Photo Credit: Eric Bolte/USA TODAY Sports Images
As most MMA fans will attest to, there are few things more disappointing than extremely hyped matches ending by judge’s decision. After a close contest between two warriors, having to defer the final say on who walks away victorious and who walks away defeated is unsatisfying and anti-climactic. In the early, dark ages of the UFC, there were no decisions. Fights had to be finished, either by knockout, submission, or referee stoppage. Once the UFC realized these rules were, admittedly, far too barbaric, the introduction of judge’s decisions changed the way the sport was fought. It wasn’t always necessary to go in for the kill straight away. Why waste energy, and compromise the back control, struggling to apply a rear naked choke when a fighter could just hold his opponent there and chip away with punches while getting points for control?
MMA had changed in a fundamental way, and it couldn’t be changed back. Left unchecked, the sport would deteriorate into point fighting, and any chance of serious mainstream adoption would vanish because the average sports fan isn’t interested in martial arts where the winner is determined by points. If they were, wrestling, judo, and taekwondo would be popular in their own right. Traditionally, the combat sports that captivated large crowds were the ones that had the possibility of dramatic and definitive finishes, where the legitimacy of the victor was indisputable; namely boxing and kickboxing, the striking arts. A knockout leaves no questions unanswered.
To placate the detractors of MMA while keeping the sport in line with its fundamental values and the spirit of its founding, the UFC wisely chose to introduce post-fight bonuses. The two fighters who put on the most exciting duel on the card would get the ‘Fight of the Night’ bonus, and would each take home an extra $50,000 on average, though certain events carried slightly higher or lower bonuses, depending on the importance of the card. Likewise, the fighter with the best knockout of the night would win the ‘Knockout of the Night’ award, and the fighter with the most technical submission would receive the ‘Submission of the Night’ award. Like the ‘Fight of the Night’ bonus, both prizes were generally around the $50,000 mark, barring an important card or a truly spectacular performance.
This system has been in place for several years now, and has been relatively successful. Generally, fighters have been more inclined to go in for a spectacular finish because, hey, who doesn’t want an extra $50,000? Money still goes a long way as an incentive in the world of MMA, because although the big draws in the sport (the Anderson Silvas, the Georges St-Pierres, the Brock Lesnars) do take home massive paydays, most fighters are by no means rich. The base salary in the UFC is $8,000, which is what the majority of the athletes who fight on the preliminary card or are just beginning to make their way in the UFC earn. Furthermore, because of the brutality of MMA, fighters can’t hop in the cage for a payday every other week. They need weeks or months to train and prepare for the next fight while resting their bodies from the last one. Once you factor in the costs of gym memberships, coaching, and other expenses, it becomes apparent that a huge portion of the fighters on the UFC’s 450+ roster have an annual take home pay comparable to a barista.
UFC Bantamweight Champion Renen Barao reportedly made just $22,000 for his successful title defense against Urijah Faber at UFC 169, and $11,000 of that was a win bonus. Let that sink in; a UFC champion was paid just $11,000 to show up and defend his belt. Any one of those post-fight bonuses would have given Barao significantly more income compared to his miserly base pay. Now, his case is certainly an outlier, as many fighters are paid substantially more. Frank Mir made $200,000 just to show up and get systematically torn apart by Alistair Overeem. The Bantamweight champ is in need of a new manager to re-negotiate his contract more than anything else, but the point still stands. Bonuses are an effective way to encourage fighters to finish fights, especially when – as is the case in the UFC – the majority of the fighters on the card are not making superstar money.
That’s why the UFC’s recent announcement that they’ll be revamping their post-fight bonus system is intriguing. Instead of having two separate ‘Knockout of the Night’ and ‘Submission of the Night’ awards, they’ve decided to implement a single category, ‘Performance of the Night’ which will be awarded to two fighters who demonstrate the best individual performance on the card. Essentially, this has no effect on the UFC’s bottom line, as both awards will still be $50,000 on average. What it does do though, is grant the UFC more flexibility when assigning post-fight bonuses. You never know what kind of finishes will happen in an MMA event, and it can be unfair to fighters who get shafted from potential cash bonuses just because they’re in a card with two or more astounding submissions, while the guy with the lucky knockout gets to walk away with the extra $50,000. After one too many occurrences of that kind of post-event payout situation, the UFC wised up and realized they needed to close that loophole.
The ‘Performance of the Night’ bonus is an attempt to make post-fight bonuses even more of an effective tool than they already are. After the relatively boring card that was UFC 169, which set the record for most decisions on a single fight card (10), the UFC needs to find a way to increase the amount of exciting finishes in the octagon. In addition, in the current social climate of increasing concern over the consequences of traumatic brain injury, it benefits the UFC as a brand to no longer officially celebrate the knockout by awarding a cash prize to whoever can dish it out – although in practice that’s exactly what will continue to happen, albeit under the guise of ‘Performance of the Night’.
However, if the UFC was serious about incentivizing fighters to finish fights, there are other approaches they could take. Myself, and many other fans, have long called for a general cash bonus to anyone who can finish a fight, not just the finish that’s judged to be the most exciting by UFC management. The reality is that this could be achieved quite easily. Instead of allocating $100,000 towards ‘Performance of the Night’, why not institute a general cash bonus for anyone who can finish a fight? The average fight card has about 12 fights, and unless a night turns out to be truly exceptional, expecting to have about a third of those fights end in judge’s decision is reasonable. If the UFC instead awarded anyone who could finish a fight an extra $20,000 – still a substantial figure – then if the other 8 fights all ended in finishes, it would cost the company $160,000 instead of $100,000, which is a relatively small price to pay for a successful event. Nothing turns away potential lifetime fans who decide to test the waters and pay $60 for an event that turns into a boring, decision-heavy card.
The UFC should follow the basic elements of capitalism and start incentivizing their fighters to finish fights every single time they step into the octagon, and that goes for main events as well as fights on the undercard. Of course, the UFC has a reputation for being notoriously stingy when it comes to fighter payouts. Looking at the salaries of fighters who are outside of the elite group of big draws can be a depressing experience. If they want to increase viewership, and continue to attract top talent, they have to open up the checkbook. If they don’t want to increase base salaries of their employees, I see no better way than to institute a ‘Finish Bonus’. It’s a win for the fighters, a win for the fans, and a win for the sport.