Capitalism on a canvas? Fighter’s pay and other questions

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“The best fight of … ever,” UFC President Dana White told a word-fumbling Joe Rogan after Robbie Lawler finally slayed Rory MacDonald in the final round of their welterweight brawl in July 2015. Blood soaked the letters ‘UFC’ in the middle of the octagon as MacDonald lay flat on his back. His face was almost unrecognisable. Both of his eyes were swollen shut and his nose was broken.

The ‘Fight of the Night’ that Lawler and MacDonald had just played out wasn’t the main event. Conor McGregor, unrivalled in his superstardom and appeal, faced Chad Mendes in a fight that would eventually see him winning his first (albeit interim) UFC belt. McGregor’s pulling power, combined with the lesser draw of stars like Mendes, Lawler and MacDonald, saw the UFC break records for Pay-Per-View sales – in excess of 1 million; and record the second highest ticket sales in company history – to the tune of $7.2 million. MacDonald was paid $89,000 for his day’s work. He collapsed later that evening and spent much of the night in hospital. McGregor, who received $5 million, dressed in a three-piece Louis Copeland suit, celebrated deep into the Las Vegas morning.

Macdonald
Rory MacDonald after UFC 189    Photocred: Rory MacDonald Twitter

The following week, White and UFC brass would award MacDonald and Lawler $50,000 each in the form of their ‘Fight of the Night’ bonus. “The best fight ever” was rewarded with a measly $100,000 of the reportedly $60 million that the company made from the event.  The hype surrounding MacDonald would be enough to secure him another high profile fight against Stephen ‘Wonderboy’ Thompson. The injuries he suffered against Lawler meant that it would be almost a year until he stepped into the ring to face him. On June 18th, 2015, he looked on as UFC referee Herb Dean raised his adversary’s hand in victory.

Another close loss; this time by decision, and with contract negotiations looming over the coming months, this was just another card that the UFC could use against him.

“There are multiple reasons why I choose to fight for Bellator MMA and Scott Coker,” MacDonald said in a statement on his website. “One, they have given me the opportunity to develop and grow a business together. Two, because I already feel respected by the promotion as a professional athlete. And last but not least, because Bellator is offering a setup that no-one in the world can offer me.”

MacDonald was the second UFC star to bolt to the company’s competitor, Bellator, in 2016, joining fellow welterweight Benson Henderson. In an interview with Sports Illustrated, Henderson echoed MacDonald, praising Bellator for the respect which they afford the fighters. “It really has been great. I’ve been to a couple of different events for them, a couple of different fights, they flew me out, took care of me. It’s been a really positive experience, actually. Definitely I would say there is no buyer’s remorse at all. For sure.”

Countless UFC fighters have blasted the company for the way in which they treat fighters. Samoan star Mark Hunt was only last week pulled from the main event of UFC Fight Night 121 in Sydney for what medical staff deemed as a potential brain injury. He responded by shaming White on an Instagram post, calling him a “bald headed pr***”. This is a regular occurrence for the company, with fighters regularly complaining that the UFC holds its own business interests well above those of the fighters.  

Many fighters, including Hunt, Henderson and new Lightweight interim champion Benson Henderson have been vocal about how the UFC seems to only care about their stars. Every UFC card has examples of this. A look at the UFC 200 paydays of former bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw and newcomer Sage Northcutt are as telling as any. Dillashaw was paid $25,000 to show and another $25,000 for winning. Northcutt, a rising star in the promotion, was paid $50,000 to show and another $50,000 to win. The 20-year-old fighter who hadn’t been in the UFC for a full calendar year, essentially doubled the pay of a man who entered 2016 as the bantamweight champion with two successful title defenses. Ferguson recently blasted the UFC for allowing McGregor to hold his lightweight belt for almost a year (he hasn’t fought since November 25th, 2016) without defending it – “where you at McNuggets..” he roared into the microphone after outlasting Kevin Lee at UFC 216 last weekend “Defend or vacate motherfu***r”.

While it’s true that the UFC runs through its stars, the grass may not always be greener for those considering a move to Bellator. MacDonald is the only Bellator fighter that has earned substantially more from a move to the company. MacDonald took home a reported $400,000 when he embarrassed veteran fighter Paul Daley at Bellator 179 last May. Henderson’s paydays of $50,000 and $75,000 respectively are less than the $117,000 he earned in his last UFC outing. The UFC payout includes Henderson’s mandatory Reebok sponsorship pay. As of June 2015, UFC fighters can only wear Reebok licensed merchandise when promoting or fighting for the organisation. This bolstered company earnings but vetoed the many lucrative sponsorship deals that fighters had. Bellator has no such agreement with its sponsors, allowing individual fighters to sign lucrative deals with companies.

Although conditions and favouritism are so often complained about by UFC fighters, their pay actually far surpasses those in Bellator. There have been eight UFC main cards (UFC 208-UFC 216) so far this year. Those in the main event – the final fight of the night, usually for a belt– are well rewarded, with an average payout of $473,750 for the belt-holder and $321,250 for the challenger. All fight-slots on the main card averaged a payout of over $60,000 with some outliers bolstering the figures. For example, in the first fight on the main card at UFC 213, relatively unknown bantamweight fighter Rob Font got $38,000 for his defeat of Douglas Silva, who received a modest $18,000. This payout is laughable in comparison to that of the first fight in the main card at UFC 209, where both Allistair Overeem and Mark Hunt got $750,000 for their three-round slug-fest.

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2017 fighter’s pay graphic

Although Bellator do not release their payout numbers, some are known. According to bloodyelbow.com, Henderson’s last showing at Bellator 165 last November earned him and his opponent Michael Chandler $50,000 each, with no other fighter earning more than $40,000 and strawweight competitor Sheilla Padilla earning just $2,500 in a losing effort in the second fight of the main card. At Bellator 170 in January 2017, new star attraction Tito Ortiz got $300,000 with a victory over fellow UFC alumni Chael Sonnen ($50,000) while welterweight Derek Anderson earned just $7,800 in his defeat on the first fight on the main card.

The argument that can be made here is that the payouts made by UFC brass are comparably low to Bellator when the total earnings of the companies are considered. Viacom paid just under $50 million for control of Bellator in 2011. In August 2016, the UFC was sold for $4.2 billion. Bellator are likely paying fighters a bigger slice of their comparably smaller pie, but as Padilla and Anderson can attest, the ‘big money’, as is the case with the UFC, is in the hands of the stars.

And so the case, to look at it through the numbers, seems to be that both organisations operate under a similar hierarchy. Stars draw crowds, stars get paid, lesser-known fighters make up the numbers. MacDonald was expendable to the UFC. He was closer to a Derek Anderson than a Tito Ortiz in their eyes. And so he was paid like one. For Bellator, MacDonald was their star, and so he is paid like one. The respect that Henderson speaks of is given because he’s now a big fish in a small pond. The complaints that UFC fighters give about pay isn’t a problem exclusive to the UFC but a problem in the sport of MMA.

These companies are run as companies. To play them at their own game, to get a slice of the profit, is to become a star, or find an organisation in which you can become a star. The octagon may be soaked with your blood, but the company’s logo in the middle doesn’t matter, and they don’t really care anyway – they are all the same. It’s what you can do for them that counts.

By Andrew Barnes

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