Professional fighters have always been considered fringe athletes: their job is to cause violence for sport and walk away from the cage victorious, and some people have a hard time understanding the merits of MMA. That being said, combat sports, except for boxing, still do not receive nearly as much mainstream attention compared to soccer, football, baseball, and basketball, partially due to its brutish reputation. Please make no mistake, fights are violent, but it’s consensual, and most fighters know what they are getting into when they decide to compete in combat sports for a living. The damage they inflict and receive is considered a risk of the sport, as is losing. It’s in the nature of MMA. The moment that door closes, it’s business for some and everything for others. Regardless, they decided to put their bodies on the line in pursuit of a business opportunity.
It’s Time For a Change
Quinton “Rampage” Jackson knows this better than anyone: he has fought in Pride, K-1, Bellator, and the UFC, and captured the UFC light heavyweight title by defeating Chuck Liddell in a rematch from their Pride days at UFC 71. This ushered in one of the greatest eras for the 205-pound division, seeing champions such as Shogun Rua, Forrest Griffin, and Lyoto Machida rise to the pinnacle of the sport at a time when MMA was just becoming legitimate.
“I don’t fight to be in the Hall of Fame. I don’t fight to be famous. You know, I started fighting to pay the bills, you know what I’m saying? That’s what I do. It’s my career. It’s something that I love.”
Quinton Jackson spoke to MMA Junkie after Triller Combat
Improved Fighter Treatment is the Path to Legitimacy for the UFC
Jackson’s argument is legitimate, but here’s the issue. The UFC considers itself one of the foremost organizations in sports, and while they are the leader in combat sports, they are still far behind the major sports leagues of the NFL, NBA, and MLB in athlete treatment. Consider the unfortunate case of Henry Ruggs, the Raiders wide receiver arrested for DUI: the NFL has a 24-hour ride service available to prevent the exact tragedy that occurred. While his story is sad, the mere fact that such a service is available shows that the NFL is miles ahead of the UFC in the treatment of their athletes, and this will continue to occur unless something changes.
Dana White has taken a hands-off approach to fighters as long as they are not doping or committing severe offenses, and that’s his business model. It is a very individualistic sport with little parity, and the organization essentially controls the athletes’ destiny by booking their fights and affording them title shots. While that is all well and good, fighters need a support network behind them if they are going to have successful careers, and that starts with the UFC.
Fighter pay has been a sticking point for years, and the argument that fighters should be paid more makes sense from an economic standpoint. Fighters need to support themselves, their families, and their careers. It is nearly impossible to expect a quality product of fights unless the athletes are training at the level of other elite professional athletes. On the economic side of things, the opportunity cost is so much lower to pay the fighters enough to where fighting is their job. Obviously, fighters that generate more revenue for the company should get paid more. Still, in general, fighter pay should reflect the pay structures of other major sports leagues, scaled for the proportion of revenue the UFC generates.
The UFC isn’t the NFL in terms of revenue, but it’s bigger than the WNBA, and so they can afford to pay their fighters more than $20,000 a fight to show and $20,000 to win. They are professional athletes, and so the costs of the camp should be factored in, and they should be making much more than the equivalent of a full-time minimum wage worker. Of course, this is assuming a fighter wins their bouts. It’s simple economics: their pay must reflect their value to the company according to how much revenue is generated.
It is also beneficial from an image standpoint for the UFC and others: if they can provide their athletes with financial support, they look far more legitimate as an organization. Fighters aren’t having to scrape by, and they have due compensation for the brutality of their work: they are sacrificing their bodies for this, and they should be paid with that in mind. Salaries closer to the $75,000 range for show seem legitimate as minimums, at least after a few fights in the UFC. That way, fighters are incentivized to not only perform better but spend as much time as they can on training, as they most likely will not have to take a job. Win bonuses should not be counted in the contract as “salary,” just like every other sport, they should be seen as extra incentives to encourage and reward performance. There are over 600 fighters in the UFC, and so to have a minimum payroll of $60 million, assuming someone fights twice a year is only a drop in the bucket for what the UFC makes in a year. Obviously, other fighters command more money, but a payroll of around $150-200 million a year is nothing for the company.
Fighters also deserve comprehensive medical care, and there shouldn’t be any argument against it. They put their bodies on the line every time they step into the cage, and a long career spent fighting can cause irreversible damage. Fighters like Spencer Fisher can be left permanently disabled from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, and often suffer from major mood swings, problems thinking, headaches, and problems with emotional regulation. Frequently, many athletes with CTE end up suffering from depression and taking their own life. Medical care includes mental health care, and it should be provided to athletes regardless of their status in the promotion.
Other jobs have retirement pensions, and MMA should be the same way: it is incredibly short-lived as a career compared to other jobs. The wear and tear on the body is incredible and can leave many fighters with chronic injuries. MMA is a sport where going to the hospital is a sign of heart, which is frankly twisted. If fighters are going to go through what they go through, organizations must do everything they can to support them, and that should include pensions. No fighter should have to deal with neurological issues for the rest of their life just for insignificant pay and some fleeting recognition.
Organizations Offering Internal Support
Additionally, they need to be treated as employees rather than just athletes- they are there to do a job, and so the health of the fighters or employees is paramount. Fighters shouldn’t have to take so many fights on short notice to support themselves while jeopardizing their health, and those who do should be treated with special precautions designed to keep them from injuring themselves permanently. Fighting hurt should not be considered a sign of strength, and fighters have to be protected, just as employees are.
By treating fighters as employees, the UFC and other organizations could serve to dispel the notion that combat sports is brutal and has no redeeming qualities. The UFC PI-style facilities where athletes can rehabilitate are a great start, as they provide state-of-the-art facilities for fighters to improve their games and recover from injuries. Obviously, fighters will want to train with their own camps, but the PI facilities should expand to more regions of the world with high concentrations of fighters to give them what they need to excel. It results in a much better product of competition, and fighters are able to maximize their potential.
Mental health support is paramount in athletics, especially in a sport where head trauma is so common and expected. Struggles with depression and anxiety affect many people, and fighters are not immune. Robert Whittaker, former UFC middleweight champion, had to take time away from the sport because he was burnt out and exhausted. That should be a wake-up call to the organization: if the world champion struggles with his mental health, we all can, and that includes the rest of the fighters on the roster. They should all have access to the best therapy available, including cognitive therapy that athletes use where they visualize themselves competing and winning in high-stakes situations.
It should be in the organization’s best interests to make sure their fighters are in top shape mentally and physically, and that includes protecting their welfare and supporting them after they’ve left the organization in the event they cannot work. Fighters put themselves on the line for the organization, and companies like the UFC need to show the same care in return.
Fighters should also have the option to buy ownership shares in the UFC, as it is not a publicly-traded company. It would allow fighters to have ownership of their decisions and see things from the perspective of Endeavor, the UFC parent company. They would be invested in the company’s profits, as they would receive dividends, and they would also have something to fall back on in their retirement. Unfortunately, that is highly unlikely, knowing the nature of the company.
Nevertheless, fighters deserve much more than monetary compensation, as they are what makes combat sports organizations go and are their source of revenue. If Dana White and the UFC had any idea of what their employees were worth to them, many things would change about how fighters are perceived.
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