Last summer I wrote an article looking at the distribution of purses amongst boxers using the payouts from 11 different state athletic commissions (the only ones that will release such data). At the time, I had planned on doing a sequel that looked at the distribution in pay amongst mixed martial arts fighters, having already collected and compiled the data, but for some reason that article was never posted.
Until today, that is.
For this post I used all the mixed martial arts payouts from every professional bout held between December 1, 2018 and May 31, 2019 from the following state athletic commissions: Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Massachusetts, New Mexico, Nevada, Ohio, Oregon, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin. (While Florida does not release boxing event payouts, they do release that information for MMA.) There were a few purses that the athletic commissions were unable to provide for a variety of reasons but these missing purses ended up being less than 1% of the total number collected. Amongst the missing purses was one from Bellator and one from the UFC.
Even with the missing purses, the total that was given to me was 855 fight-bout purses, from promoters as varied as the UFC and Bellator, to Iron Boy MMA in Arizona and Ogitchidaa Fight Promotions in Wisconsin.
One caveat with all these purse amounts is that they are only for what is reported by the state athletic commissions. The amount recorded was the “show” purse plus any win bonus, when applicable. Most fans are aware that some UFC fighters receive payments that are not reported to the athletic commissions. These include discretionary bonuses, side letters of agreement, and pay-per-view bonuses. Some Bellator fighters receive similar non-disclosed payments. In addition, UFC performance bonuses or “Of the Night” bonuses were not included.
Also not included were any sales commissions fighters might receive for tickets, which is a rather common practice amongst regional promotions. These missing payments from the smaller promotions are likely offset by the number of barter transactions, be it tickets in lieu of cash or purse payments that are contingent on selling a minimum number of tickets, that were reported instead as full payments by the athletic commissions.
Thus, while not every purse reported here is 100% accurate, the majority likely are, and in aggregate should serve as good proximation of the distribution of purses amongst MMA fighters in these states.
The distribution of all these purses by decile was as follows:
MMA Fighter Pay by Decile
Perhaps not surprising, we see that payouts are very low for most fighters, with the median average only $1,250. This is noticeable lower than what we saw with boxers, whose overall median was $2,000. The mean was also much lower, as the average boxing purse was more than three times as large as that of MMA fighters. In MMA the mean average purse was $20,556, versus $67,948 for a purse in boxing. The mode for MMA fighters is was only $1,000 with approximately 10% of all fighters being paid that amount.
When it comes to distribution almost all earnings are concentrated at the very top, with the top 20% of fighters earning around 94% of all money in our sample. Pay is even more concentrated amongst the top 10%, who earned over 80% of all the pay in the states collected.
MMA Pay by Decile
For most of the purse distribution, boxers earn more than MMA fighters. Where we see a MMA fighter premium is around the $10,000 mark, which is also the UFC minimum. From roughly the 78th percentile ($10,000 for MMA fighters) until the the low 90s (a little over $100,000), MMA fighters in those percentile actually earned slightly more than their boxing parallels in our state samples. It is amongst the highest few percentiles that boxers not only once again overtake MMA fighters, but earn multiples what their sister combat sports equivalent earns. At the same time, while MMA fighters seemed to earn a bit more from about the 80th percentile until the lows 90s, throughout most of the distribution boxers seemed to benefit from higher reported purses.
From our sample, 22% of all MMA fighters made the UFC minimum of $10,000 or more. For the most part, this group was almost exclusively made up of UFC and Bellator fighters, with UFC fighters being the majority. Every UFC fighter reported by the athletic commissions was in this group, while 39% of Bellator fighters made at least $10,000. Only three other purses out of the other reported purses that did not belong to a UFC or Bellator fighter made $10,000 or more. All three in our sample were from Combate Americas.
A breakdown of these 186 fighters who reported purses of $10,000 or more shows that 79% were from the UFC, 19% from Bellator, and 2% from Combate. The highest pay amongst the 665 purses that did not belong to a UFC, Bellator, or Combate fighter was for $6,000. There was only one other purse amongst all our collected purses sample a promotion other than the previously named three that paid more than $5,000.
Looking over the distribution of MMA purses, and it quickly becomes obvious that almost all the money is being earned by UFC fighters, with Bellator fighters claiming most of what little is remaining.
UFC fighters made up just 17% of the fighter purses we collected but also collected 83% of all the purse money that was paid out. If Bellator and UFC fighters are tallied up together, we have 28% of all our fighter purses and 95% of the total amount of purse money.
In other words, there is very little money to be made by MMA fighters outside the two top promotions. And even between them, the UFC fighters’ earnings in aggregate dwarf those of Bellator fighters.
This probably should be of little surprise, since the UFC holds the largest share of the MMA market in North America. Since the other promotions are generating much less money, it only stands to reason that the UFC would be able to more easily pay higher purses than their competitors.
Top 10% Distribution
Previously when I had looked at MMA and boxing purses, I had broken down payout between 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.
Doing that with our 2019 MMA purses, we find that:
31.1% of all purses are in the Low category.
47.1% of purses belong to the Middle group.
19.1% of all purses are in the Upper group.
2.7% are in the Elite category.
Even though we collected from every possible state athletic commission, our sample was from only a small portion of the total number of professional MMA bouts held in the United States during a 6 month period. During this time, there were 341 total MMA events held across the United States, in which 1642 professional MMA bouts were contested. Our sample represented only 26% total number of purses paid out then.
As with the boxing statistics we posted last year, our data was heavily skewed by the fact that a much larger percentage of major promotions (in this case the UFC and Bellator) hosted events in the states that released payouts to the public. Where as we only collected 26% of all MMA fighters purses in the United States during that period, included with those were 53% of all UFC fights and 39% of all Bellator fights held in the US.
As we saw earlier, with the upper earners being almost exclusively from the UFC — and to a lesser extent Bellator — this oversampling skews the results. If we assume Bellator and UFC distribution is very similar with their other, non-reported events, and that the distribution of pay with the non-UFC and Bellator events remains constant in these non-reported states, we can come up with a breakdown that better represents the pay for the vast majority of MMA fighters in the United States.
Thanks to the fact that we also know what the purses were for the PFL finals in December of 2018 ($900,000 for the winner and $200,000 for the runner-up), we can also include those in our data even though New York was not one of the states that shared payouts.
After adjusting for the number of major promotions’ event purses amongst all MMA events we find that:
36.3% of all purses are in the Low category.
51.7% of purses belong to the Middle group.
10.3% of all purses are in the Upper group.
1.7% are in the Elite category.
I am not sure how many fans will be surprised to learn that the vast majority of pay is concentrated with the top fighters and with the UFC. This seems to be general knowledge for those that follow the sport, that the UFC, and to a lesser degree, Bellator and the Professional Fight League, are the only promotions in which a fighter can earn a “living wage” in MMA. Outside the UFC, the Bellator main cards or the PFL tournament, there are almost no options for fighters.