UFC pay is a hot topic, but most involved feel it is more than fair

Kevin Iole
Yahoo! Sports

Las Vegas annually plays host to some of the biggest boxing and mixed martial arts fights in a given year.

The two most significant boxing shows that have occurred in the city so far in 2013 are the March 30 HBO card headlined by Brandon Rios and Mike Alvarado at the Mandalay Bay Events Center and the Showtime pay-per-view card on May 4 at the MGM Grand Garden featuring Floyd Mayweather against Robert Guerrero.

The biggest MMA cards in Las Vegas this year have been UFC 160 on May 25 and UFC 162 on July 6, both of which were at the MGM Grand and were distributed on pay-per-view.

The payout sheets from those four fight cards tell a fascinating story.

Four fighters – ex-UFC fighters Jon Fitch, John Cholish and Jacob Volkmann and current UFC fighter Tim Kennedy – have complained publicly about their pay in the last few months.

But, at least as it concerns the lower-level fighters, the payout sheets don't back up their complaints.

Fighters on the Rios-Alvarado show were not given bonuses and were paid exactly what appeared on the Nevada Athletic Commission's payout sheet.

Mayweather and Guerrero each earned a piece of the pay-per-view proceeds, though the other fighters were paid exactly according to the payout sheet.

The UFC fighters were paid what was on the payout sheet. Several of them received the so-called "Fight Night" bonuses, for Fight of the Night, Knockout of the Night and Submission of the night, which are worth $50,000 apiece. A few of them take part in the pay-per-view proceeds, and others are given discretionary bonuses that are not made public.

The UFC, in particular CEO Lorenzo Fertitta and president Dana White, do not like to talk about pay. But it is believed, though neither would confirm, that the main event fighters have one other source of UFC income.

The main event fighters in a major pay-per-view sign a second contract that is not released to the state athletic commissions that pays them for promoting the fight. It is why the payouts are often significantly higher than is what is reported to the athletic commissions.

Keith Kizer, the executive director of the Nevada commission, said fighters are required to be paid what is on their bout agreement. He said there is no violation of commission regulations to have a contract that pays the fighters additional monies for other responsibilities.

"The promoters are required to pay the fighters what is on the bout agreement and it's required to be paid that night," Kizer said. "That's what they're guaranteed and that's what we are here to do, to ensure they're paid that minimum number that is on their contract. A promoter can't come to us and say, 'Oh, this card isn't selling as many tickets as I thought it would, so I have to pay him less.' If you agree to pay a fighter 'X' and you submit a contract to us saying you're going to pay that fighter 'X,' then that's what you'll pay.

"But if you want to pay them more, be my guest. We love to see the fighters make more money."

Mayweather was guaranteed $32 million to fight Guerrero, who earned $3 million. Rios made $1.25 million and Alvarado earned $625,000. By way of comparison with disclosed pay, Silva made $600,000 and Weidman earned $98,000. Cain Velasquez, who successfully defended the heavyweight title at UFC 160, earned $400,000, and Antonio "Big Foot" Silva made $75,000.

The MMA fighters can't approach Mayweather-like money, even with pay-per-view points, Fight Night bonuses, discretionary bonuses and promotional pay.

But the money paid to the lower end fighters – the source of the complaints against the UFC – is very competitive with boxing.

There were seven undercard bouts on the Mayweather-Guerrero show and those fighters earned a total of $1,147,250, an average of $81,946 per man. There were eight undercard fights on the Rios-Alvarado show. Those fighters were paid $301,200, an average of $18,825 per man.

Of the two boxing shows, the highest-paid undercard fighters earned $375,000 a piece, while the lowest earned $1,200.

The 18 fighters in the nine undercard bouts at UFC 162 were paid a disclosed total of $1.167 million, an average of $64,833.33 per man. At UFC 160, the 20 undercard fighters earned $1.258 million in disclosed pay, an average of $62,900 per man. Several of those fighters received the discretionary pay, though that is not included in this total.

Of the two UFC shows, the highest-paid undercard fighters earned $290,000 apiece, while the lowest earned $8,000.

There were 19 boxers on those two shows who earned $5,000 or less, while only Kazuki Tokudome of the 38 UFC undercard fighters earned less than $10,000. Tokudome made $8,000, but lost to Norman Parkes and didn't earn his $8,000 win bonus.

That seems to indicate that, if there is a problem with how much the UFC pays its athletes, it's at the high end, not the low end.

But UFC bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz zealously defended the way Zuffa, the UFC's parent company, pays its fighters and said, "The UFC has been nothing but great to me."

Cruz, who hasn't fought since Oct. 1, 2011, because of injuries, said it is the obligation of the fighters to make something of the opportunity they are given in the UFC.

