Are UFC Fighters Underpaid? (UFC Fighter Pay Controversy)

Photo of Dana White by Andrius Petrucenia

Are you wondering if UFC fighters are underpaid?

In this article, we’ll explore whether UFC fighters are underpaid and the various reasons why and how this is the case.

Are UFC Fighters Underpaid?

Yes, UFC fighters are underpaid. UFC fighters are underpaid because their expenses are very high in relation to their earnings, the UFC pay a low revenue percentage to its fighters, they have a chance of brain damage, and fighters are caught in restrictive and controlling contracts.

While there are many reasons why and how UFC fighters are underpaid, here are some of the most glaring:

  1. UFC Fighters Receive a Low Revenue Percentage Payout (19-20%)
  2. High Fighter Expenses
  3. Chance of Brain Damage and Developing CTE
  4. The UFC took over Sponsorship Rights
  5. UFC Fighters Aren’t Unionized
  6. UFC Monopsony & Lack of Alternatives for Fighters
  7. Graveyard of MMA Promotions
  8. Controversial, Restrictive, and Controlling Contracts

1. UFC Fighters Receive a Low Revenue Percentage Payout

Since 2010, the UFC has consistently paid its fighters between 16-20% of its total revenues. This is very low compared to the NFL, NBA, and NHL, whose players receive roughly 50% of total revenues, and one of the UFC’s biggest competitors, Bellator, pays roughly 44%.

In the past 3 years, the UFC has recorded annual revenues of $860 million (2019), $890 million (2020), and $1 billion (2021), and is well on pace to cross $1.2 billion in 2022.

Based on these revenue payout numbers, it’s easy to say UFC fighters are underpaid and that Endeavor can afford to its fighters more.

However, the UFC is only one of many businesses owned by Endeavour Group Holdings. EGH has a debt of roughly $6 billion and they’re barely profitable each year. This profit from the UFC is being used to clear some debt.

Their main 3 business are the UFC, events, and representation, with the UFC being by far their most profitable business.

Overall, despite the UFC having amazing earnings (EBITDA) and profits, the promotion is now part of a corporation that cares more about the bottom line than how much its fighters are paid.

2. High UFC Fighter Expenses

It’s not cheap to be a professional MMA or UFC fighter. Here are the following average expenses a UFC fighter can expect to payout:

International tax

If fighters compete outside of their home country, their take-home pay is taxed a certain percentage they receive their money. This will often be between 10-30%, with John Cholish claiming it’s 27% for events in Brazil.

Fight Camp: 2-3 months ($2,000-$8,000)

Fight Camp can cost a fighter 5-10% of their total fight purse for each fight but it can depend on the negotiations between a fighter and their team.

For fighters earning a $20,000 fight purse, that equates to a maximum of $2,000 for a team of 3 or 4 people for a 2 to 3-month period – which isn’t enough. In this case, they’re likely paid per session or per month.

Former UFC fighter John Cholish has said fight camp costs between $8,000-$12,000, which is more realistic for 2 or 3 months of work for coaches, nutritionists, strength and conditioning trainers, or any other team-mates they have.

Higher-paid fighters are also likely to pay a flat fee rather than a percentage because 10% of a $1 million fight purse is $100,000, which is way too much for a couple of months’ work.

It’s a lot of money for fighters to pay out for, but it’s an essential cost because they have to keep their skill level high in a constantly evolving sport. Their team also helps a fighter with mental health in an otherwise lonely sport.

A great team is essential in taking a fighter from earning a $20,000 purse, to earning a $200,000 purse.

Management Fees ($2,000 – $6,000)

A UFC fighter’s management fees are often between 10-20% of their total purse for each fight, as negotiated between parties. It’s entirely possible managers of the biggest earners are being paid flat fees, but numbers remain undisclosed.

A manager’s job is to look after a fighter’s finances, plan for their future in terms of the best fights to take, and how they’ll make money after fighting.

They also negotiate contracts, budget, schedule, provide media assistance, arrange medicals, do their yearly accounting, and do anything else the fighter needs help with.

It has to be a fair amount of work because 20% of a purse is a big chunk of change, especially for the lower-paid fighters who don’t have a lot of money left after other expenses.

Travel Expenses & Accommodation ($1,000-$4,000)

This is likely to be the most varied cost for a UFC fighter because it depends on the location of an event and how many people they’re traveling with.

The UFC pays for a fighter and 2 team-mate’s flights but only 1 hotel room, while travel expenses and accommodation for the rest of the team are coming out of the fighter’s pocket.

For this reason, many fighters are unwilling to fight in events outside of their home country, which is why you see many local fighters at each event.

For example, at UFC London, a large majority of the event has British fighters because their travel and accommodation expenses are much lower, visas are a non-issue, and the fighters are chomping at the bit to fight at an event in their home country.

Pre-Fight Medicals ($500-$1000)

MMA fighters are required to pay for the compulsory medical tests as required by the State Athletic Commissions.

