• UFC Fighter Pay – Are UFC Fighters Underpaid

    Published Wednesday 31 May 2023 2:58pm

    13 min read

    The UFC has recently come under fire for its fighter wages. Find out more on how fighters are paid as we try to answer - are UFC fighters underpaid?

By WherestheMatch Team

The UFC is the leading global mixed martial arts competition attracting anywhere between several hundred-thousand, to several million viewers per event. While this doesn’t quite put it on the same level as other internationally-promoted franchises such as the English Premier League, the NHL, or the NBA, it’s estimated that the UFC made $1.3 billion in revenue across its brand in 2022 alone. Money doesn’t seem to be a problem for the company, so why are they constantly under fire for underpaying their fighters? Well, it’s not quite so simple to say that UFC fighters are underpaid since there are so many factors that impact a fighters’ income and comparing athletes across sports doesn’t always give an accurate indication of what a fair wage is.

A couple of months ago, heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou vacated his belt after coming to blows with the UFC over wages and contract terms. He made the accusation that the organisation was stalling his career so that he wouldn’t be able to run down the remainder of his 8-fight contract. A real shame since a match against the returning Jon Jones would have been a fight for the ages. If one of the UFC’s blockbuster talents felt he was underpaid, we can only imagine how this is reflected in the lower parts of the pyramid.

How is UFC Fighter Pay Structured?

Overall, we know very little about how much UFC fighters earn. Dana White’s organisation isn’t exactly operating with transparency as a key focus and the legislation passed by the Nevada Athletic Commission in July 2020 (the making of combat sport purses confidential) ensures that the UFC no longer need to tell anyone anything. An incredibly beneficial bill for organisers and promoters, but a big backward step for the fighters themselves.

UFC fighter pay is usually segmented into:

  • Fight Contracts – an athlete will sign a contract for a set number of fights with this being a fixed income for every time they enter the octagon. It’s worth noting that some fight contracts, primarily those for lower ranked athletes, also have a win bonus which gives the opportunity for additional income based on a successful bout. UFC fighters are considered independent contractors so this contract can be renegotiated at any time and it’s fairly common for fighters to be offered bumper contracts as their rank increases.
  • Brand Sponsorship – after their exclusive brand deal with Rebook expired in 2021, the UFC went on to sign a deal with sportswear manufacturer Venum. By wearing the branded clothing and gear, fighters get paid a small fee depending on how many matches they have under their belt. The pay-out from Venum looks something like this:
    • 1-4 fights - $4,000
    • 5-10 fights - $5,000
    • 11-15 fights - $10,000
    • 16-20 fights - $15,000
    • 21-35 fights - $20,000
    • Title challenger - $32,000
    • Champion - $42,000
  • As long as they don’t directly clash with the UFC’s own sponsorships (primarily it’s clothing exclusivity deal with Venum), fighters are also authorised external sponsorships. Unfortunately, these come with a $50,000 - $100,000 sponsor tax which is paid directly to the UFC. This has led to many smaller and medium-sized businesses offering greatly reduced sponsorship payments, or pulling funding entirely meaning that it’s usually only the mainstream fighters that have their own sponsors.
  • Performance Bonuses – The UFC has always prioritised entertainment value above all else and in order to try and create the most exciting match-ups possible, they implemented a set of performance bonuses for events. By earning an accolade for ‘Fight of the Night’ and ‘Performance of the Night’, fighters can net themselves extra tens of thousands of dollars. While this is great motivation to go out and put on an exciting show, the distribution of these bonuses is almost entirely at Dana White’s discretion.

In instances where a fighter fails to make weight, a portion of their purse is often given to the opponent. While this isn’t a big deal for the Jorge Masvidals of the world, lower earning fighters can suffer greatly due to this.

Pay Per View Points

It wouldn’t be right to discuss UFC fighter pay without mentioning the Pay Per View system. Pay per view is a type of service where individuals purchase live events through the internet or a television broadcaster; this is mostly used in boxing or other combat sports. PPV is heavily linked with the popularity and hype of a fighter and by accumulating a large amount of what is referred to as Pay Per View Points, a fighter gains considerable favour in contract and pay negotiations.

