Jake Paul has reignited one of MMA’s long running debates, and one of the principal points of fan and media criticism of the UFC: fighter pay. At various points, fighters themselves have brought the discussion to the forefront. Former UFC vet Leslie Smith was notably active in looking to organize the UFC roster during her 3-year run with the promotion. And Georges St-Pierre spearheaded a very short lived effort with the Mixed Martial Arts Atheltes Association, working alongside former Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney.
Most recently, however, the conversation has revolved around the string of successful celebrity boxing crossover events. Fights that have seen the likes of former UFC talents Ben Askren, Anderson Silva, and Tyron Woodley cash in on major paydays for making the move to the ring. Paul has been a big part of that momentum, successfully partnering with Triller to turn what would otherwise be near-amateur level contests into major PPV attractions.
With many MMA fighters, both inside the UFC and out, seemingly eager to take on Jake Paul and his brother Logan for a fat paycheck, it’s cast a bright light on how much money there is to be made for elite athletes off major boxing events in comparison to their UFC contracts.
“You live in lies and every major fighter on your roster has complained about pay,” Jake Paul wrote, taunting UFC president Dana White in a recent social media post. “Conor, Jones, Masvidal, Ngannou. You even make up fake belts to sell tickets instead of giving Amanda Nunes her opportunity to headline...”
White didn’t direct his reply to Jake Paul by name, but in a recent interview with Manouk Akopyan the UFC president made it clear exactly what he thinks about the conversation around fighter pay. Namely, that unless the person complaining is a UFC fighter or running their own promotion, they should forget about it (transcript via MMA Fighting).
“The reality is anybody who’s being critical outside of the fighters themselves don’t know anything anyway,” White said. “They don’t actually know what these guys are making. And the fighters don’t ever come out and tell you. There’s no gag order on any of these guys. These guys can come out at any time and tell you what they’re making. I have no problem with that. But they don’t, do they? No, they do not. So it’s sort of a Catch-22.
“Fighter pay has continually gone up every year since we owned the business. Obviously, there’s been tons more opportunities with the outfitting policy, some of the sponsors that we’ve brought in that spend tons of money with the fighters too. There’s a lot of opportunity here for the fighters. And listen, there’s never gonna be a guy that’s coming out and saying, ‘Yeah, they’re paying me too much. They’re overpaying me. And all of these guys that are champions share in the pay-per-view revenue.
“Listen, if you don’t like it, go start your own MMA league and pay ‘em whatever you want to pay ‘em. This is mine and this is the way we’re doing it.”
What we do know, from the UFC class action lawsuit discovery process, is that fighter compensation was projected to make up about 17% of revenue expenses in 2020 (with various fighter related expenses driving their total revenue share up to about 20%). A far far lower percentage than athletes get from the ‘Big 4’ sports in the US, where collective bargaining has played a huge role in contract negotiations.
And as for other MMA promotions. Back in 2014 Bellator’s estimated revenue was less than 1/10th of what the UFC brought in via their North American market alone. The UFC may be the highest paying promotion in the world, but they’re also raking in many, many times over the income of any possible competition. Moody’s reported that the UFC brought in a total of $890 million in revenue in 2020.
So, while fans may not get to know the details of each and every fighter’s contract and how much money, all told each of the promotion’s top stars bring in after every event, they do have a pretty good idea of just how much the UFC is budgeting for their talent overall. And that at least seems like enough information for the discussion to stay public, rather than staying limited purely to athletes and promotion executives.