The Ultimate Fighting Championship, or UFC, is a billion dollar company based in Las Vegas. It organizes matches in Mixed Martial Arts or various martial arts, some of which are also held in Las Vegas. In 2018, more than 400 such competitions were organized. The most famous MMA fighter of this moment is Conor McGregor, and if you have read how much he earns it will not surprise you that with the big UFC tournaments there is a lot of money to be made. How much is the prize money in the UFC? I immersed myself in the world of martial arts to find out for you.
WHAT IS UFC?
UFC, The Ultimate Fighting Championship, is an organization that organizes matches in Mixed Martial Arts to determine which martial art (and athlete) is the ultimate form. Every year several events are held, hundreds of them often, the largest of which are fought in Las Vegas.
Mixed Martial Arts is actually a combination of different martial arts and is sometimes confused with boxing. This may be due to McGregor’s big million dollar fight against Floyd Mayweather, where the latter is a boxer who later added MMA to his repertoire, especially to fight against McGregor.
MMA consists of a combination of martial arts in the category of hitting, kicking and grabbing, as long as the fighters remain standing. Boxing can be a part of that, just like jiu-jitsu, wrestling, karate, judo, Muay Thai and sambo. The matches are held with a minimum of rules, and there are 12 weight classes within the UFC in which fighting can take place. Over the years, it has grown into a martial arts sport in which the athletes combine different disciplines, and no longer practice just one sport.
THE BEGINNING OF UFC
The organization UFC was founded in 1993, and in the beginning athletes from different disciplines fought against each other to determine which martial art was the best. Taglines such as ‘can a wrestler beat a boxer’ were normal at the time. There were no weight classes at the time, so the battles were not always fair on the basis of weight and height. In the early years there were very limited rules, although they said themselves that there were no rules. This resulted in extremely fierce events, in which athletes fought several battles in the form of tournaments. Later on the single events, or the single battles, came up, in which athletes started the battle unharmed. Politicians also became involved in the violent events, which led to more rules in the later 1990s.
UFC almost went bankrupt
At the beginning of this millennium, the UFC organization was almost bankrupt, and despite a takeover amount of $2 billion, it still had to fight for years to make ends meet. Tito Ortiz’s fight against Ken Shamrock in 2002 in the MGM Grand Arena marked a turnaround for the UFC. The fight sold out almost all of the 13,000 seats, and 150,000 paid television viewers watched. This was double the number of events in previous years. It was also this fight that attracted the attention of the mainstream media, and this gave hope for the future of UFC.
In 2005, UFC collaborated with Spike TV on the programme The Ultimate Fighter, following young fighters in their dream of signing a contract with UFC. The programme was popular and more programmes followed from the collaboration. In 2011, the UFC entered into a new collaboration with Fox, ending a long collaboration with Spike TV.
More pay-per-view watchers
And in this period the pay-per-view viewers increased per match, in 2005 and 2006 300,000 to 400,000 viewers were reached who paid for a match. In 2009, no less than 1.6 million paid viewers watched UFC 100, the 100th Championship. Figures only increased in the following years, the match of Velasquez against Dos Santos in 2011 reached a record number of 5.7 million viewers. In 2012 a women’s division joined the UFC and in previous years the UFC franchise was expanded abroad. UFC went well again, so well that it was taken over by WME-IMG in 2016, for an amount of over 4 billion dollars. In July 2018 it was announced that a collaboration with ESPN, the largest sports channel in the USA, will be established.
And in May 2019 there was talk of an IPO, or IPO. The turnover reported was 3.61 billion dollars in 2018, resulting in a net income of 100 million dollars. So the turnaround of almost bankruptcy has been made, but whether the IPO is going to happen and how successful it will be, can be guessed.
FIGHTING IN THE UFC
At the moment there are 701 athletes who are connected to the UFC. This is 591 men and 110 women. Among them are 4 Dutchmen: Siyar Bahadurzada, Germaine de Randamie, Alistair Overeem and Stefan Struve.
In the UFC there are Fight Nights, these are the evenings where less prominent battles are on the program. These are broadcasted by for example Fox, and are not on a pay channel. Then there are the UFC fights, these are numbered. The first fight, UFC 1, was in 1993. Meanwhile we have arrived at UFC 240 and beyond. On 28 July Holloway and Edgar compete against each other in UFC 240, on 18 August Cormier and Miocic compete in UFC 241. The UFC battles are broadcast on a pay channel, ESPN+ in America and further around the world, and the title fight is usually between two prominent fighters. They should of course attract the (paying) viewers.
The Fight Nights are all over the world, for example also in Rotterdam. The UFC battles are usually held in the USA and Canada. The biggest events usually take place in the hometown of UFC: Las Vegas. This makes Las Vegas one of the most important fighting cities in the world.
