Over the past decade, the Ultimate Fighting Championship has enjoyed a meteoric rise from relative obscurity to one of the most popular sports and entertainment products in the United States. The 2010s saw the UFC’s greatest stars transcend not just their own sports, but all sports. Former two-division champion Conor McGregor is arguably the most famous athlete on the entire planet. Former lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov is the single most popular athlete in all of Russia, according to Forbes. UFC President Dana Frederick White Jr. has led the organization for over 20 years, shepherding it to its status as the worldwide leader in combat sports. So why would White, the man largely responsible for the UFC’s prominence, have a 55.1% disapproval rating from MMA fans?
The Athletic’s polling of fight fans in April 2020 laid out a pretty stark contrast: Fans love the UFC, but not the man at its helm. Given the time at which the poll was administered, it stands to reason that the pandemic would be a factor. The responses bore that out: Many respondents noted the UFC’s attempts to push forward with holding a pay-per-view event, UFC 249, at the height of the pandemic, as a reason for their displeasure with White. That’s obviously a valid grievance, but it is itself part-and-parcel of the overarching problem many MMA fans and fighters alike have with White: The man treats his fighters horribly. While attempting to hold a combat sports event as an uncontrolled, aerosolized virus ran rampant across the world would be enough to convince most people that White doesn’t value the athletes upon whom his success is based, there’s actually more than that. The UFC pays its fighters an embarrassingly small percentage of its overall revenues, while White himself has a net worth of $500 million and an annual salary of $20 million.
The four major sports leagues in North America (MLB, NFL, NBA, NHL) each have revenue-sharing deals collectively bargained between the leagues and the players’ unions, and each of those agreements provides for the athletes to receive at least 48.5% of total revenues generated by the league. Such equitable compensation has been par for the course in North American sports for decades — it would be unimaginable to the common sports fan for their favorite athletes to not receive their fair share of the revenues they themselves drive. The UFC, though, has no revenue-sharing deal. In fact, there is no MMA fighters’ union at all, though roughly 80% of MMA fighters support unionization. As a result, White is the sole arbiter of how the UFC pays its fighters, and many of the UFC’s signature stars have sacrificed some of their prime years as athletes over White’s refusal to pay them their worth.
Henry Carlos Cejudo, former two-division UFC champion and Olympic gold medal wrestler, retired after his last bantamweight title defense at (the later-rescheduled) UFC 249, partly due to pay concerns. Jon Jones, former light heavyweight champion and widely considered the greatest mixed martial artist to ever live, has not fought in nearly two years due to continued breakdowns in contractual negotiations with White. McGregor has fought three times since 2020, including two blockbuster pay-per-view main events against Dustin Poirier, former interim lightweight champion, this year. However, McGregor’s status as the highest-paid athlete in the world is misleading to say the least. According to Forbes, just $22 million of the $180 million McGregor had made in the first five months of this year (after the first Poirier fight and before the second) came from his UFC contract. The remaining $158 million came from endorsements and other outside revenue streams.
While no one should shed a tear for the wallet of a man worth hundreds of millions of dollars, McGregor’s income breakdown is indicative of a systemic problem that White is clearly responsible for. The UFC so grossly underpaid the brightest star in its history to such a degree that McGregor did not step into the octagon for nearly two years. Instead, McGregor turned his attention to boxing, where the athlete’s earnings potential is far more lucrative, and put on a “superfight” against legendary boxer Floyd Mayweather, Jr. Rather than suspecting that McGregor’s move was demonstrative of a problem that required an actual solution, White simply punished McGregor, stripping him of his lightweight belt for inactivity.
The Score reports that the UFC has never paid its fighters more than 20% of its total revenue, multiple pathetic steps below the aforementioned revenue sharing norms in place for major North American sports. Some of Dana White’s top stars have publicly lambasted him for his mistreatment of fighters. And yet, nothing has changed, and there is no evidence, in spite of fighters’ overwhelming support for unionizing, that anything will change. It is clear that these changes will not come from within. The only way White will change his ways is if his current arrangement becomes untenable, but as the UFC’s popularity continues to skyrocket, it seems less and less likely that such a day will ever come. It is incumbent upon the leaders of organized labor nationwide, not to mention the U.S. government, to impress upon White that there will be consequences if he continues to hamper unionization and deprive his athletes of their rightful paychecks.
Jack Roshco is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.