Sports just aren’t what they used to be, am I right? Long gone are the days when athletes played for the love of their sport. Nowadays everyone has to take home millions of dollars every year just to throw a ball around. It’s ludicrous, insane, irrational, all of the above. At least that’s the way many people will frame this particular subject. To look at it from another angle, a career in professional sports is, by definition, very short. Generally speaking, the cash cow years of an athlete’s career are their 20s and 30s, and once they hit 40 – if they’re still playing – any remaining value they have begins to plummet. The salaries become a little less ridiculous when the argument is framed this way.
Be that as it may, and contrary to what we may intuitively expect, not every professional athlete is making 7 or 8 figure salaries. There’s one sport where the average athlete is making nowhere near the salaries of their contemporaries. Welcome to mixed martial arts, where the pay is crap and your physical well being doesn’t matter!
Okay, admittedly that was hyperbole, but there are real issues with fighter pay in the UFC, especially when you stop to consider the fact that these men and women are only fighting 3-5 times a year. The base salary for a UFC fighter is $8,000, and anyone who wins their fight automatically doubles their base pay. So, even if someone on the lower end of the fight card comes out and dominates their opponent, their still only walking away with $16,000. Let’s assume they’re fighting 4 times a year, which is very respectable amount of fights to take each year. If they win all of their fights (which is unlikely to begin with) they end the year with $64,000 in the bank. Not bad, but certainly not great. Hold on though, it gets worse. You thought your neighborhood gym fees were expensive? Try having a membership to a high level MMA gym. Unlike the people who run out to get a gym membership on January 1st before conveniently forgetting about it for the rest of the year, at least it can be said that these fighters get their moneys worth out of their membership fees. Still, membership at these gyms is exceedingly expensive since the fighters are paying for coaching advice and class time in addition to use of the facilities. Once you factor in those expenses compounded with the expenses of everyday life, the $8000-$16,000 these fighters are making every 3 to 4 months really isn’t all that much.
The current state of fighter pay in the UFC is exactly why Gilbert Melendez’ recent contract renewal is so interesting. Melendez – ranked #2 in the UFC’s official lightweight rankings – recently finished playing a very public game of chicken with UFC management. The former Strikeforce Lightweight Champion’s contract was up for renewal, and he and his manager wrote up a list of what exactly they wanted before signing on to another multi-fight deal. The exact details of the initial demands, or the reception they received, are unknown to anyone but the people involved in the deal. However, what happened next is now a matter of public knowledge. Instead of rolling over and acquiescing to the demands of Dana White, Melendez made a bold and surprising move; he started looking for employment elsewhere.
Since the closing of Strikeforce in January 2013, the UFC had been the undisputed king of the MMA world. For the first time in its history, it could boast that it had all the best fighters in the world, period. The only rival promotion was Bellator MMA, founded by Bjorn Rebney and backed by the vast cash reserves of media conglomerate Viacom, but whose viewing numbers had thus far failed to come close to the business the UFC was pulling in. Bellator has a few ex-UFC stars on their roster – notably former UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Quinton ‘Rampage’ Jackson – and although they’ve been putting on quality fights as of late, they produce no PPV events and any income they bring in is derived from live ticket sales and TV revenue from their deal with Spike TV (who, in truth, only gave Bellator the airtime after they lost their contract with the UFC). The promotion was regarded as an ‘up-and-comer’ in the MMA world, but not one which would be threatening the dominance of the UFC anytime in the near future.
That is, of course, until the Gilbert Melendez approached Bellator with the same demands he had given the UFC. Unsurprisingly, Bellator jumped at the chance to sign Melendez. He wasn’t some UFC reject; Melendez has been a force of nature in the lightweight division for years and was just coming off a ‘Fight of the Year’ candidate with Diego Sanchez at UFC 166. The general feeling was that he was 1 win away from a title shot with current UFC Lightweight champion Anthony Pettis. When Bellator announced that they and Melendez had agreed to the terms of a contract, it sent shockwaves through the MMA world. The generally accepted narrative was that the UFC was home to the best fighters in the world, period. If the best fighters in the world were keeping their options open with an eye towards Bellator, what does that say about the UFC? For that matter, what does it say about Bellator?
UFC management acted quickly and decisively. Less than a week after Bellator had announced that they had come to an agreement with Melendez, the UFC matched their offer and then some. Not only would Melendez be getting the pay raise he wanted, he would be getting an immediate title shot against Anthony Pettis, and the two would star on season 20 of ‘The Ultimate Fighter’ opposite each other in the months leading up to their championship fight. In addition, Melendez’ new contract guarantees that at least 75% of his fights will be on pay-per-view, and that if the pay-per-view sells above a certain figure, it activates a clause in his contract that allows him to take a portion of the gross revenue from the event, regardless of where he is on the card. That’s an unprecedented deal for a fighter like Gilbert Melendez. Naturally he accepted, and now Melendez has been fast tracked to a championship fight with a nice pay raise to boot, all because he decided to play some hardball during his contract negotiations.
The UFC expected him to take their refusal of his demands as most fighters on their roster do, with a shrug and a sigh of resignation. Instead, Melendez sent them a message; you need us to fight, we don’t need you. While this may not signal a huge shift in the balance of power between employer (UFC) and employee (the fighters), it most definitely signifies that the game has changed, even if just a little bit. The UFC can’t afford to act like a monopoly, as they’ve grown accustomed to doing. Monopolies are, by definition, lazy, stagnant and self-destructive for their respective industries. MMA fans should be celebrating the existence of Bellator, even if they have no interest in the product the company produces. The fans benefit because the UFC will be extra motivated to produce strong cards that attract as many viewers as possible, in order to keep Bellator in the relatively niche position they’re in now. The fighters - especially the fighters with existing drawing power - will benefit from Bellator’s existence, because it gives them an alternative during contact negotiations. In the post-Melendez MMA landscape, fighters who know their real value won’t be afraid to shop around for a better deal, which can only benefit all of the athletes in the long run.
We may not look back on this whole ordeal as a watershed moment. After all, the UFC convinced Melendez to stay in the end. Still, the unexpected and very public way these negotiations played out made a few things clear. Firstly, Bellator is a legitimate option for MMA fighters. If you want to fight and stay in the United States, the UFC doesn’t necessarily have to be the only option. Second, UFC management recognizes that they can’t afford to act like dictators; they have to act like employers. That means enticing fighters to stay through attractive salaries and other benefits. It’s capitalism 101, and competition is good for everyone whose name isn’t Dana White or Lorenzo Fertitta. The fighters, the fans, the sport itself, we all benefit. So let’s hear it for Gilbