As the UFC continues to tout record profits since the start of the global pandemic, the promotion is still dealing with a lot of bad optics when it comes to the paychecks being doled out to the fighters.
While fighter pay has been a constantly debated subject, UFC owner and Endeavor CEO Ari Emanuel recently fired back at those claims while touting Conor McGregor as the highest paid athletes in sports. Meanwhile, UFC president Dana White has routinely lashed out at anybody questioning the paychecks his athletes are receiving including recent battles with both Oscar De La Hoya and Jake Paul over the subject.
At the same time, UFC athletes such as Jared Cannonier has openly stated that he needed to fight more frequently because he was going “broke” while sitting on the sidelines due to injury. Former Contender Series winner and UFC strawweight Cheyanne Buys said that she was negative in her bank account heading into a recent fight, which was remedied after the UFC afforded her a post-fight bonus following an impressive victory.
Ex-UFC fighter Dan Hardy can’t help but criticize the current pay model in the UFC when he’s witnessing fighters such as Cannonier and Buys celebrating wins in the biggest and most profitable mixed martial arts promotion in the world while openly admitting that they are in financial peril at the same time.
“It’s not a good look,” Hardy said when speaking to MMA Fighting. “I also don’t think it’s a good look for someone like Brian Kelleher to say that he’s looking for a YouTuber to fight so he doesn’t have to get a job at WalMart after he’s done with his career. Then there’s the other female fighter [Sarah Alpar] that she started a GoFundMe account.
“It’s just not a good look, especially when you’ve got fighters on one side starting GoFundMe accounts and on the other side the UFC are signing $175 million contracts where the fighters will not see a penny of it. It is disappointing.”
According to Hardy, a huge part of the problem are the post-fight bonuses paid out by the UFC after every event. The extra $50,000 — or sometimes increased to a different amount — has resulted in a multitude of fighters essentially begging for that money after a big win.
While the bonuses can be a nice reward for a great performance, Hardy believes actually paying the fighters a better wage would be the first step to fixing the problem.
“The environment that’s been created by the UFC is everyone scrambling for the scraps,” Hardy explained. “It’s all about bonuses. Why can’t it be about the pay? Make sure these fighters are covered before they get in there so they’re not fighting at a deficit and hoping a bonus bails them out. The reality is we know the money’s being made now.”
Because the UFC owners at Endeavor are now a publicly traded company, more information about the promotion’s finances have been made available in recent months.
In numerous documents, Endeavor has touted the massive success of the UFC, especially since the global pandemic began with the promotion raking in huge profits from pay-per-view and now ticket sales since fans have returned to arenas in record numbers.
“We know that money’s being made in the sport of MMA. It’s just not finding its way to the fighters,” Hardy said. “That’s got to change. It has to change. It’s been the same in other sports in previous times and the shift has been moved over so 50 percent or more of profits are coming to the fighters. That’s how it should be. We all know that. I can say that as much as I want now.”
Typically in all other major sports such as football or basketball, athletes reap approximately 50 percent of the profits alongside ownership and those figures are negotiated as a part of a collective bargaining agreement.
Because there are no fighter unions that exist in mixed martial arts, it’s essentially every man or woman for themselves when it comes to negotiation for contracts in any promotion in the sport.
It seems unlikely that will change any time soon but Hardy believes one huge positive is that other options are springing up that are now available to fighters have made a big difference when it comes to the pay structure in MMA.
“I don’t think there’s a better [advertisement] for the other organizations than when the likes of Corey Anderson goes over to Bellator and is like ‘I’m getting paid way more than I was with the UFC,’” Hardy said. “Paige VanZant going to bare-knuckle boxing and making ridiculous amounts more than what she was with the UFC. It’s bringing awareness to the fact that the money’s being made.
“I think the more fighters, obviously MMA’s growing generally as well, and we need more space for these fighters to be competing, but I think the fighters are realizing the options are far greater. Before they put pen to paper on one organization, they’ve got options to consider. Cage Warriors just put on a show in the U.S. in California, obviously PFL are very strong at the moment, Invicta just changed hands and I’m interested to see where they go. It’s an exciting time to be a part of MMA and the options are starting to open up for fighters.”
In the long run, Hardy hopes the UFC will change its business practices because while it will cost them a lot more money to pay the fighters a higher share of the profits, he believes the long term benefits would be that much bigger to the health of the promotion and the sport.
“Brian Kelleher’s a good example right — we want Brian Kelleher when he retires to be happy and proud to have been part of the UFC, to love the UFC because he felt like he was a part of something great and to have enough money in his back pocket to go back to his hometown and open a gym and train the next bunch of young fighters,” Hardy said. “But if these guys, like Ryan Benoit, I know he had a job with UPS for a while when he was considering retirement. We don’t want to lose Ryan Benoit to UPS. We want him to have his MMA gym.
“We don’t want Kelleher to be checking people out at WalMart. We want him to have his MMA gym or to be a judge or a referee or something. We need these guys within the sport. It’s neglecting the grassroots by underpaying the fighters. It’s cutting off their options and then stifling the next generation of fighters. That overall will affect the standard of MMA in years to come. If the UFC is smart, they’ll start throwing a bit more cash around so the fighters can reinvest more in the industry. That’s ultimately where their money is going to go.”