These are blood tests, CAT scans, physicals, ophthalmologic tests (eye exams), and MRI/MRA. These tests vary depending on location because some require more medicals than others.

External Coaching – ($500-$2,000)

If a UFC fighter is looking to take their game to the next level, they may look to have private coaching with former UFC fighters or some of the best trainers outside of their team.

For the most experienced and elite-level coaching, it may cost between $50-$200 an hour. The amount of coaching and price varies for each fighter, but they may be willing to spend $1,000 extra before a fight if they feel it can help them win and bank an extra $20,000, for example.

Often this one-time external coaching cost of $1,000 will be a lot cheaper than bringing them to the team and offering them a percentage cut.

Miscellaneous ($500-$1,000)

These are expenses UFC fighters need to pay for at random times and may include:

  • Fixing injuries with massages or chiropractic
  • Food and supplements
  • Smaller travel expenses such as fuel and train tickets

Independent Contractor Taxes (15% of the deducted total)

UFC fighters are independent contractors so they pay their taxes at the end of the fiscal year.

The average pay for a UFC fighter is $41,726 per fight when discounting the 11 highest UFC fighters who massively boost the average earnings.

On an average of 3 fights per year, the average UFC salary is $125,180.

In order to calculate their tax owed, UFC fighters deduct their expenses and a $12,000 standard deduction from their salary. The tax brackets for US fighters are as follows:

  • 12% for individual income over $9,875
  • 24% for individual income over $40,125
  • 32% for individual income over $85,525

Obviously, a UFC fighter will deduct as many expenses as they can, and based on the above numbers the average tax for UFC fighters is about 15% of their final earnings once everything has been deducted.

So, if a fighter earned $125,180 and put their yearly expenses down as $54,000 (average), along with a $12,000 standard allowance they’d be taxed roughly 15% of $59,180 which is $8,877. This means they’d be left with roughly $74,877.

Of course, these are rough numbers and there are plenty of fighters earning much less than $41,726 per fight ($10,00 to $20,000) and many others earning 10 times or 20 times that amount per fight; with a few earning millions per fight.

Regardless, the numbers show that a fighter will be left with maybe half of what they’ve earned or just over, which then goes towards the general cost of living, bills, housing, children, and entertainment.

Ultimately, their expenses are high and most of them aren’t much better off than the average worker.

3. Chance of Brain Damage and Developing CTE

The risk of brain damage and developing chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) for MMA fighters is being researched and new information comes to light each year; with it being evident that MMA fighters are at an increased risk.

In a career where the risk of brain damage is so high, you would expect to be getting paid hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars each year; which the majority of UFC fighters aren’t.

UFC fighters are also independent contractors, so the medical bills and costs associated with any future problems they have will be coming out of their own pocket.

So, not only might they have brain problems, but the little money they made in MMA is now being spent on healthcare. There are at least 5 former UFC fighters who’ve been diagnosed with some form of CTE or are showing symptoms.

4. The UFC Became the Sponsorship Conduit

In the early UFC days, fighters could receive money for promoting sponsors on their fight apparel and banners that they had in the octagon before a fight. 

This was great for all UFC fighters, and especially for the mid-lower level fighters who could make as much as their fight purse at every event and at times a lot more.

However, this was affected in 2009 when the UFC introduced a sponsor tax. The UFC wanted $50,000 a year from smaller companies and $100,000 a year from larger companies in order to sponsor UFC athletes.

Many sponsors fell away as a result of the tax, and the sponsors that remained could only offer fighters much less; driven down even further by fighters willingly accepting what they could get.

Ultimately, the UFC’s decision to introduce tax sponsors saw the fighters earn less and the UFC earn more.

This again changed in 2014, when the UFC signed a 6-year apparel deal with Reebok worth $70 million. The deal meant Reebok was now the sole UFC sponsor for fighter apparel, which meant fighters could no longer receive outside sponsors.

In 2021, the UFC signed a new apparel deal with Venum, originally running for 3 years. They then extended this deal in 2022 on a multiyear renewal for an undisclosed fee.

While fighters can no longer have sponsored clothing or banners, as part of the Venum deal they receive ‘Fight Week Incentive Pay’.

Here’s a breakdown of the payments fighters earn for each UFC fight:

  • 1-3 fights = $4,000
  • 4-5 fights = $4,500
  • 6-10 fights = $6,000
  • 11-15 fights = $11,000
  • 16-20 fights = $16,000
  • 21+ fights = $21,000
  • Title challengers = $32,000
  • Champions = $42,000

As can be seen, mid-lower tier and new fighters earn less because they’re likely to have had fewer fights in the UFC.

Overall, while fighters do receive money from these sponsorship deals, they earn considerably less than they would be able to if they could still have outside sponsors like before.

5. UFC fighters Aren’t Unionized

UFC fighters are underpaid because they aren’t unionized. Unfortunately, UFC fighters can’t unionize because they aren’t employees, they’re independent contractors, and under federal law, independent contractors can’t unionize.

They have the option to form an association that would give them better protection, rights, and representation; but not the benefits of negotiation and striking like a union offers.

