Fighter pay has long been a point of contention among promotions, fighters, fans and media. The differing stances are generally between two factions, though; the promotions and everyone else. Obviously, the promotions feel they're going above and beyond the call of normal obligation, simply by employing the athletes, but if a fighter isn't top tier talent, then chances are, they're performing their career choice activities at a loss.
The object of any career is to make money, and at the bare minimum, enough to support yourself and your immediate family. In the fight business, that goal is pretty hard to accomplish unless you are contracted by one of the larger organizations, and right now, there are only two choices that are big enough to allow for that with any degree of comfort, the UFC and to a lesser extent, Bellator.
Recently, UFC veteran, John Cholish came forward and gave a detailed account of what it's like for the lower tier fighters in the UFC, and the financial disadvantage they can end up in while chasing their dreams. I had the opportunity to speak with John, so he could better illustrate what he's trying to achieve by revealing the inner workings of fighter pay. Here's what he had to say:
*Note: Interview was conducted with my co-host, Iain Kidd*
Stephie Daniels: What prompted you to come out with all the behind the scenes financial information you've been talking with the media about?
John Cholish: It's something that I've been thinking about over the past year, especially leading up to this fight. I had the opportunity to train with a lot of top level fighters, and a continuous theme I noticed, was that a lot of fighters were mentioning fighter pay and compensation, and how it's so tough to make ends meet, whether it be feeding their families or taking care of rent. I just kind of thought, 'After this fight, win or lose, I'm going to retire.'
I just wanted to speak for the fighters that might share the same opinion, but are worried that if they speak out, there will be repercussions. I wanted to give the facts and information that I have, present them to the public, and then let them create their own opinion about it.
Stephie Daniels: When you made the decision to retire, was it more a financial decision or a decision based on the future of your personal health?
John Cholish: It's actually a combination of both. Without going into too much detail, I do very well at my day job, so fighting has always been a second career for me. I don't want to take anything away from the guys that fight full time, because I know what it takes to fight for a big organization, and it's extremely difficult. Putting those two things together, I got to the point where if I'm not making that much money, and the risk of injury being substantial, especially in training ... I kind of said, 'Hey, I'm putting this much in, only to get this much in return?' It just didn't really make sense to me from that point.
Stephie Daniels: After your interview with Ariel Helwani, Dana White has made some unfavorable comments directed at you. How do you feel about him sort of throwing you under the bus like that?
John Cholish: It's a little upsetting. I wasn't upset so much about the personal attack towards me. I felt it was more of an insult to all the fighters on the roster that he did not address a single one of my questions. I think they're important questions and they should be answered. Just from the support I've seen from MMA fans, it seems like they want some answers, too.
It's sad because any company I have ever worked for, or any professional sports organization in general, you would never hear a commissioner or a CEO speak about a former or current employee in the manner that Dana continuously speaks about his current and former fighters. Maybe that's just how the company is run, but it seems unacceptable to me.
It would be nice if Zuffa answered those questions, not only for the fighters currently on their roster, but for other up and coming fighters that are just getting into the sport.
Stephie Daniels: What went through your mind when the Zuffa fighter contract was made public as a result of Eddie Alvarez' lawsuit against Bellator?
John Cholish: I didn't follow it in extreme detail, because I do work during the day, and I don't have a lot of time to keep up with everything, so I don't want to speak directly to points, but I think it's good that everyone can get some clarity to see the complexity of the contract. Also, it seems to be so one sided, in Zuffa's favor. If you were to appeal any portion of the contract, the fighter doesn't really have much say in it, and it just pretty much gets repealed.
Stephie Daniels: You mentioned that there are other fighters that share your opinions, but don't want to have their voices heard or be recognized for those opinions out of fear of repercussions. How many of those guys or what percentage would you estimate do share your opinions?