Cruz said in his first three professional fights, he came out down $300 because of the expenses he had to pick up out of his own pocket. But he said he considered it an investment in his career. He was paid $50 to show on those cards, but had to pay for his own blood work, physical and eye exam required by the commission.

He lost money, but said he realized it was part of the building process of his career.

"I worked at Lowe's Home Improvement as a cashier, and I stayed there for a year," Cruz said. "I made $8 when I started and you know what my money went up to? $9.28 an hour. I was there a year, working non-stop, 40 hours a week, and I was one of the better workers there. I got promoted to customer service associate from cashier and when that year was over, my pay had gone up a dollar and 28 cents an hour.

"For some reason I can't understand, everybody believes that because you're fighting, you should be paid more. Well, you chose to fight. Nobody told you to do it. When I came up in the sport, all the old-school guys, they literally paid money for the right to fight. … We went from that, to where we are now. The UFC built this amazing platform, this amazing brand, and if we choose to take advantage of it, we as fighters benefit. But you get out what you put in."

He said he's worked to make himself not only a better fighter, but a more promotable fighter.

Mayweather makes $32 million per fight – and more – because he not only is an exceptional talent, but he works very hard to make himself popular. He sells massive amounts of tickets and pay-per-views and works to promote himself.

Fighters like Cholish and Volkmann aren't selling tickets and are net losses to the promotion, because the promotion spends money marketing them to see if they might hit it big and become stars and doesn't realize a return.

Cruz said he views the relationship with the UFC as a partnership between athlete and management.

"It's hard to go out there and put a number on something and say, 'This is what it is worth,' " Cruz said. "Any job in the world, anywhere you go, somebody is going to say, 'I should be getting more money.' That's true no matter what you do or where you go. It's just the way it is.

"I look at it and say, 'What am I doing to make this money for the UFC?' because I know if I do, they're going to scratch my back. We're two sides working to build a business together. The fighter has to be as concerned about building the UFC as the UFC is about building a fighter."

The UFC spends millions per year marketing itself and its fighters, Fertitta said. The money spent on marketing makes the fighters far more well known and thus far more valuable when they go into the marketplace to search for sponsors.

The UFC only permits fighters to wear logos of company-approved sponsors, though that is no different than what is done in major team sports. It's the reason for the battle Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III has been waging with the league. Griffin is sponsored by adidas and has been fined for showing its logo because the league is sponsored by Nike.

But because of the money the UFC invested in building its brand – UFC has almost become generic for mixed martial arts, just as Kleenex has for tissues – advertisers are more willing to spend money sponsoring its fighters.

So that leads to hidden money that each fighter makes that is not directly paid by the UFC but wouldn't be possible without the investment the UFC made in building the sport.

"We get grief all the time from media and fans when we cut a guy because we want to bring in a new guy and give him a chance," Fertitta said. "But there are only so many fight cards and so many slots and if a guy isn't doing it, we need to cut him and move on and give someone else a turn.

"But even though everyone cries and tries to paint us as the bad guys when we cut someone, the truth of the matter is, is that they're far more valuable in the marketplace when they are able to say they're an ex-UFC fighter. These other promotions pay them more because of it, no doubt."

But no matter how much a fighter is making, the question of what he should make becomes one of equity. There have been labor stoppages recently in the NFL, the NBA and the NHL that largely concern the amount of the gross revenues the league receives versus that which it pays its players.

The UFC is slightly different from the team sports or boxing in that it bears all the production costs for a show. HBO paid the production costs for the Rios-Alvarado fight, and Showtime picked them up for the Mayweather-Guerrero show.

But show after show, whether it is on network television, cable television or pay-per-view, the UFC must bear those costs.

"We have to pay to get the satellite trucks here and we have to pay for the satellite time and for all of the people who work on a show," Fertitta said. "When a show is over, we have to write a thousand checks [for everyone who worked on the production of a show]."

Fertitta said "when you compare apples to apples and not apples to oranges" the UFC is paying a comparable percentage of its revenue to fighters as the major U.S. team sports do. He declined to release figures, however.

Significantly, though, several fighter managers contacted by Yahoo! Sports said they had no issues with what the UFC paid fighters.

"Dana is no big fan of mine and he hasn't been for years," longtime manager Monte Cox said, chuckling. "But that said, I believe they're really fair with the guys, I really do. Guys who are making eight and eight [$8,000 to fight and $8,000 to win] and who have the opportunity to win a $50,000 bonus, man, believe me when I tell you, that's more than fair and that's a lot better than what they could get anywhere else."

Cox pointed to the case of Pablo Garza, who fought Yves Jabouin at UFC 129 in 2011 at a time when the entry level pay was $4,000 to show and $4,000 to win.

Garza was coming off a 2010 loss at WEC 51 to Tiequan Zhang when he knocked out Fredson Paixao with a flying knee at The Ultimate Fighter 12 finale in 2010.

