Just over one week ago, Forbes released its list of the 100 highest-paid athletes in the world. It included boxers like Deontay Wilder and Tyson Fury, stars from the NBA, NFL and MLB, golfers, soccer stars and tennis players. Only one mixed martial artists made the list: Conor McGregor.
Jon Jones, the current UFC light heavyweight champion and top pound-for-pound fighter in the world according to the UFC rankings, was nowhere to be found. He didn’t make the cut, and most likely, he isn’t even the highest-paid athlete in his own family. His brother Chandler Jones, a defensive end for the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals, made $16.5 million last year.
Now, there are many reasons why Jones may not make a fortune in endorsement money the way some of the athletes on the list do—McGregor, for instance, made $16 million alone from endorsements—but when it comes to his athletic performance and compensation, well, that’s a function of the UFC’s incredible negotiation leverage. According to court filings related to an ongoing antitrust lawsuit, the share of UFC revenue going to its fighters is just 20%, a far cry from the near 50% paid by the major U.S. sports leagues.
In an attempt to challenge himself and increase his earnings, Jones recently made news by voicing an interest in moving up to heavyweight to face the terrifying contender Francis Ngannou. But as quickly as interest in that bout exploded, much hope was doused when Jones tweeted that the UFC signaled no interest in increasing his pay for the match. Then it was extinguished completely on Thursday when White, speaking to ESPN, said the idea was a non-starter.
“He’s never wanted to move to heavyweight before and for the amount of money he’s asking for, it’s not going to happen,” he said. “He couldn’t be asking for a more absurd amount of money at a worse time.”
On Friday, White detailed his stance further, saying that Jones “wants what Deontay Wilder was paid” in his most recent match, a figure that reportedly totaled around $30 million.
I’m not going to pretend that running a live-event business in 2020 is easy but I do know that pouring cold water on perhaps the most exciting fight-booking proposal in the pipeline is knee-jerk and misguided. The fight promotion that has long prided itself on making “the fights people want to see” could probably use an asterisk or three after that slogan, because it rarely seems to be quite so simple.
The fly in the soup this time around is oh, just tens of millions of dollars, along with two wildly different accounts of the same conversation. While White is adamant Jones is asking for megabucks, Jones has been equally steadfast that talks never even reached a point where specific numbers were discussed, and that he only sought a raise to take on the greater risk at heavyweight. Which, you know, seems totally reasonable.
Also totally reasonable as a starting point? $30 million to fight Ngannou. Wilder made that much to face Fury in a fight that drew about 1.2 million pay-per-view buys. Is it unreasonable to believe that Jones vs. Ngannou could pull in that kind of number? I don’t think so. With a promotional push, UFC 244’s “BMF” match for instance, drew over 900,000 buys, and that’s without featuring a former champion in the headliner. Jones, meanwhile, is perhaps the greatest fighter of all time while Ngannou boasts a highlight reel that most promoters would die for. If you can’t turn these two into box office gold, you’re asleep at the wheel.
Still, even if the UFC won’t pay out that kind of wild number, there has to be some negotiating midpoint to make this fight happen. If Jones is willing to move to heavyweight, where he will be fighting larger opponents in the only division that captivates casual fans by sheer presence, a raise sounds logical.
White throwing out the word “absurd” on Jones’ contract demands when he is literally building a “Fight Island”—a private island designed with full infrastructure to house fights, and only fights, is kind of audacious, no? I mean, I totally get that one of them is designed to benefit the business and the other is to benefit an individual, but they are ultimately after the same thing: money. White doesn’t need a Fight Island any more than Jones needs an eight-figure paycheck, but the only reason one is getting what he wants while the other can’t is because the bossman guards the checkbook from fighters with the ferocity of a Cerebrus.
Never mind that it’s the labor of superstars like Jones that makes the money that makes Fight Island possible. That’s just logic that must be abandoned when you’re dealing with the promoter-athlete relationship.
Just know that if you as a fan have the UFC’s back on this one, you are cutting off your nose to spite your face. That if this fight doesn’t happen, it’s not on Jones. He’s the one risking his body, his brain, his life, and for what? The man that even White considers MMA’s G.O.A.T. can’t even find a place among the world’s top 100 highest-paid athletes. Think about that for a second. The very best fighter in the world can’t make the top 100! That is absurd! We all know the UFC has the money in its coffers, but that’s where it’s going to stay. After all, you never know when you’re going to have to build another island.