John Cholish: I would say 90% including some top tier fighters. It's interesting when you look at an event that takes place over the weekend, and the reported salaries for the entire roster on that card, 24 fighters or so, can be covered alone with the in-gate ticket sales at the venue. That's before you even get to the PPV, the licensing, the merchandising, the advertising and the contracted revenue with companies like FOX.
I don't know the exact numbers, but it's pretty obscene when you look at the revenue that the UFC is taking in, compared to the portion that they're giving back to the fighters. Last I checked, the fans are buying the PPV to see the guys inside the cage, not the owners sitting outside of it.
Stephie Daniels: You revealed that after UFC 160, you received a discretionary bonus of $5000. Just to clarify, the UFC was under no obligation to give that bonus, correct?
John Cholish: No there wasn't, and I completely commend the discretionary bonus. I know that the UFC touts their "of the night" bonuses. If there are 12 fights, with 24 fighters on the card, and of that, only four fighters can get those bonuses. Of the 4, only one will actually be a losing fighter.
I'm not saying those fighters don't deserve those bonuses, but you can't say that every fighter on that card doesn't train just as hard or doesn't work to put in the effort for that fight. The unfortunate thing with the discretionary bonus is that you don't know if you're going to get that income. It's not guaranteed and there is no promise.
For the the guy that fights full time, it's more helpful to have a small increase in what the base level pay is than the possibility of getting a check in three or four weeks in the mail from the UFC for an amount that you wouldn't even know until the time you received the check.
Stephie Daniels: Did they give you a specific reason as to why they gave you the bonus?
John Cholish: No, not at all. I've spoken to other fighters that have lost, both high level fighters and guys that have had one fight on an undercard, and I don't see any correlation with a specific performance and the amount of the discretionary bonus.
Stephie Daniels: Did you receive a bonus following your fight with Castillo?
John Cholish: Yes, I did.
Stephie Daniels: Do you feel that these discretionary bonuses offer fighters an incentive to not speak up or make complaints?
John Cholish: I wouldn't say 'not speak up', because at the end of the day, fighters are kind of allowed to do what they want. That being said, it could kind of be seen that way, 'If I say something or if I complain, what am I going to get?'
Stephie Daniels: Do you think fighters are worried that they will receive less advantageous match-ups, or they might be more likely to be cut if they speak up about certain subjects in public?
John Cholish: I think you can say that, based upon current fighters on the roster that are active and haven't spoken up. It's definitely something they do fear. I can only speak from my individual experiences, but I do know that there are a lot of fighters that aren't happy with the compensation that they're receiving, but will not speak up because they're afraid of what will happen.
Iain Kidd: You've spoken about wanting to sit down with Dana and give him your ideas and suggestions, what changes would you make if you had unlimited control over the contracts?
John Cholish: The biggest one would be increasing the base level pay for the average MMA fighter when they enter the UFC. I think the top level fighters aren't making as much as they should be making, also.
I feel like if a fighter has a 2-3 month fight camp, the base pay should be able to cover all his training and livelihood, so that he can focus solely on that fight, as opposed to worrying about what they have to do to make ends meet.
Iain Kidd: You've spoken in detail about flying to events and having to fly down extra cornermen, with the UFC only paying for one flight and one hotel room. In your experience, how many of these tickets should the UFC be providing to fighters? What do you feel would be a more reasonable amount?
John Cholish: My whole thought process is this; I think you should be able to go into a fight with your opponent on an even level. If you're fighting someone that's going to have three people in his corner, maybe he's the hometown fighter, or if the UFC allows three corners, which they do, I think you should be able to have all your coaches covered, including hotel rooms for yourself and your three coaches. I think that's a base level and it's not outrageous.
The reason that I said that, is if you're fighting in a foreign country or something that requires traveling far, it's going to put that fighter at a significant disadvantage. He'll either have to only take one corner or use a larger amount of his purse just to get to a level where he'll have the same support in his corner as the fighter that's standing across the cage from him.
Iain Kidd: What are your thoughts on fighters unionizing? Do you think that's a potential solution, or do you think it's a pipe dream that's never going to happen?