But Cox and his staff had concerns about putting Garza in with Jabouin for four and four, fearing a loss would mean he'd only earn $4,000 and could get cut.

But Garza took the fight anyway and caught Jabouin in a flying triangle choke. He made $4,000 to show, $4,000 for the win and then was awarded the Submission of the Night bonus. That night, because of the massive crowd at Toronto's Rogers Centre, Fight Night bonuses were $129,000 apiece.

Garza walked out with $137,000 that night.

"And," Cox said, gleefully, "he got a bunch more fights as a result of it" before he was cut after a loss in April 2013 to Diego Brandao.

Ed Soares, who manages Anderson Silva and Lyoto Machida, among many other fighters, expressed similar sentiments.

He told the story of a fighter he would not name who lost on The Ultimate Fighter 17 finale in April. The fighter was not part of the UFC and didn't have his contract picked up. But a week or so after the bout, he received a discretionary bonus check.

"It would have been easy for them to just cut [the fighter] and forget about it," Soares said. "But they didn't. The guy was never an official UFC fighter, but they still sent him that extra check with a nice note thanking him for all he'd done."

Cruz was the most outspoken among those Yahoo! Sports spoke to about the UFC's pay structure. He held a series of jobs and said he'd never been treated by any of his employers like he has been by Zuffa.

There are rumors in the industry that the UFC has been giving Cruz a stipend to keep himself financially afloat since he hasn't fought in nearly two years.

Cruz wouldn't confirm it directly, but he seemed to indicate it is true.

"I'll put it this way: They're taking care of me very well," Cruz said.

He said there is great value in all the marketing the UFC puts into the fighters, and noted that fighters who have competed on the company's Facebook shows, who generally are entry-level fighters, are getting a great opportunity.

The UFC twitter account has more than 1.2 million followers and White's personal account has almost 2.6 million. When they tweet about an unknown fighter's bout, it is creating great opportunity for that fighter to make money, Cruz said.

"They're gifted with an opportunity because the UFC is pushing them," Cruz said. "The truth of this is, I look at things from a real business standpoint. I try to disconnect myself emotionally from the grind, and all of the sweat and the tears I put into my fighting. I try to separate that from the business end of things.

"You have to understand as a fighter that you are getting paid, not just with money from Zuffa, but from the marketability and the platform the UFC provides. Just by being in the UFC you've been stepped up to a whole other tier. When you leave the UFC, you're worth more fighting in the smaller shows than you ever were before you fought in UFC."

White said he isn't bothered by comments from fighters complaining about pay, because he said there are a slew of them who are appreciative of the way management has handled them.

Fertitta said the UFC is re-examining the way it pays the fighters and its bonus structure. One fan suggested on Twitter that the UFC pay fighters not only a win bonus, but also a finish bonus that would give the fighter extra money for a submission or a knockout.

"We're going to think about everything in that regard," Fertitta said.

But White was adamant that UFC was doing more for its fighters than any fight promoter ever in combat sports.

He said he wasn't worried about pre-fight comments from Tim Kennedy, who before he defeated Roger Gracie at UFC 162 said he could make more money as a garbage man.

Kennedy later apologized for those comments, but White said it didn't matter. Kennedy made $60,000 to show and received $30,000 to win, despite the fact his fight was arguably the most lackluster on the card.

"Tim Kennedy has a right to his opinion and he said what he said," White said. "I would have preferred that he'd gone out there, beat the [expletive] out of Gracie, then grabbed the mic [from in-ring interviewer] Joe Rogan, and then called me out: 'Hey Dana, I told you I deserved more money and then I went out and beat the [expletive] out of this guy.'

"Move the needle, man! Make someone care. Make someone give a [expletive] about you and your fight. But when you have fans doing the wave during your fight, I know one thing and that means you aren't moving the needle. Did anyone in that building that night give a [expletive] about Tim Kennedy? Not if they were doing the [expletive] wave during the fight. I wish he would have had a great fight and then stuck it in my face, because that would have made him a star. But it was obvious he wasn't moving the needle an inch."

Cox said he remembers a time not along ago when the biggest stars in the sport were only making a few thousand dollars, if that.

Boxing, he pointed out, has been around far longer and the public was familiar with it. An education process was needed to teach the public about MMA, and Zuffa poured millions into that effort, Cox said.

"Boxers have tended to start earlier, when they're 5 or 6 years old, and by the time they turn pro, there are guys who have 200, 300 amateur fights," Cox said. "Look at a guy like [former U.S. Olympian and professional world champion] Mark Breland. He just had a ton of fights and was involved in it forever. Most of the guys who have come into MMA came in after college and didn't have the kind of long-term investment into the sport that boxers have had.

"A lot of MMA fighters come from college. They get out of college and decide they want to fight and they try MMA. But still, there are guys making a ton of money and the pay is going up for them every year. That's not a bad thing."


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