Pandora's Box Is Lined With Gold: How Money Fights Are Damaging the UFC
Most observers of the sport of MMA will agree that the fighters are underpaid. Fighting three times a year for 20-grand to show and 20-grand to win ain’t a healthy way to make a living. Would you take 20-grand to put your head in front of a moving vehicle and 20-grand if you survived? I wouldn’t.
But if your name is Phil ‘CM Punk’ Brooks and you’re making 500-grand, you're right you would. Or if you’re Conor McGregor and routinely bring in PPV-smashing numbers, you’re damn right you would – because you’re consistency as a competitor merits larger purses with each subsequent fight. Therein lies the rub.
The UFC has evolved over the last two years into a structure so vastly different than what we saw in the early 90’s it may as well not be on the same planet. The structure isn’t even what it was in the mid-aughts, although you could argue it’s on the same continent. Truth is, over the last two years, MMA has evolved ever so much as the differences between Boston to New York. It's the same language but spoken much differently.
Take for instance this situation: Michael Bisping is defending his title against Dan Henderson. Dan Henderson. To say Henderson isn’t deserving of a title crack based on his own recent history isn’t even the point - it’s that there are at a number of fighters who are more deserving. The UFC is using a blood rivalry that seemingly ended seven years ago to market a fight. Bisping himself wasn’t considered worthy of a title shot until becoming a last moment replacement.
Somehow in the UFC business model, not being a consistent winner gets you a prime cut. It doesn’t matter if a fighter is on an eight-fight winning streak, they could be fighting at 20/20 and make peanuts. The only sensible strategy then for the average fighter is to fight so often, you finish your contract quickly and can renegotiate for more money. But this is a combat sport. Fighting out a contract could take two or three years, depending on your health.
So what’s a fighter to do? Well, as they say about the NFL: if it works, steal it. A host of fighters are looking at what McGregor has accomplished and added their voice to the growing chorus seeking ‘money fights’. Ignoring for a moment that not McGregor doesn’t ask for a money fights, he quite literally creates them, this is a sad development. Watching fighters trying their best to steal the playbook McGregor has written can be difficult. Sometimes, it’s worked (see. Diaz, Nate). Other times, it hasn’t (see. Woodley, Tyrone). Just look at the Jeremy Stephens incident at the 205 presser was. It was painful. Stephens isn’t made for it. Most fighters aren’t made for it.
As an aside, this development is perhaps the most nefarious. The gravitational force that McGregor has become is crushing fighters who get caught in his orbit. It is legitimately hurting their images and reputations like collateral damage. Stephens was laughed at in front of a stadium full of people and by a stage full of his peers. Donald Cerrone, who was in McGregor’s cross-hairs last year at the UFC's Go Big presser, looked forlorn under his trademark Stetson on stage. Frankie Edgar, Jose Aldo; whether you like these fighters or not, it’s genuinely difficult to not pity them. And pity is not a good filter through which to view a fighter (it ain't the same as when they're flat on their back after a hellacious knockout). Furthermore, watching these fighters try to handle the demands of promoting a ‘money fight’ and failing is no different than watching them fall on their face in the cage.
So what is an MMA fighter to do if they choose not to play that game? The next logical step is likely litigation. Jose Aldo’s coach, Andre Pederneiras, has already hinted that Aldo may take the UFC to court to enforce his release request. And why shouldn’t he? If his income ceiling is dependent on being the champion by letting McGregor not defend that belt, the UFC is ensuring Aldo loses money. Aldo’s resume reads like a President but he’s taking Vice President gigs – and the President is absent, drinking fine-ass whiskey somewhere.
Many will contend that the UFC is a private company and owes Aldo no obligation. Sure, if that’s the way you think the world should work. Except in this case, the UFC is not an equal opportunity employer. They are not giving the opportunities to fighters who have the resume to warrant it.
Imagine If you were unequivocally the best at your job. No one else in the office has ever come close. Your boss hires some charismatic newbie. The newbie blazes a trail of good work to the point your bosses, smitten with the newbie, put you together on a project. The newbie spends the whole time talking shit about you to coworkers, the bosses, anyone that will listen. You get rattled and don’t do you best work. The bosses reward the newbie with every project you once would have worked – for the next year. You’d be pissed. You’d wanna quit. Then you’d probably wanna sue.
It should also be noted that it doesn’t feel like too much of a coincidence that the Fertitta’s are getting out of the MMA business at this juncture. Just the same way the NFL began changing the rules to make their game safer and ‘protect the players’ began shortly before it was revealed they spent years ignoring the issue of CTE, perhaps the previous owners of the UFC were distancing themselves from the sport before things got worse.
The fighters in the UFC are trying to make what money they can because the UFC has created a structure that demands it. It’s hard to argue against it when a fighter like McGregor is involved. Bu for every McGregor, who is at least entertaining true challenges by jumping up in weight, you get Bisping entertaining a challenge of a lesser variety.
The irony is that MMA appears headed down the same road as boxing. Most boxing historians will point to the 70’s and mid-80’s as the greatest years in the sport. There were generational talents in every weight class, from the ones you know, like Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray, Roberto Duran, Marvin Hagler, George Foreman, and Joe Frazier. Then, as the money grew, those premium matchups began to dry up.
Of the top ten highest purses for a single fight, seven of the fighters spent the prime of their careers after the year 2000 – Oscar De La Hoya, Floyd Mayweather, Manny Pacquiao, Wladimir Klitchsko, David Haye, Vitali Klitchko, and Miguel Cotto. The other three had the prime of their careers in the 90’s – Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, and Lennox Lewis (and Lewis is borderline, his biggest payday came against Tyson in 2001).
So as the sport became less competitive, the purses grew. Was it a lack of talent? Perhaps. Regardless, the best on the best became a more rare sight. Because ‘the best’ knew how much control they had. They knew the less they fought each other, the more they grew their record, the more sustained their earning power became and the higher the purse for that prime fight would be. At it’s most simple, we get the current escapade of Saul Alvarez and Gennedy Golovkin. At its worst, we get eight years of waiting to get Mayweather and Pacquiao.
If the UFC’s new matchmaking pattern is any sign, we may see these days ahead. While it’s fun every once and a while, making it a consistent habit will only undermine the value of the title belts. This could lead to a day where UFC fighters refuse fights that are too competitive and instead push for fights that make them more money. Maybe it leads to fighters collaborating behind the scenes on how to promote a fight together. Maybe this leads to fighters turning down title fights because the title fight offered isn’t as big of a draw. Maybe we see the elite jumping up or down in weight to find that money fight instead. Maybe the elite competing against each other becomes rarer.
Maybe but maybe not. It’s just amusing to see the world that Dana White and the UFC have made for themselves looking so much like the sport they make fun of. In it for a dime, in for a dollar.
Rhys Dowbiggin @Rdowb
Rhys has worked six years in the public relations industry rubbing shoulders with movie stars (who ignored him) to athletes (who tolerated him). He likes tiki-taka football, jelly beans, and arguing with Bruce about everything.