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Prize Fighting: A look at the inequality in boxing purses

A look at how purses are split amongst boxers using state athletic commission reported payouts.

Photo by Lionel Hahn/PA Images via Getty Images

Money has always been an important part of boxing. So important in fact, that when Jack Broughton codified the first seven rules of the sport the fifth was dedicated to how the two contestants were to split the purse. There’s a reason it is also known as prize-fighting.

As important as money is to the boxers, and as much as fans seem interested in the subject, most reporting on that aspect has been solely focused on what the biggest names are making in the biggest bouts. Just as what the highest paid executive at a company make doesn’t tell us much about how the typical worker is doing, neither does knowing how big Canelo Alvarez or Anthony Joshua’s purse is tells us much about how much the typical journeymen, club boxer, or professional opponent is making. This article is an attempt to correct that.

(I will be posting a similar look at MMA purses soon.)

For this post I requested all the boxing payouts from bouts held between December 1, 2018 and May 31, 2019 from the following state athletic commissions: Arizona, California, Georgia, Massachusetts, New Mexico, Nevada, Ohio, Oregon, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin. They in turn supplied me with the purse info on every fight held in their states over that six-month period.

A small handful of the purses were either missing from the documents the commission sent me, or the handwriting was completely illegible. In the end, I had 1,225 usable payouts in total to work with, representing approximately 30% of the professional bout purses that were paid in the United States during this six-month timeframe. The amounts paid ranged from as low as $0 to as high as Saul “Canelo” Alvarez’s $35,000,000.

A few caveats concerning the purse amounts. I only used the amounts given by the athletic commissions. This means that even when a boxer is known to have a higher guarantee than what is officially filed by the state, as has been widely reported with Manny Pacquiao, Adrian Broner, Terrence Crawford, Vasyl Lomachenko, or Deontay Wilder, only the amount officially reported by a commission was used. The same holds true for foreign fighters who are know to receive the majority of their purses in their home country to lower their tax burden or for boxers receiving a share of their events pay-per-view revenue. Only the amount reported by the state athletic commission was used in our data, everything else was ignored.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, boxers that were paid on consignment or receiving a commission on tickets sold, we also only used the amount reported as guaranteed by the commissions. This means more than a few boxers were entered as having made nothing when it is very probable that they made something for their match. Again though, since this money is not guaranteed, and also in many ways involve a second job (that of ticket broker instead of boxer), it therefore makes sense not to include this in the data.

Also not included were other forms of compensation that were reported by some commissions and not by others. These include travel expenses, hotel costs, and per diems. Again we stuck to only the reported fight purses.

What this means is that for both the top and bottom decile the numbers do not accurately portray what those boxers make. For both of them the median and mean averages are likely substantially higher than what I report here.

After compiling all our boxing purses we find that the mean average is $67,948 but the median average is only $2,000.

Boxing Pay by Decile

Decile Median Mean Minimum Maximum
Decile Median Mean Minimum Maximum
10 75,000 648,951 25,000 35,000,000
9 12,500 14,298 10,000 24,000
8 7,000 7,154 6,000 10,000
7 4,000 4,294 3,000 6,000
6 2,500 2,554 2,000 3,000
5 1,800 1,735 1,500 2,000
4 1,200 1,277 1,100 1,500
3 1,000 962 800 1,051
2 700 685 500 800
1 100 176 0 500
Overall 2,000 67,948 0 35,000,000
Using the reported payouts from December, 2018 through May, 2019.

Looking over the numbers, it quickly becomes apparent how much the wage distribution is concentrated on the very top purses. The total amount paid to boxers in this study was $83,235, 919. Of this the top decile was paid $79,172,000, or 95% of all the income, This group, which starts at $25,000, has a mean average of $648,951 and a median average of $75,000. This is 37.5x that of the median average of all boxers.

The next highest 10% of purses received a total of $1,758,600 or around 2% of all the total amount of payouts. The 3rd highest decile totaled $872,791 or 1% of the total amount paid to boxers. The bottom 70% combined for less than 2% of all purse money.

Share of Pay by Decile
Median Average by Decile

Breaking the top decile further down, we can see the huge gulf that exists between the top 1% and everyone else. The minimum amount to make the top 1% is $1 million with the median average being $1,875,000 and the mean average being $5,235,000. For purse that fall in the top 2% to %5 range, the median average is $200,000 and the mean is $257,459. The next 5% of purses had a median of $40,000 and a mean of $43,549.

