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UFC battles narrative on fighter pay

By Adam Stern

As business booms for UFC, on the heels of a record year, the company continues to battle criticism over how much it pays fighters.

Amplified by social media influencer/boxer Jake Paul, as well as comments by UFC fighters, the issue remains a hot-button topic throughout the MMA world. UFC says it pays its fighters more than any other MMA promotion, and that the average compensation has risen by more than 600% since 2005.

Still, UFC faces antitrust lawsuits from former fighters, frequent high-profile barbs from Paul and a public contract dispute with heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou.

Fighters are independent contractors, but as UFC turned into a global behemoth, calls have grown to give fighters  a bigger slice of revenue. UFC has several hundred fighters under contract at any one time.

Heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou has been vocal about his contract talks with UFC.getty images

Critics claim that UFC only shares 16% of its revenue with fighters when determining their split for an event. UFC COO Lawrence Epstein disputed that figure, when interviewed this month, but declined to provide specifics.

UFC saw record revenue last year, according to statements by UFC executives and earnings reports from parent company Endeavor, on the back of all-time highs for pay-per-view units sold, a return to fans in arenas after a pandemic-affected 2020, and a host of new sponsorships.

On top of saying that fighter pay is growing, Epstein said UFC is investing heavily in growing its brand globally — for example, building several performance institutes and working to get the sport legalized in more countries. It also handles its own production, unlike major stick-and-ball sports.

“Some of the stuff is completely disingenuous,” Epstein said of the criticism over fighter pay. He believes  three primary factors have led to the current situation: Paul’s focus on the issue; fighters going public with contract negotiations to gain public backing they can leverage in the talks; and broader societal shifts in America where workers are demanding higher salaries.

“With Jake Paul, he profits from the attention economy where the more attention you get, the more money you get,” Epstein said.

The slow-moving anti-trust cases UFC faces include accusations that the company violated antitrust acts by having monopoly power over fighters in the MMA industry. UFC does have competition, in the form of Bellator, the Professional Fighters League, Eagle FC and ONE Championship, but they are much smaller properties with much lower revenue.

Epstein said UFC is always evaluating ways it can improve and looking at what competition is doing.

In January, Ngannou spoke out about his contract with UFC and his desire to test out boxing in his next deal. Ngannou’s deal is believed to expire at the end of this year, and UFC President Dana White told ESPN this month that he’s “hopeful and confident” that UFC will be able to come to terms on a renewal. Meanwhile, Ngannou has hyped up a potential UFC/boxing crossover match-up with British heavyweight champion Tyson Fury.

Boxers still routinely make more money in their fights than UFC competitors. In the case of boxing’s top stars, the disparity can be exponential. For example, while he’s seen as the best fighter in the world and makes many times more than the average boxer, Mexican star Canelo Alvarez just signed a deal for three fights for what is reported to be as much as $160 million, or roughly $53.3 million a fight.

Ngannou told reporters that he made $600,000 in base salary for his most recent UFC fight in January, although it was unclear how much additional pay he received from a cut of pay-per-view sales.

Ngannou also recently told MMA reporter Ariel Helwani that prior to his January fight, UFC threatened to sue his agent, CAA’s Marquel Martin, for allegedly talking to Paul’s adviser, Nakisa Bidarian, about boxing options while Ngannou was still under contract.

Bidarian is the former CFO of UFC. UFC’s White has accused Paul of using talking points from Bidarian when criticizing the UFC over fighter pay.

Paul told Sports Business Journal last month that he’s more encouraged than discouraged by the impact he’s had on driving the debate over fighter pay.

“More encouraged, but encouragement isn’t what’s driving this,” said Paul, who has taken a break from boxing himself as he promotes an upcoming women’s fight between Amanda Serrano and Katie Taylor. “This is about actual change, and we know we’re shaking down the tree and the steps we’re taking. We’re encouraging other MMA fighters and people in UFC such as Francis [Ngannou] to speak out about these topics like health care, so a revolution has started and it’s one small step at a time.”

Besides fighter pay, UFC has faced challenges to share more of its sponsorship revenue with fighters. UFC announced a host of new sponsorships and renewals last year, including a nine-figure deal with Crypto.com and renewals with the likes of Modelo for low eight figures annually.

UFC said it helps fighters land endorsements, citing nearly two dozen fighters who are aligned with Monster Energy, three aligned with Modelo, two with Guaranteed Rate and one apiece with Crypto.com and Dapper Labs. It also shares revenue from NFT sales 50/50 with fighters.

UFC says it provides fighters a marketing platform that, if capitalized on, can lead to major wealth like that amassed by superstar Conor McGregor or, to a lesser extent, Ronda Rousey.

Two of the fighting property’s most recognizable fighters, Israel Adesanya and Jorge Masvidal, did recently announce that they’ve signed contract extensions with UFC. UFC would not confirm details of the fighters’ contracts, instead pointing to statements by the fighters’ agents saying they signed deals making them among the top fighters either in the history of the series or currently. Sources projected that those fighters are now likely making somewhere between the low to mid-seven figures per fight.

Paul tweeted about the contracts, saying, “Indeed well-deserved for Izzy, but unfortunately Tyson Fury still makes more than both of you combined for fighting.”

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