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Fighters and Finances: Painful Lessons With Fast Money

Leonard Garcia had to find out the hard way how quickly a post-fight paycheck can disappear. It was 2007 and he had just come off a decision loss in his UFC debut against Roger Huerta. The bout was a thriller, and it resulted in a $35,000 bonus for Garcia, who up until that point had been toiling in the small circuit for next to no money.

Suddenly, instead of feeling depressed every time he checked his account balance, he felt elated. It was as if he'd gotten rich overnight, and he started living like it.

"I just blew through that money real fast," Garcia said. "Coming from being in the smaller shows and then getting all that money all at once, it seemed like it was never going to run out. I just rode it into the dirt."

He did do some good things with the money before it was all gone, like helping his mother pay off her car. He also traded in his own ride and got a Corvette – a car that's now, three years later, finally close to being paid off.


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Then there were the days where he walked out of the mall loaded down with shopping bags, convinced that this lavish lifestyle would last forever.

"I had a different pair of sunglasses for every day of the week there for a little while," said Garcia. "I just thought the money was never going to run out because I had gotten it all in one big chunk. I learned real fast that it does run out and you need to learn how to manage it. I learned a lot from that one bonus."

Garcia's story is closer to the rule than the exception for many young MMA fighters. Particularly among those who jump from the minor leagues to a well-paying major organization like the UFC or Strikeforce, it can be difficult to keep the sudden influx of cash in perspective, or to remind themselves that it won't last forever.

"I know a lot of fighters who waste tons of money, just living in the moment," said Mike Swick. "You see them in Vegas just blowing through money with these $5,000 weekends. That's nice and we can do that right now. But what happens if I get injured? What happens if I can't fight anymore and I don't have those big checks coming in three times a year? Instead of panicking then, I'm trying to plan for it now."

Swick, a born entrepreneur who ran his own one-man power-washing business prior to getting his break on "The Ultimate Fighter," now operates two different companies – Combat Life, a military-themed clothing brand, and the San Jose, Calif.-based Spartan Screen Printing – both of which are thriving.

Between those business ventures and other sources of income such as sponsorships, paid appearances, and instructional seminars, his fight purses have almost become supplemental income. It's a major departure from where Swick was five years ago when he made his UFC debut.

"When I fought [Alex] Schoenauer, I got five [thousand dollars to show] and five [thousand dollars to win]. I remember I was so excited because I'd never made that kind of money in fighting. I remember thinking that if I won the fight I could go another three months without having to get a job. That was pretty much the extent of my thinking then, that the more fights I won the longer I could go without a job. I spent my whole first year in the UFC like that, just using the money from the last fight so I could train full-time for the next one."

The difference between Swick and many other fighters, however, is that some guys never start thinking about the long-term. Some guys see the big paychecks rolling in after every fight, and they can't quite believe that there will come a day when they'll have to hang up the gloves and the post-fight paydays will stop for good.

MMA agent Jason Genet, who works with fighters such as Shane Carwin and Ben Henderson, has run into this attitude plenty of times. The same attributes that enable fighters to walk into a cage and engage in hand-to-hand combat with another person sometimes become a hindrance when it comes to managing money, Genet said.

"Fighters are inherently confident and they don't think about losing or falling from their status. They see others around them fall all the time, but to do what they do they have to tell themselves, 'that will never be me.' Yet failure is the reality and we will not see many undefeated fighters, so failure to plan is a plan for failing. In a fighter's mind the next fight will be better and the next purse will be better."

Genet's goal is to build a brand around his fighters, he said, so they aren't overly reliant on fight night income to get them through the next few months. He tries to establish LLC's for all his fighters while also putting them in touch with the right accountants and investment advisors so they can make the most of their active, profitable years while they last.

But ultimately, the money belongs to the fighters. They're the ones who must decide what to do with it, for better or worse.

"We can only warn them as a parent would, but they are adults and sometimes the hardest lessons hurt the most," Genet said.

For Garcia, those difficult early lessons in money management may have been the best thing that could have happened to him. Now he owns an eight-bedroom, ten-acre ranch in New Mexico with fellow fighter Donald Cerrone, and the two have plans to one day put their money toward opening a Chipotle franchise together in Albuquerque.

Garcia has also learned how to budget his cash to account for the unpredictability of the fighting life.

"I try and look at when my next fight is going to be and then add three months to it, just in case something happens," he said. "Right now, my next fight is supposed to be in September, so I have to plan to pay all my bills up until November or December."

When he pocketed an extra $65,000 bonus for his "Fight of the Night" performance against Chan Sung Jung at the WEC's first pay-per-view event in April, Garcia made sure not to make the same mistakes that depleted his first Zuffa bonus check.

No fancy cars or shopping sprees this time. Instead he opened a three-year CD, renovated the bathrooms in his house, and began looking into an IRA.

At 30 years old, and with a somewhat reckless fighting style that doesn't promise much in the way of longevity, Garcia knows that he'd better start thinking about the inevitability of retirement now, lest he end up like some of MMA's cautionary tales – guys like Mark Coleman and Gary Goodridge, still fighting on into their forties, or Jens Pulver, who was recently released from the WEC after an 0-5 stint but doesn't necessarily have the financial security to retire.

While the payouts may have improved for the fighters of Garcia's generation, it doesn't mean that the fundamental lessons are any different.

"The lifespan of a fighter is pretty short. I understand that in these next five years I have to grab the ball and run with it, make my title run. I don't want to be the guy who sticks around longer than he should because he needs the money."

The truth is, no one wants to be that guy. Not Garcia, not Coleman, no one. And yet, throughout the long history of professional fighting, that guy is a constant. He's always around somewhere, looking for one more fight and one more paycheck. After that, who knows? He'll figure it out when he gets there. He has to.