Opinion: In Terms of Dollars and Sense, Solidarity Among UFC Stars Remains Elusive

By Jacob Debets Oct 1, 2019
The ordering process for Ultimate Fighting Championship pay-per-views has changed: UFC 243 is only available on ESPN+ in the U.S.

Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

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In a courtroom in downtown Las Vegas late last month, internal investor documents filed as part of the antitrust lawsuit against the Ultimate Fighting Championship vindicated what a small number of journalists had been claiming for years: The UFC only pays around 20 percent of revenue to fighters, and has actively ensured investors that it would preserve that figure moving forward. Whereas individual fighter data has been largely redacted from public documents, reporting by Bloody Elbow’s John Nash has expertly drilled into the contours of that 20/80 split, including in relation to what the highest-paid fighters have made in aggregate over the years (hint: it’s not as much as many expected), the economics of the UFC’s events and detailed information on the promotion’s historical revenue/expenses.

Two weeks after the antitrust hearings wrapped up, at a fan event held during the week of UFC Fight Night 158 in Vancouver, British Columbia, former welterweight champion Tyron Woodley appeared on stage for a Q&A. Woodley -- whose title reign at 170 pounds was marred by frequent criticism from UFC President Dana White for declining fights (code for attempting to negotiate more beneficial conditions for himself) -- was asked about longtime nemesis and onetime interim champion Colby Covington.

“Colby does a good job of putting his own foot in his mouth,” Woodley said, referring to the news that Covington had attempted to negotiate a higher purse for his championship bout with Kamaru Usman at UFC 244 before the promotion withdrew its offer and booked Jorge Masvidal-Nate Diaz in the headlining spot. “I know people say that about me, but he’s a complete dumbass. He’s talked himself out of three world title fights. He was supposed to fight me before I fought [Darren] Till; he bitched out of that fight. He was supposed to fight me before I fought Usman; he bitched out of that fight. You guys can do the math as to what he did with the Usman fight.”

A few days after the Q&A, flyweight prospect Maycee Barber during an interview with The Score was asked about Paige VanZant, who has recently aired gripes about her remuneration and indicated she will fight out her UFC contract and test the free agent market.

“She would not be anywhere that she is right now without the UFC and what she’s done and what they’ve given her, so she didn’t hold up her end of the bargain,” Barber said. “When the UFC signed her, I think they saw someone who had very good marketability and they thought could fight, and she’s not holding up her end of the deal. She’s not fighting. She’s not fighting anybody, and she’s trying to duck all these girls; and she’s ducking me.”

The list goes on, but you get the idea. Even as more and more sunlight gets shed on the UFC’s exploitative business practices, many fighters’ default remains to side with the promotion against their fellow fighters when it comes to public pay disputes. Whereas few fighters would ever go on record saying that they are overpaid -- the consensus, even without the hard evidence we’re now in possession of, is the exact opposite -- there is a cultural aversion to seeing their situations in context and an exasperating insistence on waging their own battles with the promotion as individuals rather than together. When another fighter on the roster complains about his or her conditions or calls for something approaching cooperation across the trenches, the modus operandi of most is to keep silent or, like Woodley and Barber, appropriate the issue for trash-talking and fight-selling, effectively reinforcing the UFC’s narrative that recalcitrant fighters are greedy and ungrateful, rather than waging a principled struggle for fairer treatment.

At one point, this cognitive dissonance was more understandable. Back when pay data consisted of what certain athletic commissions disclosed and the UFC managed to muddy the water by pointing to confidential “locker room bonuses” and pay-per-view points to obfuscate the true nature of its business model. Back when former UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta would straight-up lie to journalists by claiming that the UFC, like other major United States sports leagues, paid close to 50 percent of its revenue to fighters.

That time is over, and yet, the data on fighter-exploitation doesn’t seem to have landed in the hands of the athletes themselves. White remains committed to the same old deflections when pressed on fighter pay -- brilliantly deconstructed by Ben Fowlkes at The Athletic -- and the fighters seem perfectly content to accept these at face value. The roster barely made a peep when ranked bantamweight Leslie Smith was cut in retaliation for her unionizing efforts, and now, as the evidence paints a more detailed picture of the UFC’s negotiating tactics, from the weaponization of matchmaking to unilateral contract extensions, the silence is deafening.

Jacob Debets is a law graduate and writer from Melbourne, Australia. He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics of the MMA industry. You can view more of his writing at jacobdebets.com. Advertisement

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