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Cub Swanson opens up on evolution of fighter pay, open scoring debate, UFC legacy

Cub Swanson has seen a lot in his 15 years under the Zuffa umbrella.

The 38-year-old featherweight made his debut in the WEC as a young prospect in 2007 and has been a fan favorite ever since, competing 29 times between runs in the WEC and UFC and racking up 13 post-fight bonuses in the process. Over that time, Swanson has had a front row seat to watch the rise of the UFC from a niche sports property to the all-consuming beast it is today. It’s been a surreal sight for Swanson, but also not surprising.

“I always knew that was going to happen, because I just know that this is the realest sport,” Swanson said recently on The MMA Hour.

“There are no teams, no balls. Just one-on-one, and I love that.”

Swanson is set to join the Fight Wing of the UFC Hall of Fame this summer as part of the promotion’s 2022 class for his iconic win over Doo Ho Choi at UFC 206 in 2016.

It’s an honor Swanson said he never could’ve expected when he first laced up his four-ounce gloves back in 2004. That was the era before The Ultimate Fighter 1, when the sport of mixed martial arts was still on life support in the United States and struggling for acceptance from a cynical mainstream. It’s a night and day difference from where MMA is today, with profits skyrocketing year over year and the UFC’s valuation and earnings from broadcast rights hitting numbers that would’ve once seemed preposterous.

Swanson said that massive growth can even be seen in the paychecks of UFC fighters today — though he readily acknowledges there is still plenty of progress left to be made.

“My first fight with the company, I made $3,000 [to show] and $3,000 [to win], so [fighter pay] has definitely gone up quite a bit,” Swanson said.

“And it makes me laugh, because the guys now, they’re starting at what I think my second or third contract was, so I had to put in work. So it’s going up and I’m appreciative of that, but I always think that the fighters should get paid more. I’m always going to think that. I think that we’re the heart and soul of this whole thing. I think the UFC has done an amazing job promoting the sport and getting it to be the biggest sport in the world.

“But yeah, I think the sport needs to keep evolving,” Swanson continued. “I don’t want to get stuck like boxing has. I love boxing — absolutely love it — but I feel like they can be dinosaurs at times. Like the scoring stuff, I think we can still figure things out. I think the gloves could be better. I think fighters could get paid more. I think it’s coming up, but I just always think that we should get paid more regardless.”

The “scoring stuff” Swanson mentioned is a nod to the ongoing debate about open scoring that continues to rage within the MMA community.

Many fighters have voiced support in recent months for open scoring — a system which makes judges’ scorecards visible to athletes, cornermen, and fans between rounds — and an anonymous survey of over 200 fighters conducted by The Athletic in 2020 found that nearly 80 percent of responding athletes were in favor of a move to open scoring. Swanson said he tends to lean the same way, though he’s open to hearing the other side.

“I’d like to hear more arguments about it,” Swanson said. “I want to hear [more]. I’m for it, but I’d like to hear the arguments against it just to know like, what would be the issues? It’s like when the whole weight-cutting thing happened, when we they went to us making weight earlier in the morning, and then the ceremonial weigh-ins, they were they didn’t seem to be as big. And they didn’t find that out until later. I think little issues like that, I’d like to hear those before I really put my stamp on it.

“But as of now, I like it. I would like to see more 10-10 rounds and I would like to see more 10-8 rounds. Like, we’re talking about the [Aljamain Sterling vs. Petr Yan 2] fight [at UFC 273] — I think that was a draw. I don’t think anyone deserved that first round, and then I thought it was two apiece after that.

“There was definitely case for [Round 2 to be a 10-8 for Sterling as well],” Swanson continued. “So, to me, how are you going to score [those the same]? Like, if there’s two rounds and one was one-sided, very one-sided, and one was close but somebody clearly won, those rounds shouldn’t be scored the same.”

As long as MMA continues to evolve, Swanson is happy to still be along for the ride.

The longtime veteran said he recently re-signed with the UFC on a new four-fight deal that he expects to represent his final run in the sport. He’s hoping for a “King of Cali” matchup against fellow WEC veteran Urijah Faber before he hangs up his gloves, likely sometime in 2023. And though he never challenged for a major title, Swanson said he’ll be able to walk away satisfied with his legacy in MMA whenever that times comes.

“The funny thing is, the belt is so prestigious, right?” Swanson said. “But at the same time, it can be a little bit of a popularity contest, or a lot a bit. And I don’t want to dive into it too much because then people just say ‘you’re crying’ and this and that, but I earned the No. 1 contendership multiple times and I just wasn’t given it, just because there happened to be somebody else that was popular at the time. So that burned, and that really killed my drive and my passion for the sport for a long time, and it was hard to deal with.

“And I, over the years, have come to realize that, from the beginning, my goal when I got into this sport was to be a better human being. And it helped me be a man, and that’s the man I am today. So I’m not really mad about it, because that was my goal. As you go along in this sport and you get higher up, then people put that dream on you, like, ‘Oh, you’re going to fight for the belt, you’ve got to fight for the belt. That’s all that matters, and that’s the only thing that matters in this sport.’

“The reality is, I made it to the Hall of Fame and I touched so many people’s lives and I’m the human being I am today because of the journey,” Swanson continued. “And I don’t need a belt to say that I’m validated, because I accomplished what I was trying to accomplish.”

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