Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Exploitation of MMA Fighters

In recent years, mixed martial arts (MMA) has seen a tremendous surge in popularity. The MMA industry has largely been built on the backs of men who trained tirelessly, fought courageously and suffered incredible pain and terrible injuries, all for nominal sums of money. The disparity between the earnings of the fighters and the earnings of the promoters flew under the radar for the first couple of years. As the sport grew more and more popular, it became harder for promoters to both justify paying the talent so niggardly a pittance and still keep the exploitative nature of their industry a secret.

"Exploitation" is a strong word but it seems an appropriate description of how fighters are treated. To wit, it has been estimated that UFC fighters are paid roughly 7.5% of the revenue, with the other 92.5% going to the promoters1 That seems an inadequate reward for risking serious harm and disfigurement.

Example A: Former middleweight champion Rich Franklin, unquestionably a future UFC Hall-of-Famer. Franklin played a huge part in the growth of the sport and of the UFC in particular. As great as Franklin's accomplishments are, he will always be remembered equally for the thrashing he received at the hands of now reigning champion Anderson Silva in their unforgettable match at UFC 64. Franklin was horribly disfigured by a knee to the face that broke his nose (which remains grotesquely misshapen even after extensive plastic surgery). He had this to say about the discrepancy between earnings and pay.

"If I could change one thing, I would change the paydays...I'm just concerned about my future."

Who are these promoters growing rich off of the blood, sweat and tears of others? The most visible offender is UFC president Dana White, an aerobics instructor turned entrepreneur worth an estimated $150 million2. White justifies his tightness with the purse strings by explaining fighters are rewarded with bonuses for an outstanding performance3.

"We bonus these guys with big checks. Plus there's bonuses built into the fights. Trust me when I tell you these guys are making a lot of money and we are on par with all these other sports."

That sounds nice on paper, but the base payouts are so low that even with bonuses galore, fighters are still grossly underpaid. And what if you lose? What if you win but just don't have that great of a fight? You can't hit a home run every time you're at bat, after all. Fighters just starting out make between $4000 and $6000 as a base payout4. At a minimum, fighters need the same necessities everyone needs—food, shelter, clothing, medicine and transportation. Most notable is the cost of medical care, a serious consideration for someone risking their health every time they enter the octagon. Additionally, fighters incur expenses to pay for their own gym memberships, training equipment, sparring partners, etc. None of this is covered by the promoters and all of these have to be subtracted from the $4,000 purse, alongside the bills everyone has to pay; gas, electricity, phone, car insurance, etc. It's a wonder a rising star can so much as break even and most do not.

Former UFC heavyweight champion and Pride Grand Prix 2000 champion Mark Coleman was candid about his poor performance against Mauricio Rua in 2009.

"I didn't have any money for a training camp before this fight. Those things cost money, man and I just couldn't afford it."

Looking at Coleman, it's hard to escape the reality of the situation—for most, there is no future in MMA, not even for those who reach the elite pinnacle of fighting for world titles. There is no guaranteed money, no pension, no healthcare plan and the promoters literally pay you what they feel like paying you. This spurs the question, why are so many fighters willing to suffer this exploitation? You have to remember many of the athletes currently competing in MMA were at one point elite athletes in their respective sports of wrestling, judo, jiu-jitsu, SAMBO, etc. And while there is very little money in MMA, there is even less money in something like freestyle wrestling. As chronicled in the HBO documentary The Smashing Machine, Coleman first entered into MMA out of desperation and a need to provide for his wife and two children. He's hardly alone. As hard as it is to watch a guy like Ken Shamrock hobble around on bad knees getting bludgeoned by guys half his age, he has 7 kids across two marriages and no other way to feed them. On a side note, both Coleman and Shamrock are UFC Hall-of-Famers. Their contributions to the sport are enormous. How truly heartbreaking it is to see them both in such dire straits.

What is the solution? Forming a union seems the only long term solution, but MMA is different from team sports like basketball and baseball. When a team or (group of teams) strike, it is many athletes striking in unison. When a fighter goes on strike, it's very likely there will be 10 up and comers dying for the chance to take his place. The only way it could work is if the champions and contenders were to strike in solidarity with the less favored. For now, the options available to fighters remain slim and dismal.

Editor's note: the UFC instituted a health care plan for fighters that has been expanded as of July 9, 2012 to provide coverage for pre-existing conditions.

1. UFC Discretionary Bonuses and Revenue vs. Fighter Payouts
2. Dana White's Net Worth
3. Dana White Answers Critics
4. UFC 130 Payouts, Salaries and Earnings 

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