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Outside the Lines Investigates UFC Pay, But Questions Remain

Sunday morning marked the airing of an Outside the Lines segment on ESPN that was denounced by UFC President Dana White before he had even seen it -- a show that presented the UFC's pay model as one that richly rewards a handful of favorite stars while paying the majority of fighters as interchangeable drones.

White has already promised a response, and he'll surely say that ESPN's report contained incomplete information about how much the company pays its fighters. And he'll surely be right, for the simple reason that the UFC, like many private businesses, keeps what it pays its workers confidential. ESPN deserves credit for attempting to uncover the closely guarded secret of how much UFC fighters actually make, but specific dollar amounts were lacking in this report.

For all the work that went into the Outside the Lines report, we still don't know how much the UFC really pays its fighters.

"Outside the Lines has spoken with more than 20 current, former and potential UFC fighters, as well as agents and promoters," ESPN's John Barr said as he strolled around a cage in the televised segment. "To a person, they say UFC fighters have not received their fair share of the company's rapidly increasing revenue. Nearly all of them also refused to speak on camera, for fear the UFC would blackball them."

But the fact that ESPN couldn't get any active fighters to speak -- and especially to reveal specific dollar amounts -- was the biggest flaw in the report. The report did make a strong case that highly paid UFC fighters make far more than low-level fighters make. In that respect the UFC follows a pay model similar to that of Hollywood studios, where a handful of stars make the bulk of the money, and the bit players are left with much less.

And while UFC co-owner Lorenzo Fertitta claimed that the UFC pays its fighters in the neighborhood of 50 percent of all the promotion's revenues, ESPN's investigation made a convincing case that the UFC actually pays less than that.

However, there were also some weaknesses of ESPN's reporting, which pegged the actual amount the UFC pays its fighters as "roughly 10 percent of the revenue." initially reported that the median annual income for UFC fighters was $17,000 to $23,000 a year, citing figures compiled by Rob Maysey of the Mixed Martial Arts Fighters Association. ESPN later corrected that report and said the $17,000 to $23,000 figure was actually the median pay per fight, not per year. However, even those corrected numbers do not appear to include sponsorships, bonuses and other forms of income that UFC fighters make.

And median pay per fight isn't necessarily a particularly telling statistic. Consider a low-level UFC newcomer who signs a contract that guarantees him $6,000 to show, and another $6,000 to win for his first fight, then $8,000 for his second fight and $10,000 for his third. If that fighter fights three times, wins all three fights and earns a $75,000 Knockout of the Night bonus in his third fight, his median pay per fight would only be $16,000. But his total pay for the three fights would be $123,000, for an average of $41,000 a fight.

For an example of an entry-level fighter who has cashed in big time with bonuses, look at Edson Barboza, who signed with the UFC in 2010 after having six pro fights in small regional promotions. Barboza's "show money" is reportedly just $6,000 a fight. But Barboza has won all four of his fights, meaning he also got a $6,000 win bonus for all four fights, and Barboza has received three Fight of the Night bonuses and one Knockout of the Night bonus (including both Fight of the Night and Knockout of the Night on Saturday at UFC 142). Thanks to the UFC's bonus-heavy pay structure, Barboza's total take for his first four UFC fights is at least $348,000, even before any sponsorships or other sources of income.

Even without bonuses, entry-level fighters aren't necessarily doing too badly. One such fighter is UFC featherweight Jim Hettes. Hettes was an unknown in MMA circles, fighting on the regional scene, until he caught a break in August and signed with the UFC on a deal that paid him $6,000 to show and $6,000 to win on his first fight, and then $8,000 to show and $8,000 to win on his second fight. Hettes won both fights, for a total take of $28,000, and is now looking like one of the brightest young prospects in the featherweight division.

For a 24-year-old like Hettes, making $28,000 in five months while fighting in the UFC, with a good chance of making a lot more than that in the future, is a dream come true. ESPN didn't quote any active fighters complaining about their pay on the record and indicated that the inability to find such fighters was a sign that fighters were scared to speak out. But maybe the reality is most UFC fighters are OK with what they make.

In fact, when low-level fighters are released from the UFC because of losses they suffer in the Octagon, they almost universally express a desire to win enough fights in other promotions to earn the right to return to the UFC -- which strongly suggests that they don't view the contracts they've just been released from as onerous.

The handful of mid-level fighters who have been released from the UFC for reasons having to do with issues outside the Octagon (fighters like Jon Fitch, Nate Marquardt and Miguel Torres) also generally apologize for their transgressions and ask to return to the UFC. Again, that suggests that the contracts they were released from were better than the contracts they could earn in other promotions.

And the few prominent fighters who have become free agents, like Tito Ortiz, have generally decided when the dust settled that the grass was greener inside the Octagon than out of it. UFC Hall of Famer Ken Shamrock appeared in the Outside the Lines report, and it may not have been clear to viewers who aren't MMA fans that Shamrock made millions of dollars in the UFC, or that Shamrock left the promotion because he wasn't good enough to win inside the Octagon anymore, not because he objected to the terms of his contract. That was clarified, however, in the panel discussion that took place after Barr's taped Outside the Lines report.

It is true that a handful of well-known fighters have been able to leave the UFC and make more money elsewhere. That includes former heavyweight champions Andrei Arlovski and Tim Sylvia, who both left the UFC to sign with Affliction in 2008. But Affliction fell apart after putting on just two fight cards, which suggests that its higher-paying business model didn't work.

ESPN's report would have been strengthened by addressing other promotions' business models, including not only Affliction but also Bellator and other smaller American MMA organizations. The UFC is by far the biggest MMA promotion and therefore deserves to have by far the greatest scrutiny, but a comparison of the UFC's pay scale with other promotions' pay scales would have provided some valuable context.

Ultimately, as former UFC heavyweight champion Ricco Rodriguez said on Outside the Lines, "The UFC gives you the best opportunity." It would be great to see more opportunities for more fighters, but at the moment, even if UFC pay is lacking, it beats the alternatives in MMA.