Nate Quarry, MMA fighters taking wrong approach to better pay, benefits from UFC

Nate Quarry, MMA fighters taking wrong approach to better pay, benefits from UFC

Nate Quarry shocked many in and around mixed martial arts last week when he posted on "The Underground" – a popular forum and gathering place for fans, media, fighters and promoters – that he made just $10,000 to challenge Rich Franklin on Nov. 19, 2005 for the middleweight title at UFC 56.

That fight came just seven months after the epic finale of Season 1 of "The Ultimate Fighter," when Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar put on a match so spectacular that it in all likelihood saved the sport from extinction.

Quarry was also a member of that "TUF 1" cast and a popular fighter at the time of his match in Las Vegas with Franklin. Seeing that $10,000 figure evoked anger among many of the sport's fans and observers.

I was among them. It seemed shockingly, even outrageously, out of place. In fact, according to the U.S. Social Security website, the average wage in the country in 2005 was $36,952.94.

There is no comparing Major League Baseball and the UFC in revenue, then or now, but the average MLB salary in 2005 was $2,632,655.

After reading Quarry's post, I was shocked. And so I called him to make sure that I'd read correctly what he wrote.

I had.

"It was $10,000 and not a cent more," he said by telephone. "Nothing. No locker room bonus, no extra anything. $10,000. That was it."

There are, though, two sides to every story, and so even though the figures are correct, some of Quarry's other information was wrong. He was discussing the low salaries at the show, and pointed out that the paid gate was $3.5 million.

According to Nevada Athletic Commission records, however, the gate was actually $1.9 million. It was still a terrific figure, but it was more than 40 percent lower than what Quarry said.

Still, one would think that out of $1.9 million, as well as the pay-per-view revenue, there would be money in the bank to pay Quarry more than $10,000 for a title fight even given the expenses.

As for the other side of the story, UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta was clearly weary of discussing complaints about the company's business practices.

The UFC has taken shots in the media over the past few weeks because of its stance on drug testing, the possibility of a standardized fighter uniform and its introduction of Fight Pass, a streaming service in which fans pay $9.99 a month for access to live fights and unlimited library content.

"This sport is in its infancy, and I'll admit that there is so much more to be done, but the media is focusing so much on the negative and there are far more positives out there in terms of what we have done for the sport and the fighters," Fertitta said. "You come to work every day and you kind of feel beaten down because it's something new [to complain about] every day."

Discussing employee salary, benefits and the like on Internet forums and with reporters is rarely a productive way for either labor or management to improve things. The public, of course, is almost always going to side with labor against management because they can more easily identify with people who go to work every day than they can with those who sign the checks. There is no UFC, those people would say, without the fighters. But it's also safe to say that there is no UFC – or Bellator or World Series of Fighting or One FC or any of the other numerous MMA promotions that exist – were it not for Fertitta, his older brother, Frank III and Dana White.

When Quarry made $10,000 to fight Franklin, the UFC was $44 million in the hole and, just a few months earlier, Fertitta told White to look into selling the company.

Fertitta could easily have quit at any time in 2003 or 2004 or even 2005, concluding the experiment hadn't worked and that it was a costly lesson.

Instead, he persevered. And so he was a bit irked to read of Quarry's comments.

"I'm not going to argue or counter every specific claim made by Nate Quarry on some website," Fertitta said. "I'm super proud of what we have done for our athletes, this sport and this company. Our track record is darn good as a whole and we have nothing to be embarrassed about.

"This fight Nate is talking about was so long ago and clearly the business wasn't where it is today. It was in its infancy and we were coming out of a period where we suffered millions upon millions in losses. It wasn't an insignificant amount of money. And I'll tell you this, Nate is a smart guy. Absolutely he is. He knew when he signed his contract exactly what he'd be paid."

Quarry made a number of great points, at least some of which the UFC should address. In his post, he talked about how difficult it is now for fighters to get and keep sponsors, which is a sticking point for many fighters and their managers with the advent not only of Fight Pass but with the potential of the standardized uniform.

