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Nate Quarry blames low fighter pay on lack of competition in MMA business

The former UFC title challenger opens up about the business side of MMA and why fighters are feeling depressed and frustrated about pay levels.

Josh Hedges, Zuffa LLC, via Getty Images

Recently, I had the good fortune to speak at length with retired MMA fighter Nathan Quarry. Originally our conversation was to be part of an article I am working on concerning the possibility of fighters organizing a union, but the former UFC middleweight contender's observations on a wide range of subjects was so interesting I thought it deserved its own post.

We've lately been hearing complaints from fighters on a whole range of issues, from treatment to pay. Most of these complaints are from those recently released, but what about the current roster? What's the mood amongst the rank and file fighters?

Well, they're very unsatisfied. They have next to no negotiating power whatsoever. One big organization basically dictates whatever happens.

So the source of their problems is the fact that the UFC is so big? That it holds such a dominant position over the market?

It's a catch-22, because without the UFC where would I be? Where would the sport be? I consider myself ridiculous lucky because of all the things Dana White, the Fertittas, and the UFC have done for me - and all the athletes - is amazing. But on the flip side, what all the athletes have done for Dana White and the Fertittas is amazing.

What most people don't know is, before my back surgery, I went to Dana White and said, "I can't even train anymore. My back hurts so bad and I can't afford surgery. I don't know what to do. "And he said, "We'll take care of it. Go get it done." So Dana White is 100% responsible for saving my career. Of course, if I got paid more for my title fight I could have taken care of it myself. (laughs) Maybe.

I will always be indebted to Dana White for helping me there. And I know he's done that over and over again for other guys. He's one of those guys who's generous to a fault with helping fighters - helping people in general. You hear that over and over again. But he's also a cutthroat business man.

And what difference would competition make?

Look at Lombard. He gets all this money even though he's never fought in the UFC and no one really knows who he is and then comes in and has a terrible performance. The reason he gets paid ten times as much as Stephan Bonner is because the UFC had to buy him away from Bellator. You see that in boxing all the time because there are multiple promoters and companies all trying to get a guy because they know he's valuable and they can make money with him. But this [Lombard] was one case. There aren't many others where Bellator, or any one else, will actually try or can compete with the UFC. They just aren't in the same league with them to do so. That's just the reality.

But most fans seem to not like the idea of seeing the top fighters split amongst various promotions.

Everyone wants to fight in the UFC. I know I am very proud I fought in the UFC. But you still want another option. The Lakers pay someone like Kobe so much because they have to, otherwise another team will take him away. In MMA, that doesn't exist. Everyone that was it - Strikeforce, PRIDE, Pro Elite, the IFL - they've gone out of business or been bought up by the UFC.

So fighters weren't celebrating Strikeforce, for example, being purchased by Zuffa?

Every fighter hated it. I talked to many of them and they weren't happy with another company going away. Look at Dan Henderson. He went to Strikeforce because they met his terms. Now that they bought them out, where else can he go? Bellator can't really match them.

What about the sponsor money in the UFC? Doesn't the exposure from being in the UFC help with sponsors?

When I started fighting for the UFC, I was told, well we can't pay you very much, but you can have any sponsors you want. Then it became you can't have conflicting sponsors. Then it became we need to approve your sponsors. Then it became your sponsors have to pay a tax so they can sponsor you and the UFC. Now these small companies that could pay a fighter $5,000 can't afford it anymore.

I was sponsored by And1 shoes. About halfway through my contract with the And1 deal, the UFC said if you want to have your logo on his shorts you have to pay $50,000 and they said it wasn't in their budget. So that was brutal.

It's been often argued that the sponsor tax will make things better because it will keep out the low end sponsors that don't pay. What you're saying, is that from your experience it isn't true? That the sponsor tax isn't leading to better deals for the fighters?

That's so clear to see, but if you're not in the business, you don't understand it. If you only got four short companies who now paid the fee, you now got four short companies you can go beg for money.

If fans really want to support a fighter, they should support that fighter. Go directly to his website and spend your money on his own brand or sponsors. Put that money right in his pocket.

Are there other things you think the typical fan misses or doesn't understand, especially with regards to the how the fight business works for most fighters?

