The response to John Cholish's statements about downcard fighter pay has been mixed. Some complain that undercard fighters aren't making enough to make ends meet. Others respond that fighters aren't paid for their pure martial spirit and love of the game but for their ability to put butts in seats, and those butts are paying to watch the headliners, not the undercard. If undercard fighters don't like it, there are plenty out there that would.
Although this response is certainly true -- the PPV draw is the headliner, not the undercard, and there are plenty of fighters toiling away in the salt mines of the regional scene that would love a chance to make $4,000 a fight in the UFC -- it raises a broader question that hasn't been so widely addressed: are most athletes willing to fight for peanuts worth watching? Not worth watching in the deep human sense -- fighters at all levels of competition are working hard, sacrificing much, and worthy of fan support -- but worth watching in the most shallow sense: would you pay money to watch them? Because if the answer to that question is "no," then the UFC is facing an extinction level event somewhere down the road.
A prospect coming up from the regional circuit might sign a four-fight contract with the UFC for $4,000 in base pay and $4,000 win bonus per fight. If that fighter fights and wins twice a year for the next two years, he makes $16,000 a year before taxes. After taxes, the expense of training for two six-to-eight-week-long training camps, and the expense of getting cornermen and trainers to the event, he might have half that. If that eight grand doesn't cover his living expenses for the time he spent in camp rather than working his day job, he has just lost money fighting in the UFC.
John Cholish did the math and decided that the money wasn't worth the sacrifice. But who will replace him? Other athletes have done the math and reached the same answer as Cholish. Elite athletes with opportunities in a major sport already decline to have their limbs wrenched and faces punched for the money available in the UFC. Top-level collegiate wrestlers regularly decide against careers in MMA once their wrestling days are past. And athletes that did choose to fight for a living, athletes who have proven themselves capable of fighting at the highest levels -- not champions, perhaps, but UFC-level talents -- have run the numbers again and opted out. Cole Konrad abandoned his belt in Bellator after resigning himself to the fact that, as a fighter who was never going to be Anderson Silva or GSP, "fighting is a pretty dead-end job." And, of course, Nick Diaz regularly retires, citing the lack of money in the fight game. Who are the eager up-and-comers in the regional scene?
Without a reasonable prospect of actually earning a living at the apex of the sport, the answer is: fewer and fewer people. Talent requirements aside, there are significant bars to entry at the top of the sport. If fighters can't support themselves on fight money, they need jobs that afford them the flexibility to take several weeks off for training, sometimes on fairly short notice. Such jobs aren't easy to find. And their families must be willing to make the sacrifices required for a fight career, as the fighter works that day job and then spends evenings away from home, training. Athletes with both the talent and circumstances to allow them to develop into high-level fighters are uncommon. The two grand that a fight in the UFC may earn them may not be enough incentive for these athletes to pursue a career in mixed martial arts. Add the years of dues paying in smaller promotions necessary to get to that two grand, years no less strenuous but even less profitable, and fighting in the UFC is not that enticing a career path. Eventually, the lack of athletes with options opting to pursue an MMA career will create problems up and down the card; headliners start out on the undercard.
Now, one would be right to say that this scenario doesn't take into account sponsorship income (although my impression is that undercard fighters generally don't land big sponsors, and reporting on this site provides plenty of examples of how difficult it can be for fighters to extract payment from the sponsors they do land). Nor does it include the mysterious discretionary bonuses touted every time the issue of fighter pay arises but never quantified. But neither sponsorship money nor discretionary bonuses do much to increase the appeal of a fight career because neither are publicized. The public numbers are the contract purses, and for the most part they're pretty grim down the card.
The UFC needs to continuously stock its ranks with fresh, quality talent, and that talent will become harder and harder to come by if entry to the UFC doesn't provide at least a living wage. At some point, the UFC will face a choice: reduce the number of events or lower the bar for fighter quality. Based on the direction the UFC is heading, it seems unlikely they'll opt for fewer events. So for those who say fighters like Cholish are replaceable, remember: for all that he was an undercard fighter, no less a judge of talent than the UFC deemed him good enough to fight in the major leagues. Hundreds of regional fighters didn't make the cut. I hope we'll like watching them.