School was always very easy for me. I was one of those jerks who always got good grades even though they never really tried very hard. Much like the football field was like a second home for elite athletes throughout history, I felt very comfortable in a desk. Don’t get me wrong, I had other hobbies as well. I was in a few bands during my teenage years, but nothing that ever amounted to much. It was fun at the time and I’ve always loved playing music, but I knew very early I was never going to be a professional rock-and-roller. Instead, I went to college (where I actually had to try a little) and now have a steady job that I like a lot. It’s not what I dreamed I’d be doing when I was younger, but the long-term security my job provides more than makes up for that.

Yeah. I sold out.

Not all of my friends chose the same path as I, however. One of my best pals from high school, realizing that there was really only one place to go if he really wanted to try to make a living as a professional musician, packed up his gear and moved to Los Angeles. For a while, he was making very little money, living in a two-bedroom apartment in Echo Park where he shared one of the bedrooms with another guy. That being said, he had the freedom to tour America several times over with his band, never having to sit in an office from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, selling his time in exchange for a steady check. He was literally making his dream come true.

Here’s my point: Most people can either make money or try do their “dream” job, but not both. This is particularly true if one’s dream job is in the area of entertainment or professional athletics. There are a select few who break through those industries’ formidable ceilings and manage to get rich while achieving their professional dream, but the vast, vast majority realize after a few years that it’s not probably going to happen and move on.

This brings us to the latest turmoil surrounding the UFC and its paychecks to fighters. MMA is a little different than other sports in that there’s no collegiate system that automatically feeds into the UFC. In that way, the sport is much more like the entertainment industry, where a bunch of people who just decided one day they want to be fighters (or actors, or singers) work their asses off and do whatever they can do get to the UFC (or get a decent role in a movie, or sign a record deal with a big label). Just like the entertainment industry, a staggering majority of fighters basically scrape by, sacrificing the security of a consistent paycheck for the opportunity to capitalize on their dream. They see how Georges St-Pierre and Jon Jones rose from obscurity and fought their way to big paydays, so they know it’s possible, and they want it, but until they can get there, many will still fight for a few thousand dollars (at most) in lesser promotions.

Once fighters get to the UFC—without question the most financially successful MMA promotion in the world—they naturally expect their income to increase in kind, and while most fighters make more in the UFC than they would with any other promotion, the company has faced some recent criticism from current and former fighters over what they perceive as a substandard pay structure. For his part, UFC President Dana White has sharply rebuffed any notion that the promotion’s fighters are not compensated fairly, so let’s examine this whole issue from both sides.

In many companies, and I’d imagine the UFC is probably included in this group, the single greatest expense is payroll. Companies need employees (or, in the UFC’s case, independent contractors) to keep the wheels spinning, so companies give up a share of their profits in order to retain their services. Outside of the UFC, if a person is dissatisfied with his compensation, he can seek employment at another company willing to pay him more. For most UFC fighters, however, there is no other company willing (or able) to pay them more, especially if they’re a non-headliner.

Sure, maybe a mid-card UFC fighter could negotiate with Bellator for a show/win figure similar to what he earns in the UFC, but they’re definitely not going to see a significant pay bump. Why, therefore, should the UFC pay its fighters a single cent more than it needs to in order to stay competitive, salary-wise, with the other MMA promotions out there? It’s a business, not a charity, and the people at the top of the UFC are in it for the money. This isn’t an opinion on the UFC’s fighter-pay decisions, it’s a reality of capitalism.

Of course, the counter-argument to all of this is that there’s nowhere to go but down, financially speaking, once a fighter reaches the UFC. Basically, if he doesn’t like what he’s being paid, he can either live with it or go do something else. In this way, the UFC is walking that fine line between being a competitive player in the MMA marketplace and being a de facto monopoly. There are other moderately successful promotions out there, but I would seriously doubt that any two of them put together could equal the annual revenue taken in by the UFC. If the promotion is making hundreds of millions of dollars every year off of the blood and sweat of its fighters, therefore, some think it should pay those fighters an amount proportional with their efforts.

So what we’ve got is a company so successful that it basically is the only true player in the game, and a group of people who work for that company who are dissatisfied with what they’re being paid. If only there was some model throughout history that uses this exact situation to ultimately benefit the worker…

Dana White despises the idea, and the amount of power he wields probably makes most UFC fighters afraid to even use the word, but if UFC fighters want to be paid more, they need a union. Not only do they need the ability to collectively bargain, but they need the sport’s top fighters (your Jon Joneses, GSPs, Anderson Silvas and Cain Velasquezes) uniformly in line behind them, which is no easy task, because those guys are probably very satisfied with their income. Nevertheless, the only way, the only way, the UFC is going to bow to any sort of pressure from fighters is if there is a threat that the promotion’s top draws won’t compete. It’s that simple. If any mid-card fighter thinks UFC management is suddenly, of its own volition, going to decide to give up any more of its money for the benefit of the athletes, he’s taken one too many punches to the head. The promotion would sooner discard the contract of a disgruntled non-star, especially when there are thousands of other fighters more than willing to take his place for equal or less money. Only if all of the promotion’s fighters demand higher pay, and in a formalized manner, would the UFC even consider the option.

To the UFC’s credit, it has more than tripled fighter pay since 2005, but its also probably safe to say that after The Ultimate Fighter, the expansion from ten pay-per-views a year to nearly 30, and what is surely a lucrative partnership with Fox, the company’s revenues have expanded by a much larger factor. It’s going to continue to pay the main-event fighters a lot of money and will likely continue the slow increase in fighter pay overall, but under the current arrangement it doesn’t make sound business sense for the promotion to pay everyone else any more than they’d receive elsewhere.

As a strong supporter of labor, generally speaking, I wish the UFC’s fighters would get paid multiple times what they’re being paid now. I certainly don’t think any fighter is being paid “too much,” especially when the UFC itself is making money hand-over-fist. All I’m saying is that the UFC is not going to be compelled by fighter complaints to raise the salaries of guys whose primary purpose is to fill out cards before one of the company’s star attractions enters the Octagon. To make that happen, fighters—all fighters—are going to need to take more drastic action.

That, or they can hang up their gloves and go find a desk.

Photo: Dana White (Rob Tatum/The MMA Corner)

About The Author

Eric Reinert
Staff Writer

Eric Reinert has been writing about mixed martial arts since 2010. Outside the world of caged combat, Eric has spent time as a news reporter, speechwriter, campaign strategist, tech support manager, landscaper and janitor. He lives in Madison, Wis.