What fans on the message boards don't understand is the work involved. They see someone get paid $50,000 and they say, "Look at that prima donna asking for more. I'd love to fight for that." Sure you would, but would you train for 10 years, twice a day, for free? Would you let yourself get punched in the face everyday for it? Because that's what you have to do before you ever get paid.

When I was on the Ultimate Fighter, someone came up to Team Quest to do an interview with me, and they told him I was in the back. And he goes back there and I'm sweeping floors. And he asks me what am I doing, and I tell him, they're paying $8 an hour to sweep the floors. I needed the money. I was living on next to nothing. I couldn't work a regular job because I was training all day. So I was making about $1000 a month. That's what I was living on, $1000 a month. I wired Randy Couture's house in between practices. I would go to practice in the morning, I would go to his house and insulate it, I put in light switches, I would clean up. I did whatever I could because he was paying me $20 an hour. If a sponsors came out of nowhere and gave me $500, that was life changing.

Should the UFC and Bellator being paying more for the prelim fighters? What do you think the they could do to improve the situation for those at the bottom of the card?

When I started I got paid $5,000 to show, $5,000 to win. At the time it was 2 and 2. So since that time it's gone up. Even in my last two fights I was getting more money than any other organization was going to pay me. So, from their eyes, they are doing so much more for the athletes than they have to from a cut-and-dry business perspective.

What I think would be such a great problem solver across the board, every time the UFC signs a fighter, it's a one year, three fight, no cut contract. Now the UFC is going to be looking at every one of these athletes they'll be signing a little more carefully. Saying OK, I've got him for three fights. I have to put him on the show three times so I need to make sure he's worthy to be here.

At the same time that athlete is going to say I have a job for one year. Right now the UFC minimum I think is $6,000 to show. You can't build a future on that. What I think would be a realistic thing that wouldn't dip too deeply into Zuffa's pockets - along with that no cut contract - would be $10,000 to show. So you have $10,00 to show for all three of those fights. You'r win bonus is $5000, If you win that fight your second bonus is $7,500 and $10,000 after winning two. So you're guaranteed $30,000. Now you're a fighter. For one year you can make a complete and total commitment to this profession. That fighter can now say,"If I'm careful with that money, if I'm not going out, going crazy and going partying. After taxes, after all my expenses, I should be able to live a fighter's lifestyle and not have to have a second job. I'm not going to have to bounce, I'm not going to have to tend bar on the weekends. For one year, I can make a complete and total commitment to this sport"

Since your retirement, you've stayed fairly busy. You were a co-host on MMA Uncensored, you've been marketing your own brand ("Zombie Cage Fighter") Is this the type of thing all fighters should be thinking about? Their post fight careers?

Definitely. They should be thinking about the end the entire time. You can't wait until your career is over to start planning. You have to be thinking about it, because you can't, and don't want to, fight forever. It's going to come to an end, and you want to have something to show for it.

The great thing about being in the UFC is they offer bonuses for exciting fights, for a great performance. A $50,000 bonus for a great submission can be life changing. That's money that can be invested into a house, so now you have an asset.

What about a union? We hear a lot of people that say that the only way fighters are ever going to have the leverage to negotiate a better deal with the UFC is if they form a union.

A union, I think it's very unlikely. For one thing, you have the Fertittas who own one of the biggest gaming corporations, and they're not unionized, and so they're battling the Culinary Union because of that. If the workers at the casinos, who make substantially less money than the fighters in the UFC make, aren't unionized what are the odds they say, "This is great. Let's set up a union and pay the fighters on the prelims three times as much!"

So you don't hear fighters discussing a union or discussing organizing in some way?

I don't know if you know this (laughs) but people are generally cowards. They do what is in their interest.

You don't hear anything because if they complain about it, they're afraid they'll be labeled as not being a company man. And you do not want to be labeled as not being a company man. If you're not a company man, you worry they won't promote you. Won't push you. Your future, your career is dependent on visibility.

If not a union, then what? What do you think could make a difference for fighters?

There needs to be overwhelming support by the consumers. They are are the ones who have to band together and say we love your product, we want to support the UFC but we want to see the athletes get higher pay, better conditions.