Being a fighter, especially one that’s working his or her way up and hasn’t yet reached the big time, is a tough way to make a living. Most work other jobs to keep food on the table – they have to.
Fighting on its own even at the lower end of the UFC doesn’t pay the bills alone. Take a typical deal for a prospect entering the UFC where the pay is $10,000/$10,000 to show and win, for example. Even at that level some fighters are lucky to even get three fights in a year, and they aren’t getting that other $10,000 portion if they lose. Performance bonuses usually go to fighters higher up the card, so that can’t be relied upon. Even with three fights in a year, once percentages to managers and trainers, expenses and taxes are subtracted, there is substantially much less left than the base pay. Add in injuries – which are quite common – and some fighters in the UFC barely fight twice or even once a year.
That’s the UFC, the biggest MMA promotion in the world. Now imagine what it’s like for MMA fighters outside the UFC, focusing on ones in and around the regional circuit. The pay is way less and fights are constantly getting scrapped due to opponents pulling out or a fighter not being able to find fights frequently.
Taking everything into consideration, it’s not a coincidence that now more and more MMA fighters are entering the squared circle to take part in professional boxing matches. After all, boxing is a form of fighting and MMA fighters and boxers have one thing in common despite the divide that is sometimes present between the two sports – they’re prizefighters. Fighters need to and want to fight, so if there exists another avenue to fight and get paid for it, some MMA fighters will take the boxing route, even if they’re out of their depth.
That leads to the next aspect of this trend. The boxing business model is very different to the one in MMA. In boxing, promoters invest in fighters and build them up all the way if they can. All prospects get their records padded to a certain extent, and some are protected more than others. In MMA, the goal is to get to the UFC or a big organization where the pay will be decent at the very least. Before that, it’s often dog eat dog and that’s why most MMA fighters have losses on their records, and also why losses don’t mean as much in MMA. Sure, some promoters will have fighters that do good ticket sales for them or have relationships with them that may influence matchmaking and such. Some may pick and choose fights. But when a fighter signs with a big organization, they’re in most cases unavailable to any other promoter and largely lose any control they might’ve had in regards to picking opponents.
When most MMA fighters head to boxing, they’re not the fighters that have the backing of a promoter. They’re the opponent. The B-side. They’re not supposed to win and they’ve been brought in to lose. And if they do actually win the fight, chances are they still won’t get the judges’ decision. That’s the reality of boxing.
Promoters and matchmakers like bringing in MMA fighters as opponents because they have a reputation for being tough. They can provide rounds for the promoters’ fighters while putting up some resistance. The promoter’s boxer theoretically would learn and improve from getting more rounds under their belt and facing an opponent who wants to win and won’t go down easily.
Emily Pandelakis, a matchmaker and all around boxing person, has also noticed the increase in MMA fighters taking boxing fights, telling Bloody Elbow:
“I see it a lot. They will fight anybody. Most are keen to fight tougher and are flexible on weight. I think that stems from losses in MMA just not carrying the weight that they do in boxing. You can definitely see the gap in skills many times, but these guys really do come to fight.”
While in MMA, losing, especially at the higher levels, may lead to less opportunities or being cut from a promotion, in boxing it’s different. If a fighter loses frequently but rarely gets stopped and provides resistance, they’ll be getting a lot of work and be fighting all over the place. The better the fighter they’re able to hang with and go the distance without winning, the more they’ll probably get paid. For MMA fighters, these fights are opportunities to stay busy, get paid, get experience and for some, just to have fun in general.
“My experience with the MMA guys I've worked with though has been really positive. They make weight and they’re reliable and flexible,” Pandelakis reiterated.
Fighters who have been relatively successful in MMA realize quickly that the deck is stacked against them. Opponents often only get offered fights on pretty late notice – a disadvantage in itself in terms of lack of preparation time – and in the case of MMA fighters, boxing is only one of the disciplines they’re training, so they may not be focusing on it much at the time and it’s only a fraction of their overall skill sets. Nevertheless, the temptation to fight as well as get paid is hard to resist. The mentality of fighting anyone, anywhere transfers over to boxing.
Saul Almeida (also known for being Jose Aldo’s translator), has an 18-8 MMA record with a ton of notables names on it. It’s anything but padded. His boxing record (0-8), has remnants of the mentality that he’s demonstrated in MMA, and he’s also only been stopped once. Whether it be short notice or up a weight class, against a promoter’s fighter or a much more experienced foe, it doesn’t matter.
“I just love boxing. I do it for the experience. I know I’m fighting really good guys. I can hang with them but I’m fighting in their backyard, if you want to put it like that. If it goes to decision, I know it’s not gonna go my way even if I do win. That’s how boxing works,” he told Bloody Elbow.
