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What do UFC fighters make?

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If you include side deals and non-disclosed bonuses, how much money do UFC fighters really make?

MMA: UFC 189-Lawler vs MacDonald Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

How much do UFC fighters make? For such a simple question it is not an easy one to answer, nor is it one without some implications for the athletes in the sport. While fans’ interest in this subject may be mostly due to inquisitiveness, for the fighters and their representation the answer is not one of idle curiosity. With little knowledge of what their peers make, they enter negotiations at an extreme disadvantage. And with a fighters association or union now being openly discussed, any details on the current revenue splits holds special importance for those seeking a more equitable share.

Knowing what fighters make in relation to each other and the promotion is therefore important for those in the industry. Unfortunately for them, the picture is almost as opaque as it is to fans and the media. While some athletic commissions make public the fighters’ payouts these only reveal what a fighter is contractually guaranteed to receive the night of his or her bout and does not include any potential revenue sharing from pay-per-view, side agreements that would pay the fighter a contracted amount on another date, or discretionary payments by the promoter. Without those other sources of payment any analysis of UFC fighter pay is incomplete at best, and potentially worthless.

So how does one go about determining what UFC fighters make with so little information publicly available? The first method, as mentioned above, is using the reported payouts from the athletic commissions. But, as also mentioned, this paints only a partial picture, which we’ll address later.

Over the previous three years, from 2013 through 2015, (I choose a three year period to make it easier to collect purse information from fighters and for conformity used it for reported payouts as well) the UFC held 130 events for which the athletic commission in Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, Virginia, and Washington released the purse information for 44 of them. Using that data, we obtained a mean average bout payout of $47,536 and a median average of $22,000 over those three years. We can further break this down by quintile, to see how the pay is distributed throughout the roster.

In addition to the athletic commissions reported payout there is another source of pay that is publicly revealed: the UFC’s performance bonuses. Adjusting our payout breakdowns to include those bonuses the mean average increases to $56,804 and the median average rises to $25,000.

Of course, these numbers only reflect what has been made publicly available and as anyone who follows MMA and the UFC know the reported purses only tell a partial story. Not included are any non-disclosed payments made to fighters. These include any pay-per-view bonuses, discretionary bonuses (often referred to as “locker room bonuses”) and side letters that contractually require additional pay for a bout but are not included with the reported payouts by the athletic commissions. Without knowing the amounts paid for each of these any attempt to discern fighters pay is incomplete.

Note: we did not include any payments related to Reebok apparel, EA Sports UFC, or any other merchandising agreements. Our focus was solely on payments for matches.

In order to determine how much UFC fighters are making from each of these other forms of payouts I engaged in a rather ambitious project. Over the last year I have conducted a poll with as many fighters and their representatives, (managers, agents, and attorneys) as I could, questioning them on the total amounts paid to them for their matches. This included all disclosed and non-disclosed, contractual and discretionary payments for bouts between January 1, 2013, and December 31st, 2015. (I also collected data on fights outside the UFC as well but not enough to make any reasonable conclusions, so perhaps the groundwork for a future article has been laid.)

Of course, participation in a conversation with me as a reporter was entirely optional for the fighters. I was pleasantly surprised by how many fighters wanted to speak to me about their experience, and even offered information about the terms of their bouts. As is my usual protocol, I offered my participants the option of declining to answer any questions and of anonymity, fewer than I expected chose to take advantage of my offers.

In order to make sure my poll didn’t become too lopsided with either lower tiered or high end fighters I split the bout payments into different categories based on their positions on a card and tried to make sure I polled enough representatives for each group. The three categories were:

Prelim fights, which included all bouts designated as a preliminary bout, be it on fight pass, Fox Sports, or Fox. These represented 58.3% of all fights during my timeframe.

Main card fights, which included all bouts designated as being on the main card of an event, excluding the main events or featured bouts on a pay-per-view. Main card fights were 31.7% of all fights in the UFC during our three-year timeframe.

Main event and featured fights, which included all television or main event bouts as well as those non-main event fighters featured in the marketing of a pay-per-view event. These three categories (television main event, pay-per-view main event, and featured fights) made up 9.9% of all matches in the UFC.

In the end some 70 different fighters and over 250 bout purses distributed across these different categories were used to compile our data. With 1362 total matches contested during our time frame, our sample size consists of approximately 8% of the total bout payouts.

So what did we learn?

Primarily, that a substantial portion of UFC’s fighters pay is not reported by athletic commissions. According to our poll results, roughly 1/3 of all the income fighters made from the UFC came from non-disclosed discretionary pay, side agreements to their contracts, or pay-per-view points. The amount received from each of these was also greatly affected by what position on the card the fighter occupied.

The majority of fighters polled received some form of discretionary bonus for their bouts in the UFC, be it a performance bonus or a “locker room bonus”, as they are commonly referred to as. The term “locker room bonus” is a little misleading though, for according to our poll participants these are not paid in the locker room after a match but instead mailed later. As Mike Pierce explained, “the bonuses come as a check a month or two after the fight, after you’ve passed your drug test. Usually its a few thousand, maybe a little more if you fight overseas.”

