to Brazil. You're fighting in a sport, mixed martial arts, with a wide range of skills and tactics and a lot of people will have multiple coaches.

"You're allowed three corners for each fight, but you're only in your contract, and for me personally, I only get one coach's flight and one hotel room and cover one visa," Cholish said. "I know just from this last fight. I had to pay over $3,000 in flights. I had to pay for an additional hotel room. I had to pay for two additional visas which are $500 a piece. I have to pay for the licensing fees. I have to pay for the medicals.

Cholish says he made $8,000 for his Saturday bout. He estimates once you factor in costs required simply to travel to Brazil with his team, he's in the hole $5,000 to $10,000.

"Before you even step to the ring, your original purse is gone," Cholish claimed. "And that's before factoring in the gyms I go to train at, my coaches that take hours of time to sacrifice. I want to pay them and take care of them. It just seems like certain things could be handled better and the fighter could be treated better for an organization that claims to be the best in the world in mixed martial arts."

His ask is simple if controversial: pay the fighters more. Cholish believes the UFC could do more to pay fighters greater wages, particularly at the low end, without taking a dramatic hit to a pocketbook he views as very full.

"I can say from how I've been treated indirectly and just my understanding of what I think the UFC takes in on an annual basis, they could compensate the lower-level fighters and without going into detail the upper-level fighters a little bit better," Cholish claimed.

"I think if you're a fighter on the lower level, you should at least be getting enough income - win or lose in your fight - so that in a three-month period of time or two-month period of time, whatever the fight camp may be, you can go into that fight fully focused on the fight, performing your best as opposed to worrying about, ‘Man, you know, financially how can I prepare? Cut corners?'"

The Ivy League college graduate believes if one takes the time to see the sources of revenue UFC and parent company Zuffa take in, it isn't hard to make a case there's more money to go around to the fighters who could desperately use a raise.

"I think last year the average UFC ticket price was about $200 to $250. For an average sporting event in America, it's about $100 for a ticketed event. So, they're already double what the average price is," he insisted.

"Last year they had 31 events that ranged in 11 different countries. 13 of those were pay-per-view," he said. Cholish estimates the UFC is averaging between 300,000 to 350,000 buys per pay-per-view event. "That's generating, roughly, 4.5 million buys per year. That's $275 million, and that's just with their pay-per-views.

"They're kind of shifting more toward the contracted revenue, which would be FOX Sports, their Globo deal," he continued. "They signed a seven-year deal with FOX Sports and I know the Sports Business Journal quoted it roughly $100 million a year for seven years. I think it's probably more than that, but that's what they said. That's another $700 million.

"When you look at guys getting paid $6,000 to fight, $8,000 to fight, $10,000 to fight, I think if you add five to that number, ten to that number, it does a lot for the fighter. It secures their livelihood for their family and on the flip side, it doesn't hurt the UFC as much. I think they're going to get better performances because the fighters are going to be more focused on the fight."

UFC officials have yet to formally comment on Cholish's statements.

The New York-based fighter is speaking out now, largely because he believes it's important to do so. He also knows it's easier to do once you've moved on from the organization or sport itself. He contends active fighters feel pressure not to complain in a sport where there's really only one big show and that big show is looking to make tough roster cuts any day now.

As for his future, he isn't entirely sure what it will be. He enjoys his day job and has no intention of leaving it to stay in the industry. Cholish acknowledges in a sport where the top earners have little incentive to unionize, getting fighters together for collective action can be hard to come by. But, there is another group Cholish believes that could be influential in getting fighters greater pay.

"The fans, I think, are the biggest ones that can influence what a company does," he said. "The fans are the ones that bring the revenue to Zuffa and if that ever decreased, that's something they're going to take notice at. Until then, I think it's going to be hard for an individual fighter to do anything. I'm just hoping I can shed a little bit of light on it."

Cholish isn't planning any full scale attack on his former employers, who he acknowledges "aren't doing anything wrong" legally speaking even if he has ethical and practical concerns. At the moment, he's just voicing his opinion because he wants to and can without the fear of retribution.

He leaves MMA with a record of 8-3, 1-2 inside the Octagon. That's a commendable if not entirely impressive record. Cholish himself doesn't necessarily disagree and wonders whether for the sport he loves, he can do more outside of it than competing within it.

"I think now I might be able to add more value being able to speak out and kind of give me opinion," he said. "Hopefully it encourages other fighters to speak up and do the same, but in the end I just want to do what's best for the sport."

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