“I’ve been in there with guys that have good records and I hang in there and win a couple rounds. There’s not one guy that has went in there and just completely dominated and beat me up. That’s never happened.”
For Almeida the experience outweighs the not so good looking record on paper. As long as it doesn’t affect his MMA record, getting in there and competing is valuable enough. It’s also enjoyable and the paycheck is a nice bonus.
“If I had no experience and was getting finished all the time, obviously I wouldn’t be doing these boxing fights.”
It’s common for some boxers to have deceiving records. They took a bunch of fights on short notice without ideal preparation, up a weight class, as the opponent. In many cases they were robbed or put up a good fight, winning some rounds on the scorecards and causing problems for the home fighter.
Look no further than Yevgeni Makhteienko. The Czech Republic-based Ukrainian has an 11-4 record in MMA as well as a lot of kickboxing fights. He debuted as a pro boxer at the end of 2012, fighting more frequently starting in 2014, and to date has a boxing record of 8-6 (7 KOs). What the record doesn’t show is that he’s notched three upset wins on the road and lost a few contentious decisions. He plays the role of the opponent and has only been stopped once, in the 12th and final round of a fight with Karo Murat, who’s operated at a fairly high level, being involved in world and European title fights. A fighter like Makhteienko could’ve built up a good looking record if he hypothetically had the backing of a promoter. There are certainly undefeated fighters out there that are worse.
Ryan Ford, on the other hand, left MMA after compiling a record of 22-5 dating back to 2007. Unlike, Makhteienko, Ford has a promoter backing him and sells tickets at home in Edmonton. Debuting in 2010, he didn’t switch to boxing until September of last year, and in a year has put together seven wins. At 8-0 in boxing and being 34 years old, he can still go places due to having a strong support system.
Farkhad Sharipov, a native of Kyrgyzstan that now calls Florida home, has an MMA record of 16-7 and with a win on December 3 in a Titan FC bantamweight title fight could possibly get into the UFC. Sharipov also takes boxing fights, with a record of 4-9, but he’s never been knocked out. He made his boxing debut in 2009, just a few years after he settled in the United States after being a former national wrestling champion of Kyrgyzstan.
“I’d never boxed in my life. I started when I was 26-years-old. I only boxed once a week to get my hands better for MMA. The guys I’ve been fighting have been doing it since they were 10-years-old,” he told Bloody Elbow.
Sharipov has never been a full time fighter and to this day works as a real estate agent, has his own gym and manages fighters. Almost all of his fights have been on short notice.
“I had only one or two weeks of training and I fought national champions, top guys, Olympians, Cuban champions, Pan American champions and none of them could finish me.”
In his last boxing fight against undefeated Golden Boy Promotions prospect Jonathan Navarro, the commentary noted that at the time he was set to have an MMA fight at the end of the month, and that he was taking this contest as “sparring.” Sharipov was a tricky opponent for Navarro, but lost a unanimous decision, winning two rounds on all the judges’ scorecards in the six round affair.
“Yeah, I took it for the warm-up,” he said with a bit of a laugh. “I like to compete. I think with a few months’ notice I could beat most of these guys. My record is upside down but if you look at the fights, you can tell that some of them I was robbed, some I lost.”
“The more I get into boxing, the more I understand how dirty it is. There’s a lot of money involved and when you fight a guy backed by a promoter they invest a lot of money to build them and nobody’s gonna give you a win unless you knock them out.”
Fighters have the luxury – and in many cases, the necessity - of taking these boxing fights when they’re not under exclusive contract to an MMA promotion. The losses aren’t treated with the same value as losses in their main sport of MMA, especially for those that are taking short notice fights for fun or a paycheck.
Almeida and Sharipov would both like to get to the UFC. Losses in boxing don’t affect that. After all, Dashon Johnson made it to the big show with a losing record (which is very deceiving as he’s one of the best opponents in boxing and scores quite a lot of upsets) and a bunch of MMA wins in Xplode Fight Series.
Despite MMA and boxing seemingly being worlds apart at times, all the athletes involved are fighters at the core. Money is the biggest incentive to fight. The multifaceted nature of MMA – that fighters must train in every discipline, including boxing – means that more avenues are open for getting fights.
The same crossover has happened for years between kickboxers and Muay Thai fighters going to boxing. MMA is a young sport and not solely standing up like any variations of kickfighting sports, so an increase of athletes looking for fights in boxing has only really picked up in the last few years. The sport and the number of participants is growing rapidly, meaning that in the future this trend will probably only gain steam. Fighters want to fight, after all.