Breakdown of Top 10 Percent

Percentile Mean Median Minimum Maximum
Percentile Mean Median Minimum Maximum
Top 1% 5,325,000 1,875,000 1,000,000 35,000,000
2-5% 257,459 200,000 75,000 1,000,000
6-10% 43,549 40,000 25,000 106,000

So who are boxers that make up the top deciles? Well one strong indicator of a high purse seems to be matches involving a world title with major sanctioning organizations. There are currently four major sanctioning organizations: the International Boxing Federation, the World Boxing Association, the World Boxing Council, and the World Boxing Organization. These four held 26 world title fights in the 11 states used for this study during our six-month sample time. Amongst the 52 purses paid out to the participants of these title matches, the lowest reported purse was for only $5,000, while highest was Canelo and his $35 million. It should be noted though that the minimum purse was from the challenger in a light flyweight (108 pound) bout. The purses were noticeably higher for higher weight title matches.

The median average for all the title matches was $200,000 and the mean average was $1,359,231. A title fight therefore offered an $198,000 premium over a typical bout.

Another premium was placed on boxers fighting on televised main cards and on events promoted by major promoters. We identified televised main cards as the main card portion of events aired on DAZN, ESPN, ESPN+, FOX, FS1, Showtime, or a pay-per-view broadcast by one of those networks. Major promotions where those that promoted events aired by those major television networks. This included Top Rank, Golden Boy, Match Room, 360 Boxing, TGB and others. All promotions that did not air bouts on one of the previously mentioned networks were relegated to minor promotion status.

Major promotion bouts represented exactly 40 percent of our purses.

Major and Minor Promotions Pay Comparison

TYPE NUMBER Mean Median Minimum Maximum
TYPE NUMBER Mean Median Minimum Maximum
MINOR 725 2,031 1,200 0 13,500
MAJOR 500 163,875 8,000 400 35,000,000

The median for the 725 minor promotions purses collected was only $1,200, while the mean was $2,031. The median purse for major promotions was nearly 7x higher, $8,000, and the mean was $163,875.

Of the 39 purses that were $200,000 or more, all of them were from fights on a major promoters event and all of them were on the main card of a televised event. Of the top 20% of all purses, 92% of them were fighting on a major promoters card.

A previous article of mine looked at boxing pay only used the reported purses from three states: California, Nevada, and Florida (the last of which no longer releases boxing purses.) In that article I divided pay into four categories:

Low: which are all purses below $1,000.

Middle: which are purses between $1,000 and $9,999.

Upper: which is all purses from $10,000 to $199,999.

Elite: which is all purses of $200,000 or higher.

These numbers were somewhat arbitrary. The $10,000 for Upper income was chosen because it matched the UFC’s minimum “to show” purse and the Elite amount was based on a comment by Lorenzo Fertitta that the “average mid-tier UFC fighter... earns about $200,000 per fight.”

If we take our new payouts and separate them into these same groups we get the following breakdown:

22 percent of all purses are in the Low category.

58 percent of all purses belong to the Middle group.

17 percent of all purses are in the Upper group.

3 percent are in the Elite category.

Reported Low, Middle, Upper, and Top Pay Share of Fights

Amount Share of Purses
Amount Share of Purses
0-999 22.4
1,000-9,999 57.5
10,000-199,999 17
200,000 or more 3.2

This marks a decrease from the previous findings in the share of purses belonging to the Upper and Elite. This can easily be explained by the larger sample size. In my earlier examination of payouts the purses from major promoter events were simply overrepresented.

Even with the larger sample of state athletic commission reports, the number of purses from major promoter events is likely still heavily overrepresented. While just under 25% of all bouts in the United States from December 1, 2018 to May 31, 2019 were held on major promoter events, they represent 40% of the matches used in our study.

If we assume that major and minor promotion events outside my original 11 states have the same share of Low, Middle, Upper, and Elite purses, we can make an estimate of what the number of purses for each of those groups is in the United States.

The adjusted percent of purses from each group would be:

28 percent of all purse nationwide are in the Low group.

59 percent are in the Middle.

11 percent are in the Upper.

2 percent are Elite.

The median average remained at $2,000 even with the much higher share of minor promoter purses.

Estimated Low, Middle, Upper, and Top Share of Fights

Amount Share of Purses
Amount Share of Purses
0-999 28
1,000-9,999 59
10,000-199,999 11
200,000 or more 2

This analysis is far from complete but does demonstrate a couple things. Firstly, how few boxers are earning anything resembling a good purse, and secondly, how concentrated overall pay is with those very few top boxers. While it is probably common knowledge that most boxers do not make much in the sport, we hopefully now have a better idea how little that really is.

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