While in most cases Pay Per View sales don’t directly impact a fighter’s earnings, some of the sports’ elite do receive compensation based on ticket sales. These go up in increments and have been estimated to be $1 for every PPV ticket sold between 200,000 and 400,000, $2 for ticket sales between 400,000 and 600,000, and $2.50 for anything over this amount. The biggest PPV event in history was Khabib vs McGregor in UFC 229 with 2,400,000 ticket sales; this led to the fighters earning $2 and $3 million respectively. If you’re wondering why the maths doesn’t quite add up, this is due to the fact that – like most other elements of fighter pay – this is also something that is regulated by a certain Mr Dana White. There have been several instances in the past where fighters have been denied PPV bonuses even though they should have been eligible, as well as matches where PPV bonuses shouldn’t have been applicable but ended up being paid out anyway. 

Total Revenue Pay-Out and Financial Instability

A major factor behind the ‘UFC fighters are underpaid’ argument relates to the organisation’s revenue percentage that goes to fighter pay. In other sports franchises such as the NHL and NBA, players are paid roughly 50% of total organisation revenues which is considerably higher than the UFC’s 16-20%. Even Bellator – the UFC’s main competitor – offers roughly 44%.

One of the main reasons why the UFC pays its fighters such a minimal percentage of their revenue is due to the huge debts that parent company Endeavour Group Holdings has incurred. The UFC is by far the most profitable of their businesses and if they were an independent entity, you would imagine that they would be able to offer much better pay across the board. Unfortunately, this is not the case and the UFC’s profits are currently being used to offset against the debts of their partner companies which considerably limits their own financial freedom. Factoring in that the UFC themselves were on the verge of bankruptcy when Dana White took over as well as the fact that a great many of their competitors have fallen by the wayside due to financial mismanagement, cutting costs where possible has always been a priority within the organisation.

Fighter Expenses

Being a professional athlete in any sport tends to be pretty expensive, but the additional costs associated with being a UFC fighter make it a very costly sport to compete in. Some of the most common outgoing costs of being a fighter include:

  • International and Independent Contractor Taxes – As mentioned earlier, fighters are classed as independent contractors which brings about its own taxation requirements. For a fighter earning the average UFC salary ($125,180 a year), they would be expected to pay roughly 15% of this income in tax. Additionally, for those fighting outside of their home country, international tax would apply and this may remove another 10% - 30% from their purse depending on the country within which the event is taking place.
  • Management Fees – A manager takes care of a fighter’s finances, arranges future events, and even provides media assistance where required; this makes them a key part of the fighter’s team and a must-have for any aspiring champion. The wage of a manager depends heavily on the agreed upon amount, but is thought to be between 10%-20% of a fighter’s event purse on average. Naturally, top earning athletes will frequently pay a flat fee rather than a percentage.
  • Medicals – Before they are able to join an event card, a fighter has to undergo a series of medical tests to prove they are healthy and not using any regulated substances. This includes physical tests, MRIs/MRAs, eye tests, CAT scans, blood tests, and more. The price of these tests usually lands between $500 and $1,000.
  • Fight Camp – In order to prepare for an event, a fighter will spend several months hidden away in a gym working with trainers and nutritionists. Different people from within the sport have reported spending massively varying amounts on fight camps but a realistic figure offered by ex-fighter John Cholish puts the price at around $8,000 for three months. This can spike greatly for champions or highly-ranked competitors who may be working with expensive gear or industry specialists.
  • Travel Expenses – While the UFC does pay for the flights and accommodation of the fighter and two of their teammates, most teams need more space and costs can rack up quite quickly for longer stays or if the family wants to come along. Long haul travelling isn’t especially worthwhile for fighters so it’s quite common to see event cards stacked with local rather than international talent.

Comparing the costs of being a UFC fighter to other sports such as football where the club provides all the required accommodation, transport, training, and medicals, you can start to see why so many fighters complain about being underpaid.

Are UFC Fighters Underpaid?

It isn’t so easy to state whether UFC fighters are underpaid or not. There are massive differences between fighters at different levels and many of the top earners within the sport skewer the data by being so ridiculously highly paid. What we do know, however, is that the UFC as an organisation is cutting costs where possible and that fighter wages were the first to go in their attempts to supercharge their revenue.

If you’re a top fighter – someone who has a strong following, is backed by a sponsor who is big enough to disregard the taxation, and have managed to negotiate yourself a solid contract with the UFC, you’re likely going to be pretty happy with how much you’re earning. At the other end of the spectrum, you have the lower-level fighters who are pretty much earning average wages with the added risk of ongoing brain damage and injury. It’s these people that suffer most due to the low wages. With the UFC being by far the most popular MMA promotion and having undoubtedly the strongest roster in the sport, there is simply no need for them to pay any more than they already do. We don’t expect this will change anytime soon, unless a new well-funded competitor is able to enter the market and prise away the UFC’s monopoly on mixed martial arts.