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I’m not sure if it was just me, as I am admittedly one who tends to overanalyze things, but there was something in the air at the post-fight press conference for UFC Fight Night “MacDonald vs. Thompson” on Saturday in Ottawa, Ontario. Aside from the buoyant optimism of Stephen Thompson -- who, I might add, comes off very much like a glimpse of Sage Northcutt 13 years in the future -- a sullen, pensive atmosphere persisted.
Maybe it was how Director of Operations for UFC Canada Tom Wright started the conference by innocuously clarifying that the bonus winners would be getting paid in American dollars, not Canadian. “Oh, U.S.?” Donald Cerrone asked jokingly, which would have been easy to dismiss as just a joke if it weren’t for his later comments. It was an important distinction to make, as $50,000 CAD is in the range of $39,000 USD.
On the one hand, it’s weird to consider that a difference of roughly $11,000 would be a big deal for professional athletes at the highest level of their sport, since we’re generally accustomed to the idea that they are all comfortably wealthy, if not excessively so. On the other hand, that difference between $50,000 Canadian and $50,000 American is about as much as Joanne Calderwood was guaranteed to make in her last fight. Think about that for a second; the show money for one of the brightest talents and more recognizable names of a division can be swallowed up in the exchange rate of a fight bonus.
It’s no wonder Calderwood seemed as dour as she did. Despite a spectacular performance in the first women’s flyweight bout in Ultimate Fighting Championship history, Calderwood seemed preoccupied. It was a fight that would have been a lock for a bonus on most other cards, as she faced a top-five opponent in Valerie Letourneau and finished a woman Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Claudia Gadelha could not. Compare her demeanor from this press conference to how she was after UFC Fight Night 72 in July, and there is a noticeable difference. Of course, armchair psychoanalysis on its own is not substantive, but Calderwood also posted this to her Instagram account shortly after the fight, which may explain why she appeared to be so somber and unenthused when she said: “I just felt like this was my potential finally showing. I’m just in a good place and I’ve got the right team behind me now. Everything rolled into place, and it was a great experience.” Never have those words been spoken after a big win with such little conviction.
Calderwood made the jump to the Tristar Gym for this camp, and she has never looked better. Though she was eliminated by eventual finalist Rose Namajunas Season 20 of “The Ultimate Fighter,” Calderwood still entered the promotion with high expectations. She was officially undefeated, and she had the muay Thai pedigree to make her an immediate contender in the freshly minted strawweight division. Though she was upset by Maryna Moroz in her second UFC fight, she seems to be back on track and a few fights away from a crack at the title. You’d think things would be going well for her.
Here’s why they’re not: Calderwood made $8,000 to show and another $8,000 to win in her first UFC appearance and a flat $10,000 for her second fight, since she didn’t win. Not counting her “Fight of the Night” bonus against Cortney Casey, she made $12,000 to show and doubled down for the win bonus. That means she likely made a total of $28,000 this weekend, not counting the $2,500 from Reebok. It sure puts a negative tint on the biggest professional accomplishment of your life when you only go home with 30 grand.
The funny thing -- and I mean funny in the “I want to cry, but it comes out as a laugh” kind of funny -- is that the UFC consistently sells the notion that it’s on a path to legitimacy on par with other major sports. However, imagine if an NFL or NBA player announced that he had to work and save up money before he was able to train with his team. It sounds more like a high school grad talking about deferring college for a year than a top-10 fighter talking about fight preparation. Yet that’s where we are with the state of fighter pay. It’s particularly baffling since Calderwood is a promising talent in a compelling weight class. Her ability to continue training and performing at a high level is in the long-term financial interest of the UFC, especially as its popularity in European markets continues to grow.
Of course, Calderwood is much more soft-spoken and in a position of significantly less leverage than Cerrone, who brazenly stated how he felt about his paychecks. You’d hope his comments would resonate with the powers that be, coming from someone who epitomizes what the UFC wants out of its fighters: He’s exciting in and out of the cage, he’s active and he’s willing to fight anyone at any time on a moment’s notice. Call me crazy, but I’m not holding my breath that anyone got the message, at least not in a broad, generalizable way. This is to say nothing of the tricky position in which Rory MacDonald finds himself having now completed his contract on a two-fight losing streak.
Something was indeed in the air at the press conference, spawning from something that wasn’t there. It was a night of busy thoughts and empty wallets.
I’m not sure what else there is to say about this; every time fighter pay comes up, it adds a new wrinkle to the same tired story of billionaires making millions off of people who earn thousands. The shortsightedness of the UFC brass is unrelenting, and it was on full display after the fights this weekend. Calderwood, Cerrone and MacDonald deserve more. Every fighter does.
Hailing from Kailua, Hawai’i, Eric Stinton has been contributing to Sherdog since 2014. He received his BFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University and graduate degree in Special Education from University of Hawai’i. He is an occasional columnist for Honolulu Civil Beat, and his work has also appeared in The Classical. You can find his writing at ericstinton.com. He currently lives in Seoul with his fiancé and dachshund.