John Cholish: If you look at other sports, it seems like that's the direction that supports the athletes. I'm not saying it will happen or it won't happen, but if you got the right organization behind it, hopefully one day it could. It's just a tough, uphill battle to try to get athletes that are represented as individuals to kind of band together, especially when there is varying levels of skill.
Your top level guys work hard. They fought through these grueling times that younger fighters are going through now. They earned what they've got, and they deserve it. In a team sport, teams can band together and step down, but in an individual sport, that's a big hurdle. Hopefully, with the right push behind it, maybe it's something that could be achieved and would help better represent fighters as a whole.
Iain Kidd: In your experience do you think the UFC treated you well, or as something to be used and discarded when they can't make money off of you any more?
John Cholish: Yeah, I think they treat a lot of the fighters almost like little kids. You can see it in the way that Dana White responds to comments and inquiries. He's the CEO of a corporation, but he doesn't speak to people like adults. He's very disrespectful. My personal opinion is for being presented as the top MMA organization in the world, the fighters certainly don't get that top level service.
The guys at the lower level are viewed as an easy commodity to come by. They get an entry level guy and pay him a small amount of money, but they flash a $50,000 bonus in their face, hoping they'll throw caution to the wind, and often risk serious injury, just so they can get an entertaining performance that they can present to the fans.
To answer your question directly, I think they could definitely treat the fighters better.
Iain Kidd: A lot of the time Dana will draw direct comparisons to boxing, saying "in boxing guys get $400 and $400 to show and win, we do much better than that." Do you think Dana genuinely believes that makes things OK, or do you think he's using boxing as a scapegoat to make the UFC look better?
John Cholish: The best way to answer that is two wrongs don't make a right. It's interesting that he doesn't make a lot of comparisons to other sports or their athletes. There's a comment he made a while ago, he tried comparing Jon Fitch to Charles Woodson in saying that, 'You know, sometimes guys are just too expensive to keep on the roster.'
Charles Woodson made, I think, $13 million last year, and if he gets injured, he collects about $8 million. JonFitch was getting paid 40 and 40, 40 THOUSAND dollars, and last I checked, if an athlete is not fighting, he doesn't get paid anything. I think it's pretty clear why he doesn't compare it to other sports.
Stephie Daniels: Do you think a trade association, similar to what tennis and golf have, might work in lieu of a full blown union?
John Cholish: There are a lot of different options that I think could be pursued. I think the biggest thing you would need is a corporation to get behind it that would be independently represented apart from the UFC that could gather support of individual fighters, and once they had enough of a percentage of the overall roster, they would be able to stand up and represent them as a whole, forcing Zuffa to actually have a response to them.
Right now, that's going to be hard to do. That's why I was doing the hashtag campaign on Twitter #PayTheFighters , because right now, I think the fans are going to be the biggest support base. If they can show support, then maybe the fighters can start getting behind it, as well. Once the ball gets rolling, I think it becomes a great possibility.
Stephie Daniels: Last question. You've taken up this crusade of sorts, but are you willing to see it through, especially at the cost of your own time and money? Are you ready to continue on with it, even though you're not on the UFC roster anymore?
John Cholish: Absolutely, without a doubt. It's something I'm very passionate about. I sat down with a couple friends before I even did Ariel's show, and they basically all said the same thing, 'If you're going to do this, don't go into it half-heartedly.'
It's something I fully believe in. I'm not doing this to get more money for myself. I'm not doing this to make a name for myself. I'm doing it because I truly believe in the sport. I love mixed martial arts, and I support a lot of the fighters that have become dear friends to me.
I think that being in the UFC right now, they're not getting the type of support that they deserve, and they could be paid better. I'm going to do whatever I can to try to bring attention to it, and hopefully, at some point, maybe get a formulated and educated response from Zuffa.
You can follow John via his Twitter, @JohnCholish