Fighter pay has been a central part of the larger discussion of the UFC in the last few weeks leading up to this past weekend's UFC 162. Some fighters, current and former UFC roster members, have complained about the low wages when fighting for the world's biggest mixed martial arts promotion.
Before Chris Weidman's stunning upset of Anderson Silva, I pointed out on Twitter that the UFC could double his show and win pay ($24,000/$24,000) and he'd still make less than J'Leon Love made to open the Mayweather vs. Guerrero PPV ($100,000) and they could triple it and he'd still make less than the guy in the second slot on that PPV (Leo Santa Cruz $165,000). Obviously, a big part of that rests on Weidman for turning down a new contract ahead of his title shot -- the rare massive risk that paid off -- and I'm sure he'll be the recipient of some major behind the scenes bonuses after winning the title.
But Dana has taken a new approach to the discussions over pay, pointing out that fighting in the UFC isn't a sustainable career option (via Bleacher Report):
"This isn't a long-term f****** job. You don't come into the UFC thinking, man, I'm going to stay here until I'm 65 and then I'm going to retire, get a pension and do this, that and the other. This is a f****** short-term gig."
"You have a window of opportunity that's about this big, if you're lucky. If you're talented enough, and you get in there and you do as many amazing things as you can in front of as many people as you can and make as much money as you can, and enough contacts and this and that, so when that inevitable day that will finally come when it’s over you put yourself in a great position where you can move on and do better things, and if you figure it out right, you don't ever have to work again. Who the f*** on this planet doesn't understand that?"
The idea that your time in the UFC isn't long-term isn't particularly different from any other major sport. The NFL league average is 2.5 years in the league. More often than not you only have a few years to make your money.
The Bleacher Report piece goes on to do what many people do when talking athletics and money, and point out how many athletes go broke on seemingly huge amounts of money. In the last few years we've seen more thought given to the broke athlete phenomenon than the old standby of "dumb jocks."
Fox Business discussed why athletes go broke in an article earlier this year, focusing on a number of different aspects such as the idea of "young money:"
Many athletes enter the professional sports world in their early twenties, the time when most young adults are learning personal finance through trial and error of overdraft fees, bad investment ideas and unnecessary charges. But athletes are making these mistakes with far more to lose.
"We learn how to manage money through our mistakes, but athletes are making these mistakes during their peak income-earning time from 22-28 years old, with a lot more money than the normal 20-year-olds making $40,000 a year," says Chris Coy, founder of sports management firm Play it Coy.
After signing their first contract, athletes often face new family members and friends that come out the woodwork looking for help or investing for the "next big thing." Terrell Owens reportedly lost $2 million in a failed electric bingo investment and Schilling filed bankruptcy after his video-game company failed.
"You can’t really push too much on family issues, but on the friends’ issue I do push," says Michaels. "We look at the client’s overall net worth and we will allocate 5-10% to alternative asset classes, including venture, but we will do the due diligence to choose the right venture and usually we like the institutional class and not just the friend who comes in with a business idea."
Robert Pagliarini also discussed several factors in athletes going broke:
Wired differently. It's pretty easy to spot a professional athlete in a lineup. Physically they are quite different from you and me. But psychologically they may be different as well. Research found significant differences between athletes and non-athletes across personality characteristics such as inhibition, emotionality, and aggressiveness. Good characteristics on the field, but not necessarily optimum for making financial decisions.
Today focus. Research published in the Journal of Judgment and Decision Making shows professional athletes are more present focused rather than future focused as compared to non-athletes. In other words, there is much greater emphasis placed on today than there is on tomorrow. This may help support the athletes' winner-take-all mindset needed to excel, but can impede any attempt at saving and investing for their future.
With the UFC there's a combination of these factors and aspects that are unique to the sport of mixed martial arts.
Fighters often feel like they've "made it" simply by making it to the UFC, but with no minimum pay, random undisclosed bonuses and half of your potential earnings tied exclusively to winning even real financial planning is difficult.
These athletes are spending years having to decide how much to focus on this "short term career" of fighting. The lowest level doesn't pay enough to live on, but working a full time job means less time to train which makes it harder to maximize your athletic potential. And, fighters in the UFC are in the very small minority of athletes who have to pay for their training. Even most boxing promoters with fighters at the equivalent of the "UFC level" pay for the boxer's training camp.
Remember, when Tim Kennedy complained about fighter pay, he pointed out that his pay broke down as "13% on gym fees, 12% for nutrition, 10% to his manager, 10% to his coach, 8% on his camp lodging, 3% for fight medicals and 3% on equipment. In total, that’s 59% of his fight purse before tax is deducted."
And these fighters are still professional athletes, they're likely still wired the same as their NFL, MLB, NHL and NBA counterparts, with the same "today focus" and personality characteristics and while making far less money and being forced to work full time jobs which reduces the potential for success and, in turn, more money.
White pointed to Forrest Griffin as his example of a guy who "gets it right" when it comes to living as a fighter:
"Forrest Griffin always says this: 'go out and fight like you, but go to the bank like me.' Which means he's cheap as hell. Forrest Griffin is still wearing the jacket he wore in Season 1 of The Ultimate Fighter. He's still driving a Scion. Scion is going to do a commercial about how many miles this kid has on his car, and it’s still running.
Forrest Griffin is a cheap motherf*****, and that's the way you have to be in this business. Save your money, put it away, do the right things with your money, because this sport, your time can be over any minute. This isn't some long-term gig."
Remember, Dana is a guy about whom was written " The UFC president now has two Ferraris gathering dust from disuse. He thinks nothing of losing $500,000 in an hour at a blackjack table. He pays $2,500 a month in nuisance fees to maintain a huge water slide in his backyard for his kids." Not to mention his claim in 2010 that ""I haven't been to the bank in 10 years. I don't go draw cash out of an ATM. And I try not to think about how much money I have cause it will f*** you up"
While Dana has earned his money and can spend it however he wants, there will always be a subset of people who have trouble taking him seriously when he advocates such a peasant lifestyle for the fighters populating the cards that made him that money.
Griffin is a success story when it comes to the paltry pay of the early stages of being a UFC fighter. His "six figure contract" for winning the first season of The Ultimate Fighter actually was just a long term deal that was paying $16,000 to show, $16,000 to win. It wasn't until UFC 86, his light heavyweight title win, that Forrest made a major payday, bringing in $250,000.
I also have my doubts about the way that most fighters seem to be trying to look out for their future with the money they are making from fighting: the opening of their own gyms.
Yes, they have unique skills and experience to attract people to these gyms. But these are far from sure-thing businesses, and are very susceptible to economic fluctuations.
Regardless, White speaks the truth when he says that fighting isn't a long-term job. It also isn't set up to be a job that makes anyone but the very top fighters the kind of money that will set them up for life after that short-term. And that will likely stand in the way of the sport consistently attracting the best athletes possible until it changes.
...if it ever does.