However, forming an association would be a hard task. The UFC roster is constantly changing and with independent contractors, the UFC can set the terms and conditions they want and forbid any form of unionizing. Any fighter who tries to go against the UFC can easily be cut.

Also, MMA is an individual and divisive sport, and with the lure of becoming the next big fighter and making millions, fighters are unlikely to speak out against the UFC.

This is especially true for undisputed champions and top 10 fighters who are earning higher payments after years of earning less and struggling to get where they are.

The UFC also give discretionary bonuses to fighters they feel are deserving, which won’t be paid to fighters speaking out. As for the lower-paid fighters, if they don’t fight they don’t get paid.

With how little profit the lower-tier fighters earn after every fight, they’re stuck in a loop where they have no other option but to accept another low-paid fight, rather than try to form against the UFC and essentially seal their release.

6. UFC Monopsony & Lack of Alternatives

The UFC has purchased its biggest competitors for many years. In 2006, they purchased the World Fighting Alliance (WFA) and World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC), and in 2007 they purchased Pride Fighting Championships.

The UFC then took many fighters from the struggling promotion IFL in 2008, and in 2011 they purchased Strikeforce. All 4 promotions purchased by the UFC were defunct not long after the sale.

This allows the UFC to underpay its fighters because they basically created their own league in MMA.

Other promotions are so far behind them and aren’t able to seriously offer the majority of fighters competitive wages. They bought out the competition, took their best fighters, and absorbed their digital content.

Some of the biggest stars can earn as good or more by crossing over to Bellator or One Championship, but this is a very minute percentage and not the majority of UFC fighters who remain underpaid and wouldn’t receive any higher elsewhere.

Because of the UFC’s monopsony and domination of the market, UFC fighters essentially tolerate a bad deal because it’s better than the alternative. Fighting is the only income source for most fighters, and they don’t have other career options due to a lack of education.

There’s also the chance to see their earnings triple or 10x in a short period of time by entering the top 5 of a weight class division and becoming a big name. This is why the UFC can get away with underpaying fighters because fighters hold on to the idea of making it big.

7. Graveyard of MMA Promotions

One of the reasons the UFC was easily able to purchase rival promotions is because they were struggling financially.

The majority of MMA promotions that have tried to make a successful business have failed, which is another reason the UFC underpays its fighters or pays them what they see as fair.

Dana White often has an answer concerning fighter pay, once saying, “Listen, if you don’t like it, go start your own MMA league and pay ‘em whatever you want to pay ‘em. This is mine and this is the way we’re doing it.”

He’s also brought up how promotions overpaid fighters and have gone bankrupt. MMA promotions have to front all costs and the UFC nearly went bankrupt several times throughout its history for this very reason.

Overall, the UFC underpay the majority of its fighters because they’re running a business, and it’s a business that has seen many fail due to not being tight with expenses.

8. Controversial, Restrictive, and Controlling Contracts

Not only does their status as independent contractors mean fighters can’t unionize or earn money unless they fight, but UFC contracts also have clauses and terms and conditions that are restrictive and controlling in nature, keeping a fighter locked in and tied to the pay they have under contract.

They have the champion clause, which usually extends a champion’s contract an extra year or 3 fights as long as they remain the champion. This keeps a UFC champion tied to the UFC and unable to test the free market.

Another clause allows the UFC to extend a fighter’s contract if they take time off or are out injured and can’t fight.

They have non-compete clauses that prevent a fighter from signing with another promotion for a certain time after they’ve fought the last fight on their contract. 

This gives the UFC time to try and renegotiate a new contract with the fighter and goes hand in hand with their ‘right to match’ clause. This clause allows the UFC to know about a fighter’s offers and gives them the ability to match these offers if they so desire.

The contracts can also lock a fighter into a minimum number of fights at a certain pay, or a minimum number of months before a fighter can leave the promotion. However, the UFC also has the option to release a fighter whenever they please.

The majority of fighters are contracted to earn through base pay and win pay, where a flat fee is reserved for the bigger stars who have more negotiating power.

Base pay and win pay essentially mean a fighter earns double for a win and half of this for a loss.

For example, if they show up and fight they earn $12,000, and if they win they earn another $12,000. Essentially, half the fighters at a UFC event are earning half of what they could’ve earned and are therefore underpaid.

Lastly, as UFC fighters are independent contractors, they have no pension with the UFC which is yet another reason the UFC is not paying fighters enough.

These are just a few examples of the restrictive and controlling contracts fighters have to deal with.

The Bottom Line

So, ‘are UFC fighters underpaid?’

Yes, UFC fighters are underpaid for several reasons, including control, corporate interests, lack of unionization, the UFC’s monopsony, potential brain damage, how high fighter expenses are, and mostly because the UFC doesn’t need to pay more.

Until the UFC is forced to pay their fighters more through government and law, or through more competitive MMA promotions, the question will always remain around whether UFC fighters are underpaid; with the answer being the UFC isn’t paying their fighters enough.

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