UFC PRIZE MONEY
The more high profile an athlete within the UFC is, the higher the prize money he receives. Connor McGregor, currently almost the face of UFC and MMA, generally earns the most from a fight. The merits can be divided into two parts: a fixed fee and a bonus for profit. In addition, the great fighters also earn part of the pay-per-view revenue and, if all goes well, they have also concluded a few good commercial (sponsorship) deals. We don’t have real prize money in the UFC, as the salaries don’t depend on profit or loss, nor do the bonuses (surprisingly enough).
The athletes therefore receive a fixed salary, and this depends on how high profile they are and how many fights they ‘deliver’. It will come as no surprise to anyone that Connor McGregor is the highest paid MMA in the UFC both per year and all-time.
In 2018, McGregor earned more than $3 million a year on ‘fixed’ basic salary. In 2017 he fought against Mayweather, but this was outside UFC and he had no fights in the UFC so no fixed salary there. Not that he would have cared much about that, he was supposedly left with the ‘Money Fight’ for 100 million dollars. In 2016 he had a good UFC year: then he earned 7.7 million dollars. Overall he has received more than 12 million dollars in salary.
Khabib Nurmagomedov, McGregor’s opponent in 2018, earned a little less: over 2.5 million in 2018. Then the list slowly ends, the number 9 (Cris Cyborg) got $1,080,000 in 2018. With 900 thousand dollars, the number 10 is well below the million. 187 of the registered UFC fighters earn more than a ton per year, the average income is $138,000.
Among the bearers of the Championship Belts (the champion belt), that were 15 in 2018, Khabib earns the most, and Henry Cejudo with $180,000 the least. The average of these ladies and gentlemen is $783,000, which is well above the overall average.
UFC FIGHTER PAYOUTS
The above amounts include the fixed bonuses of fighting evenings. There are four bonuses per evening, although not all bonuses are active every evening (usually):
- Fight of the Night: a bonus for the two fighters who make the most impressive fight of the evening.
- Knockout of the Night: a bonus for the fighter who delivers the most impressive knockout or technical knockout.
- Submission of the Night: a bonus for the fighter with the most impressive submission of the evening.
- Performance of the Night: a bonus for the individual fighter with the most exciting performance of the evening (usually two, don’t have to come out of one fight).
The bonuses are almost always $50,000 each, although this sometimes differs.
In addition, most fighters receive extra UFC Fighter Payouts that are not announced. This can be for a profit for example. And the top players, who attract the most audience, receive an unspecified portion of the proceeds from the pay-per-view viewers. Despite the fact that it is not known exactly how high these amounts are, they can be quite high. In 2018, in addition to the $3 million in his UFC 229 fight against Khabib Nurmagomedov, McGregor earned, according to Forbes, 27 million dollars from the pay-per-view income of that fight, he didn’t even win the fight.
For Khabib it was the 27th fight in a row in which he was not defeated, which probably gave him a nice negotiating position. Just before UFC 242, in which he will compete against Poirier in Abu Dhabi, he signed a new contract with UFC, about which he is very positive. But he doesn’t tell the details. It wouldn’t surprise us if he passes McGregor this year in salary anyway.
IMPORTANCE OF SPONSORSHIP
As in other sports, sponsorship deals with the MMA fighters also provide a nice pocket money. Reebok pays McGregor $5 million a year, but he also earns income from deals with Beats, Monster Energy, AB InBev, Budweiser and Burger King, among others.
Smaller fighters, with less brand awareness, will not be able to make these kinds of deals. This is mainly reserved for the public’s favourites. After all, a sponsorship deal is only interesting for the sponsor if it generates exposure. So if many people look and want to identify with the athlete.
Khabib, probably the most high profile MMA fighter in the UFC after McGregor at the moment, made a sponsorship deal with Gorilla (energy drink) for $1 million after his fight against the Irishman. At the beginning of 2017 it was announced that he had become ambassador of Toyota, although that ambassadorship will probably also earn him very hard dollars, whether in kind or not.
UFC IS NO EASY MONEY
Apart from the big names like McGregor and Khabib, the fighters have to fight hard for their money. The men have to fight one fight a year if they want, and can recover the rest of the year. And train. Or like McGregor did: take a trip for the ‘Money Fight’ against Mayweather. Yet you see that, despite the merits, the fighting is in their blood. And I don’t mean the riots in which the men are sometimes involved. No, we’re talking about the fact that they keep getting back into the ring (or cage). For another fight. Are they really such males that have to show that they are the best, strongest?
At least that’s what it looks like. But make no mistake, these fights are certainly not without risk. MMA has always had the stamp of almost violence, and although the rules have been tightened up a bit, a lot is still allowed in MMA. More than in the individual martial arts, where it’s often about technique. Within MMA, the goal really seems to cause as much physical damage as possible to your opponent.
And so I wonder how much your health is worth to you if you want to do this for your profession. Why would you want to be beaten and kicked to pieces? Because you like it so much? I can’t imagine that, but I am. I can only imagine that you do it for the money, but why don’t you stop when, like McGregor, you’ve already made many millions? That’s the mystery of the MMA and UFC, I guess. In that respect, I think it’s a good thing that no prize money is awarded, and that salaries and bonuses are not (only) dependent on profit in a fight.