In recent years, fighter pay, particularly in the UFC, has become a one of the most talked-about stories in MMA.
Over the past year, fighters like Jon Jones and Jorge Masvidal have complained outright about the UFC’s pay structure. Meanwhile, lesser-known fighters like Sarah Alpar have set up GoFundMe’s to cover the costs of training camp, and with YouTuber-turned-boxer Jake Paul looking for any chance to blast Dana White and the UFC over their business practices, the story doesn’t appear to be going anywhere anytime soon.
But according to fellow combat sports promoter Eddie Hearn, things may change at some point.
Hearn, the chairman of boxing promoter Matchroom Sport, recently spoke with Ariel Helwani on The MMA Hour, where he outlined the differences in fighter pay between the UFC and boxing and how things came to be that way.
“I think that fighter power has drifted down the UFC probably a little bit slower than it did in boxing,” Hearn said. “Very old promoters — every fighter that I represent is my boss. Whether they’re a kid debuting in their first fight, I work for the fighter. That’s my mentality. The old school, the couldn’t say it. Fighter power in boxing for a while now, they’ve become the boss, they’ve become in control of their own destiny.
“For UFC, where they’ve been very smart is it’s such an honor to get a UFC deal, you see these kids coming out of Bellator or Cage Warriors or wherever it is, the thought of getting a UFC contract is everything. But I feel in the UFC they don’t want you to get too big, and when you do – I used to almost laugh at Conor, because I can just imagine just the disruption that he was causing in that organization, because that’s not really the name of the game. We don’t want a star that is bigger than the UFC. Conor McGregor became bigger than the UFC, really, and that’s a nightmare for those guys.”
McGregor has indeed proven to be challenging for the UFC to work with since ascending to the status of global icon. The Irish superstar has “retired” from MMA on multiple occasions, and been a hard negotiator with the organization, even working in a deal with his Proper No. 12 whiskey company.
But for Hearn, the fact that the UFC could somehow even stay in business with McGregor and fighters like him is impressive enough, given their earning potential outside of the UFC.
“Don’t forget that the fighter, the representation that fighter has, it’s their responsibility to put the best deal together possible,” Hearn said. “What surprised me is the length of time they’ve been able to manage individuals as they’ve grown. So Conor was a good example.
“I always thought Conor would just walk away from the UFC, start up his own promotional arm of MMA — and it’s very interesting, I’d love to see behind the scenes the ins and outs of how that relationship was managed with Conor. Reports of when he boxed Mayweather, they went 50-50 on the purse, the UFC and Conor. That’s outrageous, but at the same time I understand he’s in contract and you’re not allowed to take that fight, so to do that, that’s the deal. It all comes down to the deal.
“I go back to the beauty of the UFC which is that to join the UFC is a dream and when it’s a dream, ultimately, you’re gonna get a great deal. I think a lot of these early deals look great for an MMA fighter, it’s only when they become a sizable draw that that changes.”
While the fighter pay issue is readily noticeable in the discrepancies between the pay of the biggest stars in the sport and their counterparts in boxing, the disparity is perhaps more evident when considering the revenue totals. The UFC currently takes home around 80 percent of the revenue they generate annually, with fighters collectively pocketing the other 20 percent. This is in comparison to other professional sports organizations in the U.S., which usually operate on closer to a 50-50 split.
It stands in stark contrast to the split with which Hearn said he and most boxing promoters use. and which Hearn suggests is the only defensible way to promote combat sports.
“The one thing I will say, certainly the margins are very favorable to the organization over the fighters, but they do, when you go to the [UFC Performance] Institute and stuff like that, there is parts and benefits to being involved with the organization that maybe you don’t see,” Hearn said.
“It’s a very powerful business. In boxing, we work with out bigger fighters on an 80-20 split [in favor of the fighters]. It sounds like theirs is closer to the other way, in terms of revenue. But also that 20 [percent that we take] becomes smaller and smaller as the fight becomes bigger and bigger. Because ultimately how can you justify if a fighter is making $50 million, you’re gonna make $10 million on one fight? That’s a lot of money. This guys the one putting their health on the line, their life on the line to go in there. But it’s a historic model that I guess will change, and there will be more pressure on the organization as time goes by.”
The UFC and its parent company Endeavor seem to disagree though.
Last year, Endeavor CEO Ari Emanuel defended the UFC’s pay model by arguing that fighter pay has risen, while Dana White has taken the less egalitarian stance of, “This is mine and this is the way we’re doing it.” But with people like Francis Ngannou and Jake Paul keeping this issue in the spotlight, perhaps one day it won’t be that way.