It seems like fighter pay has been a hot debate over the last several years. And there might be a good reason for it.
MMA pundits like Ariel Helwani have often pushed to keep this topic alive while he has encouraged UFC fighters to speak out about the issue, much to the distaste of uncle Dana White.
But are UFC fighters underpaid?
UFC fighters are underpaid compared to other sports organizations like the NBA and NFL, who share close to 50% of revenue with their players from every event. The UFC only shares an average of 19.6% per event with its fighters.
Below I’ll list out all the factors affecting a UFC fighter’s pay so you can make up your own mind about whether they are underpaid or not.
Table of Contents
1. Inflexible fighter contracts
The contracts that UFC fighters are under can be incredibly restrictive and make a fighter feel “trapped” with various terms that don’t favor the individual fighter.
It’s worth remembering that fighters are independent contractors, so the UFC sets most of the terms under any agreement.
There’s no health care, no pension, and no sick pay.
The fighter either chooses to sign (and get paid) or not (and likely struggles with lower revenue promotions).
A fighter’s contract usually includes a Base Pay and a Win Bonus.
An entry-level fighter can expect $12,000 to show up and fight. This is their Base Pay.
Then the same fighter can earn double the revenue if they win by earning the Win Bonus.
At first glance, this seems like a great incentive to compete and win. But in fact, it means that losing once or twice could be the end of a fighter’s career very quickly.
Training camps cost a fighter a lot of money. Often, most of their previous fights pay just to get from one fight to the next.
One clause in most UFC fighters’ contracts that can be difficult is that if the fighter is injured or takes other time off, then the UFC can automatically extend the contract.
Imagine if you had an injury and it took a year to recover from it. You are then under contract obligation to compete to earn money again before you can consider other employment options.
There are non-compete clauses that stop a fighter from signing with other promotions for a fixed period after their last fight under the UFC.
This could mean that a fighter can’t compete for any other promotion for many months, stopping them from doing their job and harming their earning potential.
Another clause that synergizes well with the non-compete clause, is the right-to-match clause.
This clause allows the UFC to be told of any offers made to the fighter during any non-compete phase and gives them priority to match the offer if they decide to keep the fighter.
So when promotions like Bellator or ONE come along and make an ex-UFC fighter a contract offer, they have to make it significantly higher than what they think the UFC would be willing to pay.
This makes it much more difficult for other promotions to give these UFC fighters new options because they have to pay over the odds to do it!
Fighters that become champions at any weight class will have a “champion clause” in their contract, meaning their agreement is automatically extended for three fights or one year while they remain champions.
The UFC puts this in place to ensure that new challengers can compete for the belt, and the champion is obliged to defend their belt.
This makes sense for the viewership but not so much for the champion.
When the champ hits that level, their current contract stays exactly the same as it once was. For some fighters, that could be an agreement for as long as ten fights which never changes.
That means the fighter is essentially earning the same money from each of their fights from their first up until their tenth.
After a fighter has fought and battled and suffered up to the champion spot, they can be stuck in an automatically extended agreement with poor earnings compared to their level.
Their pay rarely scales up with them as they become champions or more popular. Only a contract renegotiation can do that.
These exact reasons were part of the major concerns for Francis Ngannou, who, after becoming Heavyweight champion, wanted to renegotiate his contract terms but claimed the UFC was very restrictive.
2. High costs of being an MMA fighter
While mixed martial arts seem like a sport that needs very little equipment, it actually isn’t cheap to be a professional MMA fighter.
There are many costs associated with preparing your body and mind to be in the best condition for a fight, and these expenses are one of the most significant considerations with UFC fighter pay.
These are some of the main costs associated with being a UFC fighter:
- Fight Camp — training and preparing for the fight, gym fees, coaches, nutrition, physical therapy
- Agent or Management fee — UFC fighters have a representative to try and get them the best deals, and they take a cut per fight
- Travel costs — traveling to and from the fight and costs for accommodation
- Medical costs — fighters must pay for medical tests conducted by the State Athletic Commission
- Taxes — citizen taxes in their home country plus any taxes when fighting abroad
Fight camp costs
Once fighters have put their names on a fight contract, they’ll start preparing for the fight in what can be a 2-3 month long training camp.
The entire fight camp for a typical UFC fighter can cost approximately ten percent of the fight purse, rarely exceeding $15,000-$20,000.
For the lowest-level UFC fighter earning a Base Pay of just $12,000, a majority of that pay could go on their camp alone.
There are a lot of other individuals and coaches supporting a fighter to compete, including chefs, nutritionists, fight coaches, weight-cut specialists, physios, and sometimes doctors.
All of those people gots to get paid!
When Miesha Tate fought for UFC Vegas 31, she claimed that 98% of her fight purse went into fight camp costs for her comeback.
So it’s not just the low-level fighters living from paycheck to paycheck. It’s a real problem in mixed martial arts and particularly with the UFC roster.
But these fighters love what they do and often have few other opportunities for a career because fighting is what they have committed their lives to.
So as you can see, it becomes a tricky cycle of fighters building up debt during their fight camps and paying it all back as soon as they show up to fight.
It’s also another reason you’ll see so many fighters showing up to fight despite having significant injuries or even being physically ill. They need that money to pay their bills!
Agent and management fees
Each fighter will have an agent or manager that takes a cut after each fight.
A UFC fighter’s management fee is typically between 10-20% of their fight purse.
For the low-level UFC fighter, their management fee could be anywhere between $1,200 (for 10% of $12,000 earned) and $4,800 (for 20% of $24,000 earned).
The relationship between the fighter and the manager can sometimes be unique.
Generally, the fighter’s manager will support them by looking after finances and accounting, advising the fighter on contracts and future fights, and helping them to schedule and interact with the media.
But there is some hysteria around the role of managers and UFC fighters.
I’ve seen pundits like Ariel Helwani speculate how many managers of UFC fighters are essentially glorified employees of the UFC.
His claims center around managers funneling new talent into the promotion and working in the company’s best interests rather than the fighters, all while taking a cut of the fighters’ purse.
Fights in the UFC are most commonly in the USA, where most of their fighters reside.
But every now and then, UFC pay-per-views take place all over the globe in places like Brazil, England, Abu Dhabi, and more.
One benefit of the UFC contract is that the fighter and two coaches’ flights are covered to the event’s location and one shared hotel room for all three.
But if the fighter has the need for more coaches or teammates with them, then they have to pay for it themselves. This might be for additional expertise like a physio or a nutritionist, especially around the weight cut.
A UFC fighter’s travel and accommodation expenses could vary wildly between $1,000-$10,000, depending on flight length and the size of the team that travels with them.
The higher end of that estimate is down to how champions often travel with a huge team or ‘entourage’ to help them train leading up to their fight.
Fighters are required to pay medical fees to meet the requirements set by the State Athletic Commission, which are several tests to check they are healthy.
A UFC fighter has to pay for doctor physical examinations, CAT scans, MRI scans, blood tests, and eye tests before their fights which can cost up to $1,000.
There are also additional medical fees that the fighter may have during their fight camp because of injuries or illnesses.
It’s common for fighters to get infections (from grappling friction), suffer from dehydration, or need pain injections in their knees or back.
The medical fees for a fighter could easily add up to $2,000 or more for their full fight preparation phase.
As each UFC fighter is an independent contractor, they will very likely pay an individual tax depending on their total annual income.
Because UFC fighters are individual contractors, they are classed as self-employed.
For the USA’s 2022-2023 tax year, self-employment is taxed at 15.3% of net earnings (profit). 12.4% for Social Security tax and 2.9% on Medicare tax.
For the 2022 tax year, only the first $147,000 of earnings is subject to Social Security tax. In 2023, it will rise to $160,200.
Let’s look at an example of the lowest-tier fighter in the UFC who typically earns $12,000 per fight (double that for a win) and usually fights three times per year:
|Fights in 2022||Base Pay||Win Bonus||Sponsorship|
|Event A (won)||$12,000||$12,000||$4,000|
|Event B (lost)||$12,000||$0||$4,000|
|Event C (won)||$12,000||$12,000||$4,000|
Based on these earnings, the fighter earned $72,000 that year. Not too shabby.
But then let’s deduct expenses from every other section I’ve already detailed:
- Fight camp x3—$6,000
- Management fee x3—$10,000
- Travel costs x3—$3,000
- Medical costs x3—$3,000
That puts the total deductions to a whopping $22,000, leaving the fighter with a $50,000 net profit.
A further $7,650 is taxed at 15.3%, leaving the fighter with take-home $42,350 annually.
Most desk jobs pay more than that per year, right?
These numbers could vary a ton between different fighters because there are so many levels of fame and earnings potential.
Plus there are always many other business opportunities open to fighters, provided they can appease the UFC’s sponsorship rules (which I’ll cover in detail next).
3. Sponsor tax introduced in 2009
In the early days of the UFC, fighters could supplement their fight earnings by having direct sponsorships with brands.
The brands would sponsor the fighter by placing their logos on their fight shorts and banners they would walk out into the cage with.
Their banner would then usually be draped over the cage by the fighters’ coaches to be seen on camera. This was great exposure for the brand sponsoring the fighter and a great way to earn more from their fight.
Fighters who weren’t making the big bucks yet from the UFC could match their fight purse, or sometimes more, making it a very profitable opportunity.
But in 2009, the UFC introduced the “sponsor tax”.
If a brand wanted to sponsor a fighter, they had to pay a tax to the UFC for the privilege—$50,000 for smaller businesses and $100,000 for bigger companies.
This, of course, cut the fighter’s earnings overnight. Only brands with big budgets would still consider sponsoring athletes in this way, as there’d be an entry fee.
So then fighters on the UFC roster would earn less from these sponsorships, while the UFC would always take a solid cut of any that passed the bar.
This was the beginning of UFC fighters having less freedom of opportunity, while the UFC started moving away from allowing direct fighter sponsorships altogether.
4. Apparel sponsors banned entirely in 2014
While fighters already had less sponsorship money coming directly into their pockets from brands for five years, the UFC went one further.
In 2014, the UFC signed an exclusive apparel sponsorship with Reebok worth $70 million.
This meant that Reebok was to become the only brand shown for fighter’s apparel during event footage like backstage, during the walkout, and in the cage.
Now fighters had zero opportunities for direct sponsorships on their fight nights. And this is still true today in 2023.
The deal with Reebok was for six years and ended in 2020.
In 2021, the UFC signed another exclusive apparel sponsorship deal, this time with Venum, to last for three years.
The deal with Venum has since been extended in 2022 on a multiyear renewal, with no end date in sight yet.
Even if the UFC were to end an exclusive partnership for apparel, it doesn’t seem likely that they would go back to allowing fighters to have direct sponsors any time soon.
5. Minor earnings from sponsored “Fight Week Incentive Pay”
Fighters can’t have their own apparel sponsors anymore, but now that the UFC has just one exclusive sponsor (currently Venum), fighters do earn a “Fight Week Incentive Pay.”
But these additional sponsorship earnings are still seen as minimal revenue, considering what fighters go through and how much the UFC is taking overall from these deals.
Here’s a breakdown of what fighters earn from the Fight Week Incentive Pay with Venum:
|Fighter Experience||Incentive Pay|
At the launch of the Venum partnership and these details being announced, the UFC’s senior executive vice president Lawrence Epstein stated that this deal is primarily to benefit the fighters:
“All the value is essentially going to them. We’re not really making anything on this. We do feel the look and feel of the product itself is great for the UFC brand, but when it comes to cash it’s all going to the athletes, whether in actual cash or product.”Lawrence Epstein statement to ESPN, April 2021
The Fight Week Incentive Pay had improved from what it once was with Reebok, but not by considerable amounts.
For example, the lowest tier for incentive pay rose from $3,500 with Reebok to $4,000 with Venum. At the very top end, champion’s incentive pay rose from $40,000 with Reebok to $42,000 with Venum.
Whichever end you look at it, fighters aren’t feeling like a significant contribution to their total pay purse from the sponsor.
To put it into some context, in a recent PPV event like UFC 285, an early prelims fighter earned $16,000 for competing and $4,000 from the sponsorship (AKA “Fight Week Incentive Pay”):
|UFC 285||Da’Mon Blackshear||Esteban Ribovics|
That puts the lowest-tier fighter’s earnings for early prelims on a $20,000 purse per fight and 20% of their total earnings were topped up by the sponsorship extra.
The total payouts to all fighters at the UFC 285 event was $6,970,500.
These early prelim fighters earned approximately 0.3% of that total, and probably an even smaller fraction when compared to the UFC’s earnings from the event.
But take a UFC show that isn’t a pay-per-view event, like UFC Vegas 60, and one early prelims fighter earned a $12,000 base salary for competing and $4,000 from the Venum sponsorship, totaling a $16,000 purse:
|UFC Vegas 60||Cameron VanCamp||Daniel Zellhuber|
The total payouts to all fighters at the UFC Vegas 60 event were $1,924,500.
Cameron VanCamp earned approximately 0.8% of the total paid to fighters at this event, and his sponsorship pay was worth 25% of his total purse.
Who knows, maybe it pays better not to be on a PPV event?
6. UFC fighter’s wage share is 19.6% per event
One class action antitrust lawsuit against the UFC allowed certain revenue statistics to be publicly revealed.
When those statistics were analyzed, it was found that the UFC gave an approximate wage share of just 19.6% to its fighting roster between 2007-2017.
As a comparison, Bellator’s “projections are also for fighters’ share of revenue to remain around 50%” – a considerable difference between UFC and Bellator.
In other sports, the NBA has an agreement with the National Basketball Players Association, which provides a 49-51% wage share of revenue to players.
The NBPA is like a union for the players’ rights. Which UFC fighters don’t have at all, but more on that later.
And in the NFL, players get a minimum of 48% of revenue yearly.
Simple math can help you deduce that there’s a huge gap between what share of revenue fighters are getting from the UFC and what other sports stars get.
Some would argue that sports stars like LeBron James or Tom Brady play a significantly higher amount of game time to command such a high revenue share.
Which, in some way, is true. Except NBA stars have a much higher playtime than UFC fighters do.
NFL players typically only have 11 minutes of play per game, not even getting into the split between offense and defensive plays where the outfield team switches so each individual player could have even less game time.
But regardless, many fight fans and pundits would continue to argue that mixed martial arts competition is a year-round commitment, just like it is for any sports star.
UFC fighters train all year round, up to six days per week, with several sessions throughout the day.
Not to mention have to deal with a greater frequency of injuries and healing time, and even then, most fighters still compete with active injuries.
Here’s a quick comparison between three of the biggest stars across these sports and how much they earn for their game time:
|2022||Israel Adesanya||LeBron James||Tom Brady|
|Earn. Per App.||$1.9m (3)||$735k (56)||$1.8m (17)|
|Earn. Per Min.||$82k (72)||$19k (2,084)||$375k (85)|
So by all accounts, the UFC pays a much lower revenue share than other MMA promotions and other leading sports in the USA.
But even so, the earnings per appearance and earnings per minute of play/fight time are still respectable compared to other sports stars.
Earning $82,000 (Israel Adesanya) per minute of fight time isn’t perhaps a terrible deal when compared with LeBron James’ $19,000 per minute earnings.
7. UFC fighters don’t have a union
Like I mentioned earlier, the NBA players have an association that acts as a union to support their rights.
That union guarantees them around 50% of the revenue share that the NBA generates from its events.
Whereas UFC fighters are only getting approximately 19.6% share of the revenue generated from UFC events.
If fighters in the UFC had a union, they might stand a much better chance of pressuring the UFC to give a higher share of the revenue.
The main barrier in the way is that UFC fighters are essentially sole independent contractors or “freelancers”. They aren’t employees of the UFC, so they can’t unionize.
While they could form an association and gain better protections, it wouldn’t give them the same rights as a union that would enable salary negotiations or “going on strike”.
Fighters seem to be in a difficult loop that stops them from being able to demand higher pay:
- Fighters enter the UFC usually from a position of less power or control, usually coming from lower-class combat sports promotions with less pay, so they want to be accepted
- The UFC dictates the majority of rules in the contract (such as not being able to unionize) with the independent contractor
- The fighter strives to be a better prospect on fight cards which matches the sport mentality of one fighter against all others
- UFC awards fighters that bend to their needs more, e.g. accepting any fights they want to give them, fighting on short notice, and not complaining about pay or terms
- Fighters continue to go up the ranks and earn longer contracts with the UFC, which actually locks them in place under poor terms if they go big
- If the fighter doesn’t perform well, the UFC can typically cut the fighter without much remorse or cost to them; plus, there’s always a new fighter waiting to take their place in the best promotion in the world
- Individual fighters are left with poor contracts on long terms that they can’t get out of because they’re not supported by any association or union
It’s worth considering that if some fighters start picking up enough speed to start pressuring the UFC for unionization, they could be first on the chopping block.
