Note: For a detailed look at how much money fighters make from sponsors, see our series on the economics of MMA.
Compared to traditional mainstream athletes, UFC stars are woefully underpaid. The percentage of the income Zuffa shares with its fighters is microscopic. The organization collects millions while many fighters make less than $10,000. Supporters of this system often defend the world's largest mixed martial arts promotion by claiming that fighters make up for that lost income with giant sponsor checks.
My research has indicated that just isn't true. While most managers, agents, and fighters won't talk on the record about their sponsorship income, an informal polling of fighters up and down the card indicated that sponsor pay is significantly lower than many imagine. Last night, Matt Mitrione gave fans a glimpse of just what kind of money awaits a fighter that will be featured prominently on national television. After the fight Mitrione fired his agent Malki Kawa on national television and drove the point home in a postfight interview with Ariel Helwani:
He did the worst job ever with sponsorships. For a televised fight he got me $5000. Five thousand for a televised fight. That is highly unacceptable.
That number is undeniably low. But for a fighter on a UFC undercard it isn't outlandishly so. That's the pay scale we are dealing with.That's the kind of money Mitrione is getting to put himself at further risk after already admitting a history of traumatic brain injury to Yahoo's Maggie Hendricks:
"I guarantee you I have brain damage. I don't think as clearly as I used to, and I'm not as quick-witted as I used to be. Sometimes, my words run together," he said. "My short-term memory isn't great. I don't get headaches, but I know that the damage from football is done."
The fighters in the UFC, like Mitrione, take significant physical risks to entertain us. I'd like to see them be better compensated for that risk. It's clear that a brief moment on television won't allow an upstart clothing company to make up the difference between living check to check and making a real living. The promotion has to do that. I think it's time.
UPDATE [from Luke Thomas]: Headline edited.