He said in his conversation with Yahoo Sports that he was pressured to make appearances on behalf of the UFC for no pay, when he could have gotten a sponsor to pay him money for appearing at the same event.

That isn't right and there is no way a fighter should be pressured into making personal appearances for free. The UFC is a profitable company now, and the UFC should allow its fighters to maximize their income by taking advantage of their notoriety. The risks of fighting are great and the careers are very short.

If a fighter retires at 40, and most do so earlier, he/she still needs to make a living for at least 25-30 more years until retirement age, and has to be able to have enough to live on in the retirement years.

But Quarry said that as the years went on, the UFC made it more difficult for fighters to get new sponsors or keep their old ones. The standardized uniform that is being discussed will make it even more difficult for the athletes to earn endorsements or sponsorships, he said.

On top of that, he pointed out the injury issue. In his final UFC fight, against Jorge Rivera on March 31, 2010, he was paid $40,000 and was given, if he remembers correctly, a $2,500 bonus.

"Giving out those [discretionary] bonuses are a nice way of thanking the fighters for what they've done, but in my last fight, my face got shattered," he said. "I have 13 screws and a titanium mesh in my face. That's the other side of it."

Quarry talked about labor negotiations in the NFL, NBA and NHL that have gone on in recent years where the players were guaranteed 50 percent or more of the league's gross revenues. He said he estimated by the disclosed payroll at UFC 56 that the fighters were paid 1-2 percent of gross revenues.

Fertitta hotly disputed that.

"That's not even close but I'm not going to go into specifics about it," Fertitta said. "I'm interested in how Nate Quarry knows so much about our business that he can say that. As I said earlier, though, fighter compensation has increased multiples upon multiples since we've gotten into the business and built it up to where it is today.

"We're very proud of what our athletes make. Granted, back in 2004, 2005, it was a different world. We weren't getting the revenues back then that we are today. We feel the fighters are getting their fair share, if not more."

Fertitta would not provide the percentage of fighter payroll in relation to revenue, nor would he give percentage of fighter pay increase per year.

"[Fighter payroll] has gone up significantly, and though I don't have it at the tip of my fingers, I can tell you it's gone up faster than the percentage of revenue growth." he said. "Fighter comp is growing at a faster rate than revenues."

Fertitta insisted the UFC is the leader in the industry in fighter pay and benefits. Bellator, which is owned by the well-heeled Viacom, may be upping the ante, as its offer sheet to top lightweight Gilbert Melendez may prove. Financial details of that offer have not been made public.

Proving how much a fighter is worth is not an easy topic even with a lot of data available. But it's near impossible without that data, and since the UFC is a private company, it has the option of keeping its financials private, which it has chosen to do.

So was that $10,000 pay for a title fight appropriate? Well, it doesn't seem so on the surface, but in the context of where the company was financially in 2005 – $44 million in the hole – it might well be.

There is no excuse, though, for making a fighter appear at a UFC-sponsored event for free, particularly when that athlete has the ability to be paid for his appearance by an advertiser.

This is an issue the UFC must deal with and quickly.

Fears are justified in terms of the uniform issue. If it costs the athletes sponsors, then either the UFC needs to give them a cut of what it is getting from the uniform manufacturer or simply increase the base pay to make up for it.

Still, there is no deal announced yet and it's premature to speculate how it will work.

While Quarry made a number of great points in his post on The Underground and in his chat with Yahoo Sports, he also pointed out that the UFC has done well by him in other areas.

The UFC paid for back surgery he needed after his fighting days were over, when it wasn't legally required or obligated to do so. That came at a cost of well over $100,000.

Are the fighters underpaid or are they being taken advantage of? No one can say with certainty because we don't really know what they earn or how much the UFC makes. But this is an issue that is probably not going away any time soon.

Fighters need quality managers who will stick up for their rights and fight for them, if necessary.

And if they're asked to do something that will make the company money, they should profit, as well, and not be pressured into working for free.

Both sides have their points, but at the end of the day, this is an issue for the bargaining table, not an Internet forum.