In this week’s edition of King & Slim, MMA writers Ant Walker and Kristen King discuss the current trend of fighters being more vocal on wanting a pay increase from the UFC.
Ant: In a very short period of time, we’ve seen Henry Cejudo vacate the belt and announce his retirement while actually being very open about the fact that money has a lot to do with his decision. We have witnessed Jon Jones claim to relinquish his belt via Twitter and very publicly spar with Dana White about pay that he feels he deserves, which he deserves. And now we’re seeing Jorge Masvidal, who has been the latest big star that MMA has produced due to the BMF championship, at odds with the UFC and asking for his release because he claims he is not making enough money, which I’m sure he isn’t. So, Kristen, as we’re seeing more and more fighters jump on this bandwagon – are the dominoes finally falling? Is the business structure of the UFC in trouble?
Kristen: I don’t necessarily think that it is totally in trouble, but I do think a lot of what has been going on behind the scenes as far as its structure goes is starting to be exposed by fighters who are frustrated by the fact that they are not getting paid their worth. We literally just named three champions of the promotion. They are the stars of the UFC and you mean to tell me there is a problem paying them what they should be paid. Henry Cejudo, as irritating as his shtick can be, is one of the greatest champions the UFC has had and will ever have, so the fact that they are not trying to pay the man the money he deserves for his next couple of fights is astounding to me because that is not how any champion should be treated. Then, you have someone like Jon Jones, who has been somewhat of a company man for however long he has been in the UFC and his pay is now coming down to a disagreement between him and Dana White over a potential move to heavyweight, which is something that has been highly requested by fans and pundits alike in the last few years. Of course, he is going to want to be paid more. You’re making the man who dominated the light heavyweight division go up in weight to fight against people like Francis Ngannou, who is a potential champion in his own right. Why would you think that paying Jon Jones the same amount of money he was making as light heavyweight champion is going to cut it if he were to change divisions?
Now, we have Jorge Masvidal. Here is where it gets weird for me. I totally agree he should be paid the money he is asking for, but remember when they were saying that the BMF title was a one-time thing? So, considering everything going on, I’m thinking did that also mean in pay because now that he wants another fight, the promotion is trying to put him right back where he was when he fought Darren Till or Ben Askren. If he is a legitimate champion under your promotion, then why is he now being offered the same pay structure as when he was just a welterweight contender? That is what I’m confused about as far as Jorge Masvidal’s situation. He is the BMF champion. That much is true. However, does he have the same benefits as a champion like Henry Cejudo or Jon Jones? It’s starting to seem like that may not be the case.
Ant: Yeah, but whose fault is that? I mean the UFC is the one who created this belt, put some sort of stylish medal around his waist and paid him according to championship fights, so that is their fault. I’ll push back on one thing that you said although it really doesn’t change the essence of what we’re talking about here. Calling Jon Jones a company man. I wouldn’t really quite classify him as that because he has clashed with the UFC before, but it is a very hot and cold thing. He very famously decided not to take that last-minute main event slot against Chael Sonnen, which led to the cancellation of UFC 151 and he had the right to do that. The thing is, whether he is a company man or not, he still produces a lot for the company. He is still a champion. He is still, according to Dana White, the greatest fighter of all-time. The most important thing though is that he is a draw. He is a known, proven draw as he has repeatedly brought in a great deal of pay-per-view numbers for the UFC. When you make the comparison between what he and Deontay Wilder make, Jon Jones outsells Deontay Wilder. So, maybe he should be getting paid more than Deontay Wilder. That’s not a stretch of the imagination at all.
I think the reason why this seems to be such a foreign concept to Dana White or Endeavor is that it counters their business structure. When you habitually pay the athletes – and this is something that Jorge Masvidal also brought up in his Twitter rant – anywhere between 15 to 18 percent of the revenue when other major sports leagues are hovering around 50 percent, then expect some pushback. I’m just surprised that this has not happened sooner. Look at all the crazy amount of money that has gone into the company in the last six to seven years. When the UFC sold to Endeavor, it was for $4.2 billion. When ESPN became the broadcast partner, the events were being valued at about $10 million apiece. The athletes saw zero cut of that. You have many examples of things going on that the fighters do not see a dime from. So, when someone starts to ask for an extra nickel, it is no wonder why these problems start forming.
I think it’s particularly funny to that some of the rationale behind this is, ‘Well, the fighters can’t expect more money because we’re not making more money since there is no revenue coming from live gates right now’. Correct me if I’m wrong, but have the fighters ever made anything from the live gates ever? To my knowledge, the answer is no. Does it matter? Should it matter to a Jon Jones if he doesn’t have a live gate when he never saw a dime from that anyway?
Ant: It should matter though when you get this influx of guaranteed money from an event and he sees a sliver of it. It’s very interesting now that we’re seeing this tide change. Since this story started developing, at least as far as Jorge Masvidal is concerned, other fighters like Gray Maynard and Cub Swanson have started jumping on board with this. We’ve been saying union for a while now. I’m curious as to whether the effects of the pandemic have now sort of pushed the envelope where the ESPN, Endeavor or Reebok deal couldn’t.
Kristen: I think that has played a huge role in all of this. Now that the fighters are starting to realize that they were not getting anything from those deals, they are speaking out about other ways to get that money some kind of way. And we’re seeing it from both former and current fighters. Nathan Quarry was very vocal about it on Twitter and said something along the lines of, ‘If you really want to make a change, then you should go with me to Congress and speak about the Ali Act in MMA’. Instead of airing your grievances out on Twitter, you should use your voice to enhance the argument that he and many other fighters have been trying to make for so long.
Ant: Yes. This has been going on for so long and all while the anti-trust suit is still going on. Keep in mind that the UFC found ways to bounce names like Leslie Smith and Kajan Johnson out of the promotion for their continued support of Project Spearhead. It took Al Iaquinta, who is also a part of Project Spearhead, it took a serious crisis as far as UFC 223 taking place and the calamity that happened to make that main event for him to get his big opportunity and regain some favor with the company. They’ve done a very good job at kind of squashing any efforts to unionize. It seems like that power is slipping away as everyone feels the noose tightening around their necks due to an impending recession.
Kristen: Exactly. We’ve seen those kinds of retaliatory tactics before and I would not be surprised if we see them again with so many fighters speaking up about pay now. I believe Dana White responded to the grievances from Jorge Masvidal’s Twitter rant and repeatedly stated that he was not forcing anybody to fight if they did not want to right now, but I don’t think that is totally true. You know if anybody turned down a number of fights like the Yair Rodriguez situation from a few years back, you saw what happened there. He was released. In an instance like Masvidal’s, I could see them extending his contract and keeping him there until he has no choice but to fight, so this idea that fighters are independent contractors may be kind of a stretch as Masvidal has been saying. If he was truly an independent contractor, then he would be able to leave the UFC and fight for other promotions, but he can’t do that. And add on to the fact that he just signed a new contract with them? He is not going anywhere anytime soon.
Ant: Right. I’ll close with this. Don’t be surprised when your athletes want to be paid more money. If you stand on the podium and talk about how much of a success a pay-per-view event was and how much your broadcast partners were delighted, but the check of the gentleman who is headlining these cards hasn’t changed? There’s a problem. The athletes should not be getting paid less because their business structure is flawed. The flaw in your business structure is that the promoter gets paid more.
Pay Jon Jones. Pay Henry Cejudo. Pay Jorge Masvidal. Pay every fighter what they deserve.