Fighter pay and free agency: Where does UFC go from here?

Donald Cerrone scored his 11th victory in his past 12 fights when he finished tough veteran Patrick Cote in a welterweight bout at UFC Fight Night 89 last Saturday night.

Afterward, he had his mind on his money and his money on his mind.

The wildly popular “Cowboy” earned a Zuffa-record 17th post-fight bonus (combining his UFC and WEC days) for the third-round TKO, but Cerrone didn’t seem too happy with his payday afterward.

After his last fight, Donald Cerrone said 'According to my pay, I don't mean [expletive] to the UFC'. (AP)
After his last fight, Donald Cerrone said 'According to my pay, I don't mean [expletive] to the UFC'. (AP)

Bonuses "all sound nice,” Cerrone said at the post-fight news conference. “According to my pay I don’t mean [expletive] to the UFC. But we’ll see, going to talk to [UFC president] Dana [White] after this and figure that out.”

Joanne Calderwood was another UFC Fight Night 89 winner who was thinking about her pay when the evening was through. Calderwood ran her record to 11-1 with an exciting third-round finish over Valerie Letourneau in a flyweight matchup, but she was skipped over for a post-fight bonus.

Calderwood, a native of Scotland who trained at Montreal’s elite TriStar camp for the bout, noted in an Instagram post that without a bonus, she’d have to go home and find another job simply to afford her next camp.

"Gutted I didn't get the bonus tonight but I'm not afraid to go home work and save so I can get back to @tristargym asap and hopefully be back in the octagon soon #wheretheresawilltheresaway #brokeashell #11-1," the post read.

With each passing UFC event, it’s becoming more and more clear that fighters aren't afraid to speak out when they're unhappy with their pay. A number of things have contributed to it: the emergence of the new-era, Viacom-backed Bellator as a legitimate free-agent option in the sport; sponsorship money lost in the conversion to Reebok as the UFC’s official apparel supplier; and the figures being tossed around in reports of a potential sale of the company, which have topped $4 billion.

Add in all those factors and an environment emerges in which the UFC finds itself discussing money matters as much as the fights themselves.

White, for his part, used the debut of the UFC’s “Unfiltered” podcast to address both Cerrone and Calderwood.

“The thing is with Cerrone is, Cerrone is so inconsistent,” White said. “Cerrone will come out and look like a world beater, then come out and get stopped in the first round by a body shot.”

The “inconsistent” tag stuck to Cerrone at one point earlier in his career, but that's far from the case in recent years. Not only is he 11-1 in a 2½-year span, but he’s also proven versatile, fighting at both 155 and 170 pounds, and willing to fight on short notice at the UFC’s behest. The only loss in that span was to current lightweight champ Rafael dos Anjos, who himself has won 10 of his past 11 – so hardly a loss to hang your head over.

“The kid made over $200,000 on a fight on free TV in the co-main event [Ontario’s athletic commission does not release fighter pay info], and the gate was $900,000,” White said. “I mean, how much money does Cerrone expect to make on a co-main event? The kid looks great. Never held a world title and made over 200 grand, co-main event, $900,000 gate on free TV.”

As for Calderwood, White all but admitted the UFC made a mistake in not giving Calderwood a bonus for her performance, and will not only give her one now, they will also award Calderwood, who had been out of action nearly a year due to personal issues, with a new contract.

Former UFC fighter Matt Mitrione has his first Bellator fight on Friday against Carl Seumanutafa. (Getty)
Former UFC fighter Matt Mitrione has his first Bellator fight on Friday against Carl Seumanutafa. (Getty)

“There were so many good fights that night,” White said. “People were going crazy, ‘How did she not get [a bonus],' and it's true. Me and Lorenzo were saying, how the hell did that skip us, she should have got a bonus. In that 115-pound division, you don't see finishes the way she finished Valerie. And, Valerie went five rounds with [UFC strawweight champion] Joanna Jędrzejczyk. Joanna didn't do that to her. We're going to take care of her, and we're going to sign her to a new deal.”

White may have put out this round of brush fires, but the topic isn't going away any time soon. Matt Mitrione, the latest UFC fighter to jump over to Bellator, makes his debut with his new company Friday as the heavyweight meets Carl Seumanutafa at Bellator 157 in St. Louis.

Mitrione was the latest in a string of fighters to jump, which has included former UFC and WEC lightweight champion Ben Henderson and light heavyweight standout Phil Davis. And Mitrione isn't afraid to fan the flames and egg on his fellow fighters.

“I think if more people didn’t go the route I did,” Mitrione said at a recent media event, “even if they stay in the UFC [after testing the market], I think they’re foolish. I think that you’re robbing yourself of your future of money and earnings.”

As far as White is concerned, though, while there may be some push and pull, not every fighter is going to get what they want in the end.

“Everyone once in a while, this day and age, every fighter on earth, especially when you look at the money that Conor [McGregor] and Ronda [Rousey] and some of these people are making out there, it gets crazy. Everybody wants to make a million dollars. Everybody wants to make a million dollars, but some people get there and some people don’t.”

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