I know, it’s still impossible to think of anything MMA related this week other than the end of Anderson Silva’s title reign, but before Chris Weidman ended the greatest winning streak in UFC history on Saturday, fighter pay was rapidly becoming one of the most talked-about aspects of the sport.

Fighter pay as a whole has always been a tricky subject for the MMA media to tackle, especially since there isn’t an obvious comparison to the UFC in professional sports to compare it to. While other major sports leagues like the NFL or NBA all have player’s unions to negotiate terms and make sure their athletes are all compensated fairly, MMA has nothing that even resembles a fighter’s union and every athlete on the UFC roster is basically considered a general contractor. As a result, the UFC is able to pretty much pay fighters whatever it chooses, and with fighters like Jon Jones and Ronda Rousey quickly becoming international superstars, they’re obviously going to benefit by getting better paychecks.

No one is faulting the UFC for paying its stars more than its preliminary card staples, but if the rich keep getting richer and the rest keep getting paid the same, it’s going to become increasingly tough for the average MMA fighter to make a living in the sport. For example, take this weekend’s UFC 162 card, where David Mitchell, the losing fighter of the opening preliminary fight, only made $10,000 for his fourth appearance inside the Octagon. Granted, Mitchell, who has gone just 1-3 since September of 2010, hasn’t exactly set the world on fire during his current UFC run, but it’s hard to believe that a 33-year-old male can survive on such a salary for almost three years. I don’t know Mitchell, and I have no idea how much the UFC might have given him in their legendary “discretionary bonuses” over the years, but based on the raw numbers given after events, it does appear that the undercard fighters are underpaid.

Former UFC fighters Jacob Volkmann and John Cholish have both made it clear that they believe that the world’s largest MMA promotion needs to better compensate its lower-tier athletes, and the result has been an increasing debate on whether or not the undercard UFC fighters are getting paid fairly. It’s a debate that UFC President Dana White had no problem entering prior to last weekend’s fight card. The UFC boss went on one of his patented tirades when the issue was discussed last week, but his basic response was that the fighters that deserve to get paid big money are the ones that get it. White pointed at longtime lightweight fighters Joe Lauzon and Sam Stout as examples to prove that the UFC’s current pay system works, stating that while neither fighter was ever considered a title threat or a top contender at any point in their Octagon runs, they both put on exciting performances that made fans want to see them. Dana’s in the business of selling fights, and it’s much easier to sell a fight with a guy like Lauzon that’s a proven fan favorite than a relatively unknown fighter like Mitchell.

However, if fighters are insistent that the lower-tier guys need to get compensated more, White has suggested a quick-fix solution: get rid of all bonuses. This would include not only the discretionary bonuses that are mentioned so often during the fighter-pay discussion, but also the “of the Night” bonuses handed out for the evenings best fight, knockout and submission.

There’s no denying that the fighters stuck competing on the Facebook prelims could use a little boost in pay, but getting rid of the traditional end of the night bonuses isn’t the way to do it. Besides the obvious fan appeal of giving out bonuses to the most exciting fighters on a given fight night, the bonuses give fighters a huge incentive to go out and put on a show when they get inside the cage. Guys like Lauzon and Stout may have been kept on the UFC roster due to their exciting styles and popularity, but the reason they’ve been able to make so much money inside the Octagon over the years is because of their bonus-winning performances. Lauzon in particular has made a living off of securing bonus checks, winning 12 total throughout his UFC career, tying him for the most in UFC history and raising his estimated earnings inside the Octagon to over $750,000 over the course of his UFC career. Considering that Lauzon has never even been in a title fight, that’s an amazing number, and a lot of that has to do with bonus checks.

As great as it would be to be able to pay every fighter on the card enough to make a good living, that doesn’t appear possible for the UFC at the moment. It’s becoming clear that some sort of change is going to have to be made sooner or later. As simple as it may seem to take away the $200,000 handed out in bonuses every card and split it up amongst the lower-paid fighters, the result is going to be fighters with a little less incentive to put on an exciting fight, and the ones that do go out and put on a show regardless won’t be rewarded. As important as it is for the UFC to be a legitimate sports league, from everything to production to pay scale, it’s equally important for the promotion to be exciting. The end of the night bonuses help accomplish that.

Getting rid of the fight-night bonuses would be a major mistake, but the discretionary bonuses that the UFC loves to hand out could easily be eliminated in order to help give the preliminary fighters a bit more money. The actual dollar amounts that the UFC gives away with its infamous bonuses is a mystery, but several high-caliber fighters have voiced their satisfaction with their extra pay over the years. Considering these fighters usually make more than roughly a handful of the lowest paid fighters on a card combined, the number on their bonus checks would likely make a huge difference if it was distributed to the lower-paid fighters. If the UFC truly wants its preliminary-card fighters to earn their extra scratch, the promotion could easily use this money and create a separate set of bonuses for other exciting fights and finishes on the card, giving out $25,000 checks instead of the usual $50,000 or more. The current bonus system seems to reward main-card fighters more often than not, and a few extra “Fight of the Night” checks given out at the end of the night would make a major difference for guys on the preliminary card.

It seems change is evident when it comes to the UFC’s current pay structure, but hopefully one of those changes doesn’t involve the end of the night bonuses. I’m all for raising fighter pay as a whole, but eliminating bonuses could easily lead to a decline in the quality of fights inside the Octagon. That’s a risk the UFC should be very hesitant to take.

Whether it is through the elimination of discretionary bonuses entirely or even something as simple as handing out a few extra bonus checks, the UFC has to find a way to increase pay for fighters that doesn’t include getting rid of those bonuses. It would be great for every fighter to get paid well, but until that day, we need to make sure the fighters that earn extra pay through their exciting performances are the ones that are getting it.

Photo: Tim Kennedy (Phil Lambert/The MMA Corner)

About The Author

Vince Carey
Staff Writer

Vince Carey has been writing about the sport of mixed martial arts since 2010. Although he is just 21 years old, the Omaha-based writer is looking to provide readers with interesting content on all things related to MMA.