You’d expect Dana White to cut any fighter who showed too much momentum in unionizing or pressuring the UFC on changes to fighter’s pay.
The potential to be cut still isn’t worth it for solo fighters when the alternative is to be in Dana’s good books and possibly earn millions on a single fight.
For the elusive few, additional PPV revenue share is possible for fighters at the top level. Those who are champions or headline events and have a big following to generate interest.
And at the bottom level, entry-level fighters need to fight to get paid and keep their MMA career dreams afloat. Earning $20k per fight is just enough to get them through the next few months to their next fight (after paying their coaches and other training costs).
Whether at the top or the bottom of the roster, ultimately it’s the same: there’s always another hungry mixed martial artist willing to take their place.
8. UFC buys out most competitors
If you think that UFC fighters have the potential to move to another fighting promotion, think again.
The UFC has bought out several MMA promotions or competitors over the years. This means that the number of options for fighters has reduced considerably.
Here is the selection of promotions that the UFC has absorbed:
- 2006: World Fighting Alliance (WFA) & World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC)
- 2007: Pride Fighting Championships
- 2008: Bought out many fighters from the struggling International Fight League (IFL), which then closed its doors
- 2011: Strikeforce
With all of these purchases, these promotions ceased business as a separate brand, and all their fighters and content became absorbed into the UFC.
The UFC uses a lot of the digital content from these promotions to include in the historical archives on UFC Fight Pass.
So effectively, the UFC has bought out several competitors and absorbed their roster, who they can then underpay because those fighters’ options are limited.
It’s worth mentioning that you could also view it in another way, with the UFC coming to the aid of already-dying promotions.
Potentially, the UFC was helping those promotions by buying out the last remaining value and giving some of its fighting roster new opportunities to fight and earn a living again.
They also keep that promotion’s history alive by reusing their digital content and PPV archives for new audiences.
Right now, the only two other competitions that are anywhere close to the level of UFC’s revenue are Bellator and ONE Championship.
This means that although there are smaller fight promotions all over the world, the options for the best of the best are minimal.
Bellator and ONE have been known to give very lucrative contracts to ex-UFC fighters and upcoming stars, but those opportunities are rare and reserved for fighters who bring a guaranteed fanbase to watch them.
A promotion securing a contract with a fighter really is an investment, and they need to know they can make a net profit on that investment like any good business should.
The upside potential of getting a fight on a major PPV event with the UFC is so attractive and potentially lucrative for fighters that moving away from the UFC and burning that bridge often isn’t worthwhile.
That’s why you’ll see fighters like Yoel Romero head to Bellator after their time is up with the UFC and not before.
When the UFC can flash big numbers in front of your eyes to be on the main event, possibly with PPV revenue share too, it’s tough for a fighter to disregard that opportunity.
Summing up whether UFC fighters are underpaid
There are some eye-watering numbers of earnings out there for just a few UFC fighters like Conor McGregor, who was once a Forbes highest-earning athlete.
While the most famous fighters and champions of the UFC can take hold of PPV share, the majority of fighters in the UFC roster are left to ‘fend for themselves’ and struggle to get between fights.
Fighters on the lowest tier don’t earn much more than a regular desk job, yet they are putting their bodies on the line for our entertainment multiple times each year.
I have to agree with the majority view on this one that UFC fighters are severely underpaid, at least at the lower levels of competition.
But there are good arguments, too, for the highest earners at the UFC to still be considered underpaid compared to athletes of other sports organizations and similar levels of fame.
MMA is becoming more popular every year, and the UFC’s champions are becoming household names, just like your everyday NFL or Boxing superstar.
So then, surely, these fighters deserve to be paid as considerably well as other sports superstars.
Boxers like Tyson Fury pick up bags in the tens of millions per fight, whereas your UFC champions typically see a few million for even the biggest events of the year, with the UFC taking 70%+ of all proceeds.
I hope that in time the UFC will have their hand pushed by pressure from other promotions, combat sports and state laws, and fighter associations to share more of that revenue every event.
Here’s hoping that fighters will someday see closer to 50% of revenue share with them, just like the NBA and the NFL are forced to do.