For every Ultimate Fighting Championship fight, athletes are paid thousands of dollars. That much we know for sure. But just like every other big-ticket sport, the paycheck for the match only tells half the story. UFC fighters operate under an omertà-like silence on their contracts and exact pay, and when their employer is far and away the preeminent mixed martial arts game in town (and the alternative is fighting in Japan), there’s plenty of incentive to keep their mouths closed. But while neither the UFC nor its athletes reveal much in the way of numbers, plenty of cracks in the dam allow average fans to tally just how much their favorite fighters are raking in — and how much they’re not. State commissions, which sanction fights within their borders, may publish amounts, and other times numbers leak. But whether or not we ever get the total picture, here’s what we know for sure: While the salary of UFC fighters may seem substantial, it can range significantly and no two fighters are pulling in the same amount.
At its base, UFC fighters are signed to contracts, which guarantee them a set amount per fight for a set number of fights over a duration of time. The numbers are not hard and fast; some fighters earn four figures and others claim six figures or more per battle, based on pedigree, experience within and without of the UFC, predictions, and investment. One should look at it like the baseline pay of a waiter: It’s something, sure, but not anything to brag about, and in many cases, not enough to live off of comfortably.
Each fighter is also eligible to win certain performance bonuses as a direct result of his actions in the octagon. Traditionally there were two types of awards: Fight of the Night (FotN) and Performance of the Night (PotN). Two of each were awarded ostensibly by merit, with recipients netting an additional sum which, on inception, might vary from five figures to six. Since 2014, a $50,000 standardized amount has been added to whatever else the recipients were making. This was a boon of sorts because even if a fighter lost but went out on their shield in the effort, they stood to make much more than they had been guaranteed. Most recently, at February’s UFC 258, four Performance of the Night bonuses were dished out, with no Fight of the Night designations awarded, signaling a potential shift in awards but the same monetary amount.
A murkier category exists in which UFC President Dana White literally writes fighters amounts for fights he likes but doesn’t deem worthy of the FotN and PotN awards. Speaking with the New York Post in February, White, who assumed his position in 2001, claimed to write additional checks based solely on his perception of the performance: “There will be a night where some crazy s–t happens throughout the whole card . . . I’ll write them anywhere from $10,000 to $25,000,” he said. And while this may seem like an even greater long shot, the totals are significant. In that same Post story, White claimed the UFC paid $13 million in bonuses in 2020, of which $4.6 million was awarded in these impulsive demi-awards. It works out to about $5,000 for each fighter in each fight if it were spread evenly that year (though it certainly was not).
Next are the sweeteners written into contracts, and they by and large reflect the fighter’s marketability to the company in sales of Pay-Per-Views. Are you a corn-fed former Division I wrestler that’s been manhandling hometown brawlers in small fights? You may get something, but probably not. Are you a former Olympic gold medalist who’s training in some obscure country? You’ve got some bargaining power. Eddie Alvarez, a lightweight who entered into the UFC via its chief rival Bellator, had caché enough to write in selling bonuses that might inflate his take-home to seven figures from a base pay of $80,000. (Uncharacteristically, Alvarez’s contract was leaked, and the UFC spoke at length about it in an interview with Bleacher Report.)
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Finally, UFC fighters have some leeway in which to sign contracts with individual sponsors, which also can carry their own bonus structures and base pay. They vary greatly. Conor McGregor was notorious (pun intended) for this, and his Instagram was once peppered with endorsements by Burger King and others (although these suffered after he assaulted a tour bus, was accused of rape, and sucker-punched an old man all within a two-year period). The higher the prestige of the fighter, the greater these amounts become, and McGregor himself, though holding no championship belt in 2020 and making less than $4 million through the UFC, nevertheless was 16 on Forbes’ annual “Highest-Paid Athletes in the World” list with $48 million, with the publication claiming he made $30 million alone when he knocked out Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone in 40 seconds. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Dynamic Fastener, which makes screws for builders and contractors, has sponsored gobs of fighters, all of whom receive some amount for screening its logo on their shorts. Mileage, obviously, may vary.
In 2020, the average contracted UFC fighter made approximately $148,000 when bonuses and base salary were added up. With each round lasting five minutes, fights three or five rounds in length, and three fights a year, in an extremely narrow view UFC fighters are some of the highest-paid athletes in the world. But this is reductive. Spend any time around these athletes and you’ll learn of the grueling training sessions each day, the murderous weight cuts, the months of self-sacrifice for an uncertain result. Add to that the fact that they walk into a cage, which locks behind them, and on the other side is the meanest m—-r f—-r they’ve ever seen, every time. With that in mind, they should be paid every cent they get, and then it should be doubled. Because I don’t want to do it and neither do you, and the closest I want to come is behind a TV screen and a basket of chicken wings. We don’t know exactly how much a UFC fighter makes per fight, but that much I know is true.
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