Rocky Marciano was born poor and died rich. But that was boxing. Lets look at the myth of earning a living in MMA.
In 2011 when I took the Cambodian team to fight MMA the first professional tournament in Malaysia, a lot of people were putting pressure on me to sign them to one of Asia’s most prestigious MMA promotions, even though the Cambodians had no way to train, learn ground fighting or even eat. I still remember a number of people using the phrase “A chance to fight their way out of poverty.” The terms of the contract were 3 fights at $300 per fight. I don’t know where those people learned their economics, but where I studied, I learned that $900 USD a year isn’t exactly a ticket out of poverty. The counter argument was always, “But if they win, they could get more on their next fight.” How much more? Double? Triple? Quadruple? That still qualifies as poverty.
In MMA even top fighters will only have a handful of fights at the tens-or-hundreds-of-thousands-of-dollars level. This is true even of the Ultimate Fighting Championships (UFC), which is generally thought to be the best paying promotion in the world.
My theory is that, while it is hard to become rich in other sports, it is nearly impossible to even earn a living in MMA.
MMA Compared to Other Sports
By this point, most people probably know that MMA fighters are paid less than professional athletes in most other televised sports. The three boxers with the highest lifetime earnings are Floyd Mayweather Jr. with $756 million, Oscar De La Hoya with $696 million, and in third place, Manny Pacquiao with $661 million. (Cramer).
The three top earners in pro wrestling earned quite a bit less: The Rock, with $70 Million, Steve Austin with $45 Million, and John Cena with $35 Million. (Campbell)
As amazing as the lifetime earnings are for the outstanding boxers and wrestlers, the average salary for a major league baseball player in 2014 was $3.82 million. (Badenhausen) And basketball pays even better than baseball. The average NBA player, for example, earns $4.5 million per year. (Gaines) Because of the higher pay and longer playing life, the lifetime earnings of basketball players exceed those of most other pro athletes. The average NBA player plays 4.8 years and has lifetime career earnings of $24.7 million. (Gaines) In the history of the NBA, 25 players have had lifetime earnings of over 125 Million each. (Gaines)
While it is obvious that ball players and champion boxers earn a lot, what about an average boxer? According to The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, people who list professional boxer as their profession on their tax return earned an average of $75,760 in 2012. (Guerra) That’s a lot lower than Floyde Mayweather, but still nearly double the lifetime earnings of the average MMA fighter.
The expected lifetime earnings of a professional MMA fighter are $38,000. (Shmoop)
MMA earnings are low compared to what?
Obviously, not everyone can be a top ball player or a professional boxing champion, but MMA is not even a good career when compared to other jobs. In 2013, the average high school teacher earned $55,360, with the bottom 10% earning $37,230.
(Money.usnews.com) Said another way, the lowest paid high school teacher’s earnings for a single year were nearly equal to the lifetime earnings of the average MMA fighter.
Of course, being a high school teacher necessitates earning a university degree, which some fighters feel they can’t do. But other careers also pay infinitely better than MMA fighting. In 2013, police officers averaged $90,700, with the bottom 10% earning $32,670. (Money.usnews.com)
Not everyone can get on a well-paid police force. But nearly anyone who is healthy, free of felony convictions, and has a high school diploma can join the army. The average salary for a solider is $21,032 – $76,175 (Army, U.S.) Maybe you don’t want to join the army. Fine, you could be an auto mechanic. The salary for a mechanic ranged from $20,920 to $61,210, with an average salary of $36,710, in 2013. (Money.usnews.com) Ok, let’s say, you’re a convicted felon, with no high school diploma, who is unable to learn to be an auto mechanic. Fine, you can work in fast food. The average salary for a fast food crew member was $16,000 per year. (Indeed.com)
Therefore, if you’ve been paying attention, the lifetime earnings of the average MMA fighter is about the same as what the average McDonalds worker earns in a little over two years.
Most MMA fighters aspire to fight in the UFC, the most prestigious MMA organization in the world. But even in the UFC, the average fighter barely earns a living. According to an article published in the MMA Sentinel, the average wage for a UFC fighter is just $30,500 per year. (MMA Sentinel) “The 18 fighters in the nine undercard bouts at UFC 162 were paid a disclosed total of $1.167 million, an average of $64,833.33 per man.” (Iole)
Through 2014, the top three lifetime earners in UFC were Michael Bisping $5,694,000, Anderson Silva $4,717,000, and Georges St-Pierre $4,457,000. (Fox) They each had lifetime earnings about equal to what the average MBA player earns in a single year. Of course, for most people, $5.9 Million sounds like a good amount of money. But in the UFC, the money drops off dramatically as you go down the list. The Number 62 highest earner in UFC history, Thiago Alves and number 63, Chris Leben had lifetime earnings of less than $1,000,000. And, number 438, Lance Benoist had less than $100,000. At the bottom was a bunch of people you have probably never hear of, with earnings of $2,000 each. (Fox)
To achieve his ranking of 438th best paid UFC athlete, and to achieve his less than $100,000 lifetime earnings, Lance Benoist fought 9 fights between 2010 and 2014. If he had worked as a school teacher, cop, soldier, or auto mechanic for the same five-year period he would have earned well over $100,000. But he did earn more than the $80,000 he would have earned if he had spent those five years flipping burgers.
Even in the big show, it’s hard to make a living. But not everyone makes it to the big show.
After the UFC, Bellator is one of the more respected MMA promotions in the world. The payouts for Bellator 106 looked like this: Michael Chandler was contracted to receive $95,000 appearance fee, plus a win bonus of $95,000. Daniel Straus could max out at $40,000 ($20,000/$20,000). Muhammed Lawal and Emanuel Newton, competing for an interim light heavyweight title, could earn $20,000 ($10,000/$10,000). The loser of the “Fight Master” reality show finale would get $5,000. The winner of the lowest paid fight on the card, Darren Smith vs. Josh Smith would earn $3,000 ($1,500/$1.500). (Bratcher)
While the top salaries in Bellator are admirable for most MMA fighters, they are considerably less than those in the UFC. And once again, the fighters in the middle rungs will barely earn a living. And those in the lower rungs can’t possibly survive on fight purses.
When former Bellator champion, Ben Askren, signed for One FC, he was guaranteed a $50,000 appearance fee and a $50,000 win bonus. (Symes) According to his Sherdog record, he had 14 fights between 2009 and 2015. And of course, he wasn’t paid One FC level money for all of those fights. This is where the low lifetime earnings for MMA fighters come from. Most fighters only receive top payouts for a very small number of fights, at the peak of their careers. And in this case, top money is $100,000 for a win.
Ben Askren was highly critical of former UFC fighter and MMA legend, Phil Baroni, whose record is 15 wins and 18 losses. Apparently, in an attempt to rejuvenate his own, failing career, Phil has called Ben out. (Marrocco)
“’It’s gross how desperate he is to get a fight,’ Askren said. ‘He probably doesn’t know what else he’s going to do with his life, so he’s trying to talk himself (into) a fight.’” (Marrocco)
Phil Baroni has been fighting since 2000, having fought in many of the top MMA organizations: UFC PRIDE, Strikeforce, Cage Rage, DREAM, EliteXC, and ONE FC. If Ben Askren is right, and Phil Baroni has trouble making a living, how can the average fighter?
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