I enjoy researching martial arts. There’s so much to learn just from reading about them. They each have a peaceful, fulfilling quality to them and are mesmerizing in their tranquility. The mind over matter is astounding, and it’s inspiring to see what martial artists can do.
It was in this fascination that I realized there are at least three exceptions to this. Krav maga is known for being vicious, and so is the opposite of tranquil. Boxing and MMA, on the other hand, have a special quality to them: they make a lot of money because they fall into entertainment.
This piqued my curiosity. How much is an MMA salary? If you’re interested in pursuing mixed martial arts professionally, this article will break down the finances for you.
How Popular is MMA?
One of the facts of life is that where trends go, money follows. MMA experienced a recent boom in interest and is now considered the most popular martial art in the world. But is it really? Almost.
Stats based on a number of criteria including the global audience, number of professional leagues and social media trends ranked MMA the 13th most popular sport. Though it didn’t rank in the top 10, an interesting note is that the only combat sport that ranked higher was boxing.
In 2016, an investigation revealed that in the 22-year run from MMA’s inception in 1993 to 2015, it became a $4 billion sport. To drive this achievement home, compare it to the WWE—a company worth $3 billion in 2018, even though it’s existed for 41 years longer than UFC.
The popularity of MMA cannot be questioned, and it’s certainly a factor in the average MMA salary. Before I get into how much the average MMA fighter earns, let’s take a look at the professionals.
Top MMA Earners
Since the UFC is the most popular and successful MMA organization, I’ve based these findings on the fighters affiliated with it.
In 2018, it was reported that the highest earning MMA fighter was Conor McGregor, with an estimated income of $9,542,000. His earnings throughout his career were said to be roughly $12 million, and he was listed as the highest paid UFC fighter.
These are, of course, impressive numbers—money that most of us can only dream of. In the world of sport, however, UFC fighters are still climbing the rungs. Compare McGregor with the highest paid boxer of 2018, Saul Alvarez. He made more than four times McGregor’s total earnings—50 million dollars—in one single fight.
As for the fighters ranked below McGregor, their 2018 numbers are still impressive:
- Michael Bisping: $7,135,000.
- George St-Pierre: $7,037,000.
- Anderson Silva: $6,822,000.
- Alistair Overeem: $6,119,500.
The Average MMA Salary
The numbers above are based on the top fighters in the UFC and are nowhere near what amateur or unknown fighters will earn.
What, then, is the true average salary of MMA fighters? It’s believed that the average MMA fighter earns $42,000 annually.
An important consideration here is that UFC fighters are considered individual entrepreneurs. This means that there are many impositions placed on what they earn, including city tax and state tax.
After these and other expenses, the fighter is left with an estimated $19,440, a ridiculously low amount compared to other athletes. This led me to a can of worms in the MMA world: how the amateurs are treated.
MMA Salary Controversies
There is a lot of controversy floating around when it comes to the salaries of MMA fighters. A quick search is bound to bring up many complaints of how the UFC, and smaller promoters, may exploit the fighters.
Part of this debate is the assumption that amateur fighters don’t get paid. The premise of this is that, by definition, an amateur is: “someone who engages in a pursuit, especially a sport, on an unpaid rather than a professional basis.”
Many an argument has arisen in this because promoters and organizers are professionals. This means that they pocket all the profit of listed fights while the fighters get nothing more than bruises and exposure.
But this isn’t always the case. Some amateurs do get paid, it just depends on with whom they work. In this case, I’m of the standing that this is entirely a moral issue. Technically, amateur fighters don’t have to be paid, but the sport as a whole could do more to ensure that they do.
Is There Bias Against New Fighters?
There is also the complaint of inequality, but it’s another moral problem. The discussion is that the emphasis placed on professionals, like McGregor, undermines and devalues rising MMA fighters.
While the popular fighters are pulling in millions of dollars, and therefore have a leg to stand on in demanding more, smaller fighters do not have the same power. They must continue to settle for less than they’re worth. There may even be threats of replacements if they demand more, and this forms an unhealthy foundation for new fighters.
Fairness ties into how brutal MMA can be. It’s different from musical artists, for example, who are asked to play for exposure.
MMA fighters put their bodies through hell, and the community is now wondering if the attention is worth the injuries they most likely can’t afford to attend to.
This also raises another issue: MMA is not unionized. This means that the rights of fighters are left massively unprotected. It’s been proposed that until MMA becomes unionized, nothing will change in terms of how much its fighters earn.
What Influences MMA Salaries?
How MMA fighters make money is not so different from other athletes. Their popularity, success in their matches and odds are all taken into account, as is financial support from third parties.
