MMA Fighters: What Can Your Reasonably Expect to be Paid?

Backstage of UFC weigh-ins

Backstage of UFC weigh-ins

Aspiring fighters and seasoned veterans alike are constantly negotiating their value to their fight promotions in contract negotiations. We've been working with professional fighters in every stage of their careers for nearly ten years. Those that are just starting in their careers with dreams of one day joining the UFC need to be very aware of their present value and how to improve it.

Generally, these young fighters first look to their trainers for guidance who may have had some experience as competitors themselves in the past. We caution those that decide to make fighting a career to find a professional manager. Trainers are very good about conditioning your body and teaching the fine points of the game, but translating your value into dollars via effective contract negotiation is a job which requires an entirely different skill set. The sport of MMA is still young and in many ways like the wild wild west.

New gun slinging managers come to town everyday to test their metal, but it's not often they have the expertise or experience of a true professional.  I've worked with many who genuinely have their clients' best interest at heart, but it takes years to establish the right endorsement relationships, understand the key players, and to source the contacts necessary to advertise your personal brand. Make no mistake, while you may believe you're in the fight industry, you are not. Each fighter is in the entertainment business and your value stems from how many people will pay to see you perform. A good management team knows that and will work to promote you outside of the promotion you are working for. Your job as an athlete is not only to fight, but to entertain. 

Court McGee backstage in the media room 

Court McGee backstage in the media room 

Consider Chael Sonnen and Nick Diaz. Sonnen entered the sport early on having his first fight in 1997. As a fighter, his career spanned an impressive 17 years, but it wasn't until late in his career that his brand truly flourished with his first fight against Anderson Silva. What was impressive was not only his ability to control one of the greatest fighters of all time for five rounds, but his ability to get the fight in the first place. Chael promoted himself and his brand to win a title shot that was, in the eyes of many, undeserved. Not only did his brand propel him into a higher tax bracket, but it afforded him new opportunities which included sportscasting, the crown jewel of post athletic positions.

Nick Diaz has always been true to himself. What he has created by being himself is an enormous fan following. Diaz is often characterized by the media as someone who doesn't think things through, but not many fighters understand their value the way Nick Diaz does. The man sells tickets. People love him and love to hate him. They line up knowing that when they watch him fight he's not holding anything back and that includes his insults. Perhaps unwittingly, he has created a brand that sells to the extent that his career earnings are among the highest in the sport.

In general, the heavier the fighter, the heavier the purse. The sport might be mixed, but the fan reaction to knockouts is overwhelming. Those who can deliver knockouts will find themselves earning bigger dollars as they become a fan favorite.

One of the all time fan favorite fighters is Chuck Liddell. Chuck put together an impressive list of 13 knockouts in his 29 fight career earning himself a spot in his time as the highest paid UFC fighter of all time. He garnered such a respectable purse size that he still stands as the second most paid fighter ever. Chuck doesn't have the brash voice of Sonnen or Diaz, but he was branded. The man is everything you'd expect a UFC Champion to be from the signature mohawk to the tattoo and Iceman moniker.  

It would be impossible to talk about branding and salaries without discussing Urijah Faber. I once had an informal conversation with Urijah and Cung Le backstage of a small promotion fight as they shared the sage advice of needing to surround yourself with professionals. The same advice we give to all our athlete clients. Faber has built Team Alpha Male into a juggernaut. Attracting new fighters from all parts of the country to train with him at his chain of Ultimate Fitness gyms in California. He has stretched his empire to include becoming a landlord with several real estate holdings, an investment portfolio, movie and television cameos, commercial work and more. The entire city of Sacramento is his playground and I have no doubt that if he ran for mayor tomorrow, he would win. His California Kid branding, managed by long time friend and attorney Jeff Meyer of MMA Inc has earned him some of the most coveted sponsorship in the industry and has broken new ground each time. 

As a new kid on the block, you have to start talking with your fists. That goes without saying. During this time, you can expect to earn approximately $6,000 per fight. You'll be on the undercard and anyone looking at the fight list will be wondering who the new guy is. It's your job to get in there and give your management something to advertise on your behalf. If you're coming from another promotion with a title or if you've been on The Ultimate Fighter show, you might be able to leverage your popularity and exposure into a $10,000 to $15,000 payday. 

As you may know, UFC contracted fighters are often paid in two parts. A sum to fight and a sum to win. Bonuses are paid for the best submission, knockout, and fight of the night as judged by the promotion. The UFC is also famous for giving random bonuses when President Dana White has been impressed with a performance. When a fighter realizes the championship and straps on the belt, they still have the hefty task of making a title defense ahead of them, but the reward for successfully doing so is a percentage of the pay per view receipts generated by future title defenses. 

Anthony Pettis and Chris Storace in Tokyo, Japan

Anthony Pettis and Chris Storace in Tokyo, Japan

If you fight twice a year and make an average of $20,000 per year then you're at the entry level. You'll work your way up to the $50,000 mark fairly quickly and it will be up to you and your management team to build your brand to attract new sponsors to add to that number. Once you break into the top 10, you should be able to earn a six figure income. You'll have had time to make the fans aware of who you are, your managers will have had time to build your brand with sponsors, and the UFC will be looking for ways to cycle you into a title shot. 

It's important to remember that this isn't the case for everyone. Think of this as more of a guide to what's possible. Lots of guys make a very good living and this is one sport where even the girls are cashing in. Gina Carano cashed in on her MMA celebrity and went on to be part of such big budget movies as Haywire and Fast and Furious 6. Relative newcomer to the sport and UFC women's bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey is hot on the heels of Carano having already secured a lead role in the Expendables 3 and appearing in publications such as Maxim and ESPN. I'm sure I don't need to point out the branding here. 

There's a formula here for fighters to follow and the work you put in on the mats is just the start. As you grow your brand you'll need to create a professional infrastructure that grows with you. Great management agencies such as MMA, Alchemist Management, and Martin Advisory Group are able to provide a full services. Each are staffed by experienced attorneys who have experience working with fighters in every stage of their careers.