While common, discretionary bonuses are not guaranteed. According to our results, on 20% of their matches, fighters did not receive any form of discretionary bonus. The lack of a locker room bonus could often be tied to a performance bonus, as prelim and main card fighters rarely received both according to the poll results. In other cases it seemed apparent that the UFC management decided to not give a particular fighter a bonus. As Jon Fitch, a fighter with a long acrimonious history with the UFC put it, “my bonus was my release.”

Bonuses for polled fighters on the prelims ranged between 0 to $10,000, with both the mean and median average being $3,000. For a fighter on the main card, our poll showed that bonuses ranged between 0 to $50,000, with a mean average of $4,600 and median of $5,000.

For those at the top of the cards, we found a big split between those on the main event of a television card and those that were in the main event of a pay-per-view. Bonuses for fighters on television main events ranged from 0 to $50,000 with a mean average of $21,000 and median average of $25,000 according to the results of our polls.

For those featured on a pay-per-view but not in the main event, discretionary bonuses for the polled fighters ranged from $0 to $10,000 with the average being only $3,500. Those in the main event did much better, though, with the range being from $0 all the way up to around seven figures. The average discretionary bonus though for those in a pay-per-view main event was $193,000 and the median was $75,000.

With regards to pay-per-view points and side agreements, both of these appear to be limited to those that occupy main event spots or are featured bouts on a pay-per-view. None of the polled fighters that appeared in prelim or main card bouts received either pay-per-view points or side agreements.

Even amongst the polled fighters at the top of the cards, both side agreements and pay-per-views bonuses were rare. Amongst polled fighters appearing on main events or featured for pay-per-view matches, approximately 25% of them had a side agreement. These side agreements paid anywhere from $100,000 to multiple millions for a small handful of the very top draws.

Our poll results showed that pay-per-view bonuses were even rarer with only 1/3 of fighters in the main event of a pay-per-view event getting a split. Almost always, these were the defending champs as most fighters that have pay-per-view bonuses (and this was less than 10% of the roster according to our poll) written into their contracts are only eligible to receive them if they are defending a UFC title. For those polled fighters that did receive pay-per-view points, that was no guarantee they would actually receive any additional money. Often a bout failed to meet the threshold of sales needed for a bonus to kick in.

For most polled fighters having a pay-per-view bonus, it was $1 for every buy between 200,000 and 400,000, $2 for every buy between 400,000 and 600,000, and $2.50 for every pay-per-view sold after 600,000. For a smaller, select group of polled fighters, pay-per-view bonuses could be larger (with tiers of $3.50, $4, or $5) but often these would only kick in after a higher number of buys was attained. In return this group of polled fighters also received a side letter effectively guaranteeing a minimum payment before their pay-per-views bonus.

Looking at the amount paid to polled fighters by their position on the card, it should come as no surprise that those at the top were paid significantly more than their compatriots on the undercard or prelims. During the three year timeframe covered by our poll results, the mean average for the pay of a fighter appearing on the prelims was $32,664 and the median average was only $19,000. While prelim matches represented 58.3% of all matches during our time frame, according to our poll, they were estimated to be only 21.7% of the total amount paid out by the UFC.

For main card fighters, which were 31.7% of all matches, the mean average was $56,985 and the median average was $38,000. If these averages hold up across the whole roster, this corresponds to 20.6% of all pay from the UFC.

Percentage Paid By Card Position (does not total 100%)

For polled fighters who were featured in the main event or featured in marketing on a pay-per-view, which represent approximately 10% of all fights in the UFC, the mean average $511,760 and the median average was $262,000. That corresponds to a 57.7% share of all pay.

Even amongst the top 10% of polled fighters we can see a sharp divide between the top stars, popular veterans, and B-side challengers, with the distribution of pay-per-view bonuses, discretionary bonuses, and side agreements heavily weighted towards the top.

When including all the forms of payments, the mean average for all polled UFC fighters during our three-year timeframe was $87,999 a bout and the median average was $30,000 a bout. With our average “reported payout” being $56,804 a bout this suggests that roughly 1/3 of all UFC fighter pay is from non-disclosed sources.

With regard to the share of revenue, if the polled $87,999 average is applied to all matches between 2013-2015 the total would add up to approximately 15% of all estimated revenue during those three years (with over a billion in revenue generated in 2014-2015 according to Dave Meltzer and around $500 million in 2013 the UFC is thought to have generated roughly $1.6 billion in total revenue during that time). This aligns closely with not only a previous estimate I came up with, but with other sources as well. Dave Meltzer reported in the July 18, 2016 Wrestling Observer that the UFC spent “in the range of $75 million to $85 million in pay for fighters” in 2015, a year the company grossed “$608,692,000”. This corresponds to a 12% to 14% share for the fighters. In addition, according to the Guardian “In 2015, when its revenue was around $600m, Zuffa spent ‘over $100m’ on ‘athlete costs including compensation, insurance, medical and travel’.”

It goes without saying, even with the relatively large and weighted sample used, that there is no way to guarantee the complete accuracy of the numbers arrived at. Not only was almost all our data self-reported, and therefore dependent on the memories and good faith of the participants, but we also have to contend with the wide-range in methods and payment sizes used by the UFC. The inclusion or exclusion of a single purse well outside the norms of other fighters would obviously have a large impact on the averages presented. Even with these caveats, I do believe this represents a more accurate portrayal than what has been presented before. Hopefully it can be of some use to those that have an interest in the subject.