In the rise of social media, and with good promotion and rapport, the hype is not impossible. There are many MMA fighters who have met success in selling themselves and earning a decent buck from their fights.
But it’s the same problem mentioned above. If you’re “nobody” in the MMA community, there will be bias against you, and gaining support is not easy.
While the following methods are typically only accessible to MMA’s top fighters, we must keep in mind that MMA itself continues to grow, and more fighters are included as it rises. That said, let’s return to where the MMA money comes from.
The fastest way that professional MMA fighters can make money is, of course, to fight. Most fighters will be paid per fight. It’s the quality, odds, and hype surrounding the match that can influence how much money the fighter earns.
Though the top tier MMA fighters can make tens of thousands of dollars per fight, remember that it’s little compared to other athletes. Also remember that it’s unlikely that new, unknown and amateur fighters will earn as much.
Many people believe that most MMA fighters are unable to make a sustainable living from fights alone.
UFC fighters will have contracts that specify their base salary. This will set the fighter’s fee per fight, regardless of the outcome of the match. Higher ranking fighters are naturally able to negotiate better rates.
Endorsements and Sponsorships
This applies to most, if not all, sports, and other forms of entertainment too. If an enterprise sees potential or value in you, they might endorse you. Typically, this is because of the promotion or advertising that comes with backing a popular figure in the industry.
While this is one of the most effective ways to be paid in sport, it’s elitist. Only the most hyped fighters have a chance at excellent endorsements. This doesn’t mean that small fighters will be entirely ignored, just that they probably won’t get deals as good as the popular pros.
This is partly due to the following size of the fighter. The more people they’re able to reach, the more likely they are to garner attention from bigger companies.
Sponsorships are not interchangeable with endorsements, though the premise is the same in that funding comes from a supporting party. The difference is that, while endorsements will back the fighter as an individual, sponsorships focus on the fight itself.
A sponsor will cover the costs of a match and mark it with their brand. Fighters can strike deals with sponsors to earn money this way. The drawback is that only popular matches are likely to draw sponsorship with a lot of funding.
UFC fighters are able to earn bonuses if they win certain fights. It’s not uncommon for the win bonus to match the fighter’s base fee.
Some bonuses are more reminiscent of rewards, in a similar fashion to “man of the match” awards in other popular sports. These bonuses can be as much as, or perhaps even more than, $50,000.
Some disagree with the practice of awarding win bonuses. These awards, however, are typically reserved for lesser known fighters, who are not earning six-figure salaries from their fights. This is one advantage that smaller fighters have.
Win bonuses are mostly awarded upon special feats and not every match will accommodate them. They could be awarded to fighters who have an inspiring crowd reaction, or to fighters who perform outstanding moves or break records.
How Much Does the UFC Make?
To further put the earnings of MMA fighters into perspective, we should take a look at how much the UFC itself pulls in.
Numbers from 2018 show that throughout the year, the UFC held 39 events, with 474 fights in total. Its most successful event pulled in more than 50,000 people. The UFC’s highest recorded pay-per-view revenue so far is more than $82 million.
Of course, there are other ways the UFC would make money. Consider other factors like merchandise sales, media, and advertising revenue.
As far as I can see, there are no discrepancies in the financial practices of the UFC. Complaints against it go back to the moral debate. With so much revenue, are they selling their fighters short? Or are they simply giving what they can and exercising good business sense?
Not many UFC fighters have spoken openly about how the UFC approaches the wages of fighters, but some have commented on the brutality of it. The likely scenario is that the UFC will continue its business practices until MMA, as a whole, changes its structure.
As it stands now, the UFC claims it’s not opposed to a union, but it doesn’t appear to be encouraging one. One thing that is unanimous, it seems, is that the top fighters could be the catalysts for change.
Since they have the power to negotiate or influence how they are treated, it makes sense that change within MMA would begin with them. The UFC, and other organizations like it, need to be placed under more pressure.
MMA Salary in Summary
If you’re looking to compete in MMA to make money, it won’t be easy. While there is potential to earn money as a top-ranked fighter, getting to the required level of popularity will take huge, consistent effort. The competition is fierce.
On the plus side, MMA is a fast-growing industry, and in the future, there could be potential for more fighters to earn well. Time will play a factor in this. What we do know, is that there doesn’t seem to be a reason for salary expectations to not increase.
There is much discussion as to whether MMA is worth pursuing. Compared to other sports, MMA fighters rank poorly, and the fact that it is not a unionized sport contributes to accusations of exploitation. Still, there are fighters who earn millions.
The wisest thing to do, if you’re interested in pursuing MMA professionally, would be to have realistic expectations. Understand how the industry works, and you’ll put yourself at an advantage over other fighters who are trying to climb the ladder.