It never feels surprising anymore when a fighter stands in the center of the octagon and begs UFC president Dana White for a $50,000 fight-night bonus. Those pleas have, at this point, become expected for how often they happen. Not a shock considering that fighters in the world’s largest MMA promotion usually start with a base pay of $12,000 per fight. With a win, they can double that to $24,000—a pretty paltry sum for professional athletes competing on an international stage for a multi-billion dollar company. Athletes who put their health on line whenever they step into the cage.
The UFC allots $200,000 in bonuses for each fight card. If they hold 42 events per year (their 2019 number—currently the UFC has 41 events planned for 2020), that comes to $8.4 million budgeted in ‘of the night’ cash. The process for distributing that money is almost entirely at will; there are no written guidelines and there are no rules. In other sports, performance bonuses are often written into contracts, set in exact terms. But that’s not the UFC way.
The top brass determine recipients each week. And while there’s a clear tendency toward awarding finishes – having grown out of the previous ‘knockout of the night’, ‘fight of the night’, and ‘submission of the night’ system – there’s a lot of room for personal biases and interests.
Given its entirely discretionary nature, and the low pay of most of the roster, the UFC has a chance to make a lot more positive impact by scrapping those bonuses and using that $8.4 million to provide every fighter on the roster an equal stipend. That money could go a long way toward helping the many fighters under contract with the promotion go from part-time to full-time athletes.
Assuming the UFC wants to keep its roster somewhere around 600 fighters, the $8.4 million they expect to pay in bonus money would give each fighter a ‘salary’ of $14,000 per year. That doesn’t sound like a great deal, but it would be guaranteed and it would come on top of whatever they can earn in their fights. The fight pay wouldn’t change. The UFC budget wouldn’t change, but the lifestyle of many UFC fighters would change.
That $14,000 could go toward training expenses, taxes, food or childcare—anything. But it would be guaranteed, and that could mean a lot for athletes who don’t get paid unless they fight and sometimes don’t get paid if their opponents miss weight or they miss weight or some other unfortunate incident forces them off a card. That $14,000 would be a cushion and a relief for many.
Yes, there will be some fighters who would groan over this kind of move. After all, the promise of $50,000 is much more enticing. But the stipend would provide more stability for all the fighters. That should even benefit the UFC, who would get better trained athletes and perhaps more exciting events for their trouble. As long as the the UFC wants to keep their costs low and their contracts cheap, then providing more stability for athletes at the bottom of their roster seems like an absolute necessity.