To borrow a Formula One phrase, it’s ‘Lights out and away we go,” folks.
Fighter pay in the UFC is going to trial.
Aside from risking their literal bodies for their profession, fighters signed to the UFC promotion have been waging for an apparently insurmountable cause for years.
But news released yesterday will give them their chance to plead their case properly once and for all.
The amount of moving parts in this debacle is astounding but it all amounts to one key question, does the UFC pay its fighters fairly? Let’s dive in.
That’s the short answer, but let’s rewind a bit.
Back in 2014, two lawsuits were filed against the UFC for what was claimed to be “unfair business practices”.
At its heart, the cases allege that the UFC unfairly crushes competition from other promoters, establishing themselves as a monopsony within the mixed martial arts market; the only viable entity for fighters to join. This would therefore be violating anti-trust laws.
A monopsony the UFC most certainly is. According to Bloody Elbow research from 2021, “the UFC has a 90% share in both the domestic and international market; so for every one dollar that goes to MMA promotions, 90 cents of that is going to the UFC.”
As a result of this, fighters are alleging that the UFC can pay their fighters cents on the dollar knowing they are the only show in town.
The first, known as Le et al., covers purported UFC anticompetitive conduct from December 2010 through June 2017. The second, Johnson et al, covers the same claims but between July 2017 to the present.
Six years of to’ing and fro’ing led to the judge, Richard F. Boulware, granting both cases ‘class’ status in 2020. This means that the lawsuit can be brought against the UFC collectively by a large group of fighters.
As of last week, Le et al, which has been quagmired in resolutions for five-and-a-half years, is about to get a rocket booster strapped to it.
Boulware’s intention, he told the press junket in the court, was to schedule a trial for March or April next year. The UFC will, naturally, file an appeal which will be granted or denied within 100 days and then it’s on to courtroom drama.
For UFC president, Dana White and co, there really could be trouble ahead and to understand why, let’s break down how fighters on his roster get paid.
Typically when a fighter joins the UFC roster, they are signed to contracts usually beginning at a low tier. The lowest of these, for prospects signed from regional shows or younger foreign talent, they will agree to be paid between $10,000 and $30,000 a fight.
Exceptions to this rule cover high-profile MMA competitors from other promotions, such as when former Bellator lightweight champion Michael Chandler joined the UFC, his first payout was $303,000 per MMA Salaries.
Stacking victories and making a name will earn contracts of between $80,000 and $250,000. Significant outliers like Conor McGregor earn in the multi-millions per fight but they are extremely rare.
Fighters can also earn bonuses through their performances, in the range of $50,000, though typically these are only awarded to two fighters per card.
Fighters used to be able to make as much as their contract per fight and more through personal endorsements on their fight kit such as top sportsbooks like those in legal states like Pennsylvania or food and drinks brands.
But this was quashed by the UFC introducing kit deals with companies like Reebok and Under Armour. Fighters do not receive any compensation from wearing this apparel.
But even getting to the cage is an expensive journey. John Cholish, a former UFC lightweight, held down a fulltime job as a stockbroker alongside his fight career.
He reasoned that if he won a fight in Brazil on his last contract with no bonus, he would be roughly $6,000 out of pocket after training camp expenses, medicals, travel and foreign taxes.
Many other UFC fighters have spoken openly about their second careers whilst fighting for the promotion, including ‘raging Al Iaquinta’ a multiple-time challenger for the lightweight title.
What if the fight falls through, as they commonly do, due to injury? Both fighters in the bout work on a ‘no-show, no fee’ basis meaning unless a replacement can be found, the fighters will not be paid.
This happened for the recent UFC 291 card, when Alex Perreira missed weight to fight Stephen ‘Wonderboy’ Thompson.
Despite both being in the top 10% in terms of name recognition for fight fans and casuals, Wonderboy was no exception to the UFC’s rule and though he was good to go, received $0 when Peirreira couldn’t make the walk.
Fighters union I hear you say? Well, the UFC has done such a good job marketing and positioning itself as the place to be until now, that most fighters are afraid to go on record with their grievances for fear of repercussions.
In addition, and crucial to the Le and Fitch cases, the UFC demands attention, funding and exposure in multiple orders of magnitude higher than its promotional rivals such as the Professional Fighters League (PFL), Bellator and ONE Championship.
Celebrity boxer Jake Paul, astute promoter that he is, has been leading the most recent public charge on the UFC and specifically Dana White, for not paying fighters fairly.
Interestingly, this marks the first time a figure of Paul’s considerable status has made such a high profile, continued campaign of criticism against them that it could be extremely beneficial to the media exposure for the lawsuit.
It’s unhelpful to say at this point exactly what will happen next with these cases, given how long it’s taken to get here.
Should the UFC’s appeal against Le et al. going to court be accepted, the case would likely be shelved for years again in a protracted legal rigmarole. The same precedent would then likely follow for Fitch’s suit.
Should the appeals not be granted however, all fingers crossed, the sporting world may be about to witness one of the most influential and dramatic legal processes in history.