MMA Fighters Are Paid Less Than Boxers! Myth or Reality!?

Tomislav Zivanovic
Nov 26, 2019 · 7 min read

The mainstream rise of the UFC has been tremendous over the last decade, and the recent partnership with ESPN will certainly boost the popularity of the sport to the highest levels. Naturally, the rise caused many boxing fans to start watching MMA, and this immediately created an intense rivalry. We firmly believe the fierce competition and market share are hiding behind this conflict between MMA and boxing which has been raging for a couple of years now.

Many people thought that the freak show between Conor McGregor and Floyd Mayweather held in 2018 came as a result of this rivalry and in some way, it did. However, it ended up as a phenomenal business decision. The event was gigantic and apart from the fact the Irishman got knocked out in the 10th round, the last impressions are that both sides were happy with what they got. I mean, how not?! Changing the fight environment enabled Dubliner to secure an incredible 100 million dollars and only God knows how much Mayweather and the promotions were able to get.

Looking at the incredible wealth of successful individuals from each sport and their flashy lifestyles, one can quickly develop an incorrect perception of the actual earnings of the fighters. The fighting game is unforgiving, and it’s the small percentage that actually enjoys the privilege to generate massive amounts of money. According to the business insider, only 19 out of 21,000 professional fighters manage to make millions of dollars! Just so that sinks in here is what it looks like

UFC is universally recognized for its monopoly and as a classic example of a disproportion between the fighter’s earnings. Apart from the fact that UFC fighters are underpaid, the rivalry with boxing naturally inspired many journalists to point out the obvious financial differences between the two sports.

Before we dig into the notable disparities which are causing the disproportion, we have to begin with the ultimate question:

Who makes more money, boxers or MMA fighters?

It looks like UFC President Dana White takes pleasure in going into the media wars against the boxing promoters and the world of boxing itself. However, it also became obvious that he doesn’t appreciate questions about the UFC fighter’s salaries.

“First of all, you’re a d*ck. Everybody wants more money. Everybody needs more money. That’s always going to be an issue.”

The truth is, a large amount of money is circulating through both sports, but how much of it ends on the fighter’s bank accounts makes a huge difference. Before all else, let’s start with the top MMA and boxing earners in 2018:

MMA (source)

· Conor Mcgregor — $3,030,000 before PPV bonuses · Khabib Nurmagomedov — $2,570,000 · Mark Hunt — $2,295,000 · Daniel Cormier
· Conor Mcgregor — $3,030,000 before PPV bonuses · Khabib Nurmagomedov — $2,570,000 · Mark Hunt — $2,295,000 · Daniel Cormier

Boxing (source)

As we can see, the contrast in incomes between the fighters competing at the highest levels is huge! However, if we dig just a bit further and investigate the other famous fighters, things are getting even worse for the UFC. As you would expect, we’re speaking about Jon Jones, Jorge Masvidal, and Amanda Nunes and by looking at their earnings at UFC 239, everything becomes clearer.

At UFC 239, one of the UFC’s biggest stars Jon Jones successfully defended his Light Heavyweight title against Thiago Santos and received $500,000 (before post-fight bonuses) for his dominant performance. As a co-headliner, the most successful woman’s MMA fighter in history Amanda Nunes defended her Bantamweight title earning $300,000 (plus $200,000 win bonus)! Earlier the same night, Jorge Masvidal scored the fastest KO in the history of the sport against Ben Askren and received $100,000 (plus $100,000 win bonus) for it! — source

It’s Masvidal who was the heaviest financial loser in 2019! After breaking the hype train in pieces against Askren, “Gamebread” was headlining the possibly biggest PPV event of 2019 and scored a victory over Nate Diaz at UFC 244, earning the BMF belt and $500,000!

So far, it has been obvious that top boxers earn way more than UFC fighters when it comes to competing at the finest levels. However, if we move away from the big names and prizefighters, how they compare in overall salaries?

In 2018, the annual salary of the UFC fighter was around $138,000 ($68,000 median income) which is a lot more compared to the $45,000 yearly salary of the average full-time worker in the US. However, over 37% of UFC fighters (around 213) were paid less than the average American worker! What’s more, only 187 UFC fighters were able to secure six-figure salaries!

As for the boxers, the average salary in 2018 was $35,585 per year. According to chron.com, it varies between $22,000 at the lowest level to the $37,000 at the high end.

As we moved away from the prizefighters to the average salaries, the numbers became more convenient. The reason for such a change is that most journeymen boxers are earning from $250 to $1,000 per fight. Although prospects could get from $2,500 to $5,000, it’s a whole lot less than UFC newcomers who typically get from $10,000 to $15,000.

Why boxers make more money?

UFC holds the monopoly

Since its establishment, UFC has been the leading MMA promotion in the world and considering the recent deals with ESPN, we can’t imagine anybody beating them in the future. However, by positioning themselves on the market and holding the majority of its share, UFC can pay the fighters as much as they want. As said by the boxing promoter Gary Shaw:

“Boxing purses are higher because we don’t have a league. UFC is their own league and they appoint their own champion who is going to fight for the title. Everything is done within while in boxing we have different sanctioning bodies.”

He continued explaining how it directly affects the fighter salaries:

“The UFC owns their fighters. And I guess Bellator owns their fighters. So they can pay whatever they want because if you don’t fight for the UFC, which is the king of mixed martial arts in the United States and maybe around the world, who do you fight for? If I don’t want you, you go to Arum, or you go to K2 or you got to Golden Boy. You go somewhere else.”

The history of the sport

MMA/UFC hit the mainstream rise just a few years ago. For nearly two decades, the UFC was struggling to put the sport on the map and even legalize it in all US states! Throughout the last 10 years, there have been many changes in regulations, marketing, and TV deals which ultimately made the sport suitable for the broad audience. On the other hand, boxing is a much more established sport with a richer history.

UFC generates less revenue

While UFC enjoys the monopoly and has direct control over the fighters and their salaries, boxing is a bit more liberal. As a result, boxers maintain the necessary freedom to choose between numerous promotions or get involved with the multiple at once. Plus, sport is spread all around the world and has a much bigger audience compared to the UFC. Having many organizations, countries, and promotions involved, boxing enjoys greater competition and with that higher revenue! Unlike in MMA, if the fighter is unsatisfied with numbers or status, he/she has more options in front and can move its talent somewhere else.

UFC has fewer weight divisions

UFC has nine weight classes, and differences between them are going between 10–15lbs. Because of this substantial number, it’s not rare seeing fighters missing weight and collapsing from the brutal weight cuts. Not to mention it clearly affects their performance in a fight! Having 17 weight classes, boxing has a lot more to offer in terms of title fights/super fights, and by doing so create more revenue.

Sponsorship

We all remember UFC fighters wearing shorts with different company logos on it, or promoting their sponsor with tattoos on their body? All of that disappeared with the famous Reebok deal. Since then, UFC fighters are forbidden to promote any other brand than Reebok. Although the company officials promised higher paydays, it seems that every fighter is losing a significant amount of money! A survey conducted by Iain Kidd two months before the Reebok deal indicated that fighters would lose up to $20,000 per fight! Considering the average fighter has 3–4 battles a year, which is $60,000-$80,000!

As a result, many fighters have a feeling of being exploited, as the former UFC champion Vitor Belfort once acknowledged:

“I’m not satisfied with the way the company is handling sponsorship. We are pretty much living in slavery. We can’t use our own sponsors; they are banned inside the Octagon. We have no properties… It’s a contact sport. I don’t think it’s fair for someone to earn 500 dollars to be elbowed in the face. There has to be a retirement plan, which does not exist now.” — Source

If you are eager to learn more about the Reebok deal, check out the phenomenal study on this topic performed by Andrew Brennan here!

To be honest, there is nothing wrong with one sport being more paid than the other. At the end of the day, it’s work like any other out there. However, taking into account the imbalance displayed above and the reasons for it, UFC fighters and the MMA community in general, have every right to complain.

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Tomislav Zivanovic

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Mixed martial arts analyst and writer.

Martial Arts Unleashed

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