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There can be no doubt that the Ultimate Fighting Championship has been a successful business venture. Its story of going from a $2 million company in 2001 -- and one that wasn’t even profitable until 2005 -- to a $4 billion company in 2017 is staggering enough, but consider the fact that this growth occurred in a marketplace where virtually every other competing organization struggled to stay in the black. The UFC’s rise has been a remarkable achievement on paper.
Yet in spite of the evidence of the business savvy working behind the curtains, the powers that be still continue a puzzling practice: incentivizing fighters through win bonuses. For most fighters, their purse consists of “show money,” which is then doubled if they win. In theory, this sounds reasonable, but reality paints a different picture.
Longtime UFC commentator Joe Rogan made a case for getting rid of the win bonus system on a recent edition of his JRE MMA Show podcast: “I think a guy should be paid what they get paid. I think if you have a contract it should be for X amount of money, but the idea that your win or loss could be in the hands of what we have deemed completely incompetent judges … there’s guys in there that are fighting for their life. They literally train for months and months, and someone who literally doesn’t understand martial arts is giving these guys a decision, a loss or a win. That’s 50 percent of their money. That’s crazy.”
Indeed it is. Rogan’s main gripe was how a fighter’s financial livelihood can be affected by faulty judging, which is completely valid. We’ll come back to that later. It is also important to note, however, that the win bonus accomplishes the exact opposite of what it is meant to do.
The idea behind awarding a fighter additional money for winning is to incentivize performance, thus improving the product for viewers. Theoretically, if a contest is close, the idea of a doubled purse will enter a fighter’s mind mid-round, inspiring him to dig deep and look for the knockout or submission. I don’t think that happens. Think of what fighters do to secure a victory. That’s right: It starts with a T and ends with an “akedown.” For the wrestling purists among us, that may not be a bad thing, but for the majority of fans, lay-and-pray rabbit punching from guard is where fights become boring. It’s a given that no professional fighter wants to lose, so financial rewards for winning tend to incentivize conservative strategy.
Then there’s the issue that Rogan brought up about the fallibility of judges. Though the admonishment “don’t leave it in the hands of the judges” is regularly trotted out whenever bad decisions occur, it’s a stupid phrase that should be retired. Of course, no one wants to go to the judges; every fighter would love to knock out his opponent with the first jab he throws. However, judges are a reality of the sport. These are unfathomably tough wild men and women who are just as motivated to win as the next person. No fighter will go through their career without “leaving it in the hands of the judges,” and since it’s a guarantee that judging is an imperfect art, Rogan is right to contend that a fighter’s paycheck shouldn’t be determined by someone who may or may not know what is happening in front of them. Fighters already risk their physical wellbeing and pride; they deserve the security of a paycheck, no matter what happens in a sport where “anything can happen.”
You may be wondering: Who am I to judge the business acumen behind the largest, most successful MMA promotion on the planet? It’s not as if my chosen professions -- teaching and writing -- are signs of good economic judgment. I understand the sentiment, but there are illuminating parallels between teachers and fighters. Teachers teach and fighters fight because they are intrinsically motivated to do what they love. It’s laughable to think anyone goes into either profession for the big bucks. Attempts to pay teachers based on performance have largely failed due to the fact that there’s no clean way to measure performance. Don’t leave it in the hands of the standardized test. This is comparable to the inherent messiness of trying to quantify a fight on a scorecard.
On the contrary, research shows that two factors reliably improve the quality of performance in any field: financial stability and administrative support. These are the two most common responses on exit surveys for why teachers leave the profession, and two of the biggest hurdles in the UFC today. A fighter’s paycheck is often at the mercy of uncontrollable factors -- whether or not his opponent is able to fight and the moment-by-moment mood of UFC President Dana White, for instance -- so he has no way to reasonably expect payment. On top of that, the pittance of entry-level fighter pay and absence of negotiating representation all but assures that the most talented athletes will pursue more lucrative sports.
So why does the UFC continue to utilize this type of incentive model? I have my theories. The roaring success of the UFC as a business starts to look a little less impressive and a little more nefarious once you realize it has been built on the back of exploitative pay structure.
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.