In the aftermath of UFC 265, one question I heard bandied about stuck with me. That question, are we going to see more fighters like Ciryl Gane in the UFC heavyweight division?
A division populated by (relatively) young man mountains who have the natural ability to pick up the skills required to compete at the highest level of MMA in less than three years? The mind reels at the prospect.
Picture it. A heavyweight division chock full of fighters like Gane. It’s a beautiful dream. Colossal competitors who have all the skill, grace, style, ability and athleticism of fighters half their size. No more plodding behemoths staggering around the cage, sucking for air as they recharge their batteries between strikes. Alas, it is but a dream. The reason? MMA pay is rubbish.
Do you want to know why many high-level athletes don’t transition into MMA after college? It’s because they have other options to make a better living. Sure, some folks won’t ever consider MMA because of what the sport entails, but those that might consider it are likely to look at the low pay and move on to other careers.
The opportunity to make an NFL practice squad is exponentially more lucrative than a fresh career in MMA. Where an MMA fighter competing for a small promotion will be lucky to break even, a player on an NFL practice squad — with less than two years’ experience — earned $8,400 per week ($142,800 for 17 weeks) in 2020. A practice squad player with over two years’ experience made $12,000 per week ($204,000 for 17 weeks) in 2020.
Derrick Lewis didn’t make that kind of money for a single fight until he was 15 fights into his UFC career and 27 fights into his professional career. Lewis earned $135,000/$135,000 for his bout against Alexander Volkov at UFC 229. He was eight years into his MMA career by then and four years into his UFC run.
Now, before you say Lewis fought more than once in that year, bite your tongue and consider that in 2018, Lewis fought, on average, once every 13.5 weeks. With that, a 17-week paycheck is an apt comparison.
Sure, you’ll get former NFL players who try MMA after they can’t make a club any longer (Eryk Anders, etc.) or who are no longer welcome in the league because of their off field run-ins with the law (Greg Hardy), but an athlete who can make a practice squad in the NFL will almost certainly roll the dice there before they consider MMA, especially if they have a family to support. It just makes better financial sense to do so.
MMA is simply not a sport to choose if there are other options. The journey to the top promotion can be long, hard and arduous and even if an athlete makes the cut, there’s no guarantee they will make the UFC, which still only pays (for most fighters) $12,000/$12,000 to start.
Yes, there will be outliers like Gane, but if the biggest MMA promotion in the world wants to attract big-time athletes, it’s going to need to offer big-time money to compete with the other options those athletes have. Hell, the median income of a personal trainer is $62.665 according to salary.com and that (usually) comes without the fringe benefit of not getting punched and kicked in the head.
It would be nice if Ciryl Gane is the future of what we’ll see in the heavyweight division, but don’t expect it.