The UFC's stated fight bonus system is a noteworthy form of incentivization. For extraordinary performance, UFC fighters are able to considerably augment their pay with a Submission of the Night (SOTN), Knockout of the Night (KOTN) or Fight of the Night (FOTN) bonus. Sometimes the same fighter can win two of those bonuses on the same night. Best of all, any fighter on the card can win any of the awards. You don't have to be a world champion at the top of the card to take home extra cash on a UFC fight night.
Or do you?
After going over the data, it appears you do. Or, at least, it helps quite a bit. The truth of the UFC's stated fight bonus system is that while everyone at every level can and has won, the most dramatic impact on your likelihood of earning bonus money has little to do with performance.
Before we get into which factor is the biggest determinant in being awarded bonuses, let's take a look at the kind of fighter who wins UFC fight bonuses. The numbers below are some of the statistics based on the top 20 bonus earners in UFC history:
1. 62.4% winning percentage
2. Average fight time of 11:08 (UFC average = 9:34)
3. 3.14 significant strikes landed per minute (UFC average = 2.61)
4. 7.81 significant strikes attempted per minute (UFC average = 6.2)
5. 61.7% of their significant strikes are landed at distance (UFC average = 56.4%)
6. 17.6% of their significant strikes are landed in the clinch (UFC average = 20.3%)
7. 20.7% of their significant strikes are landed on the ground (UFC average = 23.3%)
8. They absorb 2.85 significant strikes per minute (UFC average = 2.61)
9. 1.08 sub attempts per 15 minutes (UFC average = 0.91)
Generally speaking, the numbers tell us these fighters are better than average. They take a little longer to fight. They land 17% more strikes than average and attempt 20% more strikes than average. They're also hit more. Their strikes take place more at distance rather than in close. They throw strikes standing a tiny bit more than the ground. They also attempt more submissions.
While this data is important for understanding the complexion of the fighters who win bonuses, the biggest contributor in determining who wins bonuses has little to do with the above. In fact, if you really want to see how bonuses are handed out, look where a fighter's bout is on the card.
In terms of the FOTN bonus, we see the biggest concentration of winners around the main event and main card with a near one-to-one correlation of bout position (1 is the main event, 2 is the co-main, etc.) and the number of times a fighter in that space has won that specific bonus. Here is how the numbers shake out:
The vast majority of FOTN winners take place on the main card and the main event accounts for the plurality of them. The KOTN bonuses are spread out a bit more evenly over the distance of the card, but clearly pool around the main card:
The SOTN is where things get a touch more interesting. These bonuses are more likely to be won by fighters much further down the card. In fact, this is the only list where the main event is not the highest number:
Given these figures about the UFC's FOTN, KOTN and SOTN bonuses, I suggest there are three important takeaways:
1. It's understandable but not ok that FOTN bonuses concentrate around the main card and main event. Chances are, if you're a UFC fighter competing on the main card, you're there for a reason. You could be a champion defending your title or a fan favorite locked in a battle with another top contender. Generally speaking, the fights with the biggest stakes take place on the main card. That's why they get the biggest stage. That means a spectacular win at this level also carries with it the gravity and implications of the victory. That's doubly true for fighters who enjoy a modicum of celebrity: the momentum of victory when you're already popular is almost always a more powerful force than any momentum a fighter can generate when they're relatively anonymous.
For fighters on the preliminary portion of the card, they not only have to win in spectacular fashion. They must also win enough to offset their lack of celebrity or the stakes missing in their bout (relative to their main card brethren). That likely explains the relative dearth of bonuses at that level.
It's understandable fighters at this level are being awarded for their bigger kills, but they're competing on an uneven playing field. It's a lot easier to gain more from doing more when you have more to gain.
2. The delicacy of submissions matter. If you really want to win a bonus and you're a preliminary card fighter, you're in luck. More than the other awards, fighters at virtually every level of the card are able to grab a little extra cash for their handiwork in this dimension of the game.
And that's probably why this award isn't as concentrated around the main event and main card. A properly executed submission is often delicate and subtle craftsmanship. Knockouts are, too, but aren't as easily classified and lack the same sort of signature or nuanced application.
Think of the nomenclature for submissions. They're known techniques with a specific application (although there are varieties of each, but again, that's the point). Executing them, especially when they're not high percentage techniques or done in the heat of a pitched battle require less context of celebrity athletes or the world's greatest stakes to be appreciated. They are much more enjoyable on their own terms. A submission's 'slickness' isn't as highly predicated on card placement as, say, a fighter's victory or knockout. Submissions are able to enjoyed on their own terms outside of influencing factors more than a knockout.
Like the FOTN and KOTN bonuses, however, there is some inherent discrimination in the application of awards. For example, it's more valuable to be a high-level fighter submitting a high-level opponent than the opposite, which is partly why there is still disparity in how these awards are meted out in terms of fight card placement.
3. The UFC needs to change how they dole out awards. Even if it's understandable that Jon Jones' submission victory over Ryan Bader is more deserving of a SOTN bonus than Donald Cerrone's rear naked choke of Paul Kelly at UFC 126, that still undercuts the logic of the bonus: any fighter can win based on performance. Those things are technically true, but misleading. It makes sense that a victory over a better, more highly-ranked opponent means a fighter who wins is more deserving of a bonus, but that creates a hugely discriminating factor in favor of the already established. A bonus isn't just about performance; it's about performance against a challenge. The level of that challenge plays a key role in how bonuses are awarded.
To be clear, I endorse the UFC's system of awarding fighter performance. Offering competitive incentives to fighters is an excellent idea. But the fighters most in need of the bonus money - and those most likely to change how they compete to earn those dollars- are the least likely to earn them. That's a situation deserving of the UFC's attention.
The question is this: when handing out awards, what are we measuring? There's no denying fighters at the top of a card are achieving more with dominant wins than those accruing dominant wins on the preliminary card. If that's the case, though, what is the point of dangling the same prize in front of all the fighters and suggesting they all have an equal chance at getting it? Demonstrably speaking, they do not.
How can UFC fix this? By valuing a different set of factors when deciding awards. Application of technique and better consideration of fight circumstances could matter as much as celebrity and card placement. If the award is going to be handed out for the best knockout or submission without heavy consideration of stakes or opponent's rank, that could result in a more equitable distribution.
Perhaps there is a case to add an award that only preliminary card fighters can win. For example, a Preliminary Card Fighter of the Night. This award would be in keeping with the UFC's tradition of awarding exceptional performance and would target the very group often overlooked when the existing set of awards are handed out.
I'm not asking for undue redistribution of fighter bonuses. We need not realign them for the sake of realignment. You should get an award for performance, not charity. But the system we have now is something of a 'reverse charity': we're awarding more money to high-end fighters for virtue of being high-end.
I say keep the bonuses. They're a great idea and popular among UFC brass, fighters and fans. No one is against them nor should they be. But we should find a way to dole them out that awards the most courageous even if they aren't the most famous.
All quantitative data provided by FightMetric except where otherwise noted.