Opinion: Are MMA Fighters Underpaid?
By Jesse Heitz
The decision of Strikeforce to cancel its Melendez vs. Healy event after lightweight (155 pounds) champion Gilbert Melendez was forced to withdraw due to injury, has left us with a surplus of questions to ponder, of that there can be no doubt. However, one issue stands out in particular.
That issue is the Strikeforce announcement that the fighters who were to compete on the now cancelled card are to be compensated, and its many avenues of possible contemplation.
The debate of whether MMA fighters are underpaid or whether their salaries are perfectly acceptable has been a constant discussion arguably since the inception of the sport. Many MMA forums have lit up with fervent exchanges of ideas on the subject for as long as I can remember. If one followed the sport in the age when Pride and the UFC were bitter rivals, a common thread was how well fighters were paid in Japan as opposed to their stateside counterparts.
With Zuffa becoming essentially the only premier host of top-shelf MMA after it gobbled up Pride half a decade ago and subsequently added Strikeforce to its rotation, we’re left pondering whether or not MMA fighters are receiving fair compensation. We don’t even entertain the discussion when it comes to the fighters outside of the UFC or Strikeforce, as we’re all relatively certain that those fighters can’t quit their day jobs and hope to keep food on the table by becoming a full-time fighter.
Once upon a time, back in 1993 when UFC 1 was held, and Royce Gracie took the world by storm, the UFC didn’t bother with offering its fighters anything to show up. You were only able to obtain a paycheck if you won the entire tournament. Even that was a paltry $50,000 dollars, which might just have been able to cover the reconstructive dental costs that surely stemmed from four brutal fights in one night.
Sure, today’s biggest draws and marquee names make some serious money for each fight, easily becoming millionaires after one year of fighting. Georges St. Pierre has repeatedly claimed that when all is said and done, he makes approximately $5 million per fight. Of course these figures represent the near $500,000 in base salary, potential win bonuses that could double said amount, and the all-important percentage of pay-per-view buys.
Yet, the lesser draws, the non-main event fighters still make what can be argued are woefully insufficient salaries for the general rigors of the job. For the UFC, these fighters typically earn around $6,000 to show and another $6,000 to win, for a grand total of $12,000 if all goes well. Twenty years ago at the winner of the UFC tournament earned $500 per fight than a current low-end UFC fighter who wins his fight.
Now we hear that Strikeforce is going to compensate the fighters on its cancelled card. Although the fine print is that it will offer “partial compensation” for the time fighters ultimately wasted in training camps. One could safely assume that Strikeforce offered this gesture to keep its many discontent fighters from pursuing opportunities elsewhere.
I don’t see a scenario in which we see the average Zuffa-based fighter getting a pay increase, but it could very well be possible that we see a migration of talent from Strikeforce in particular, and toward the open arms of a promotion (if one exists) or possible promoter with pocketbooks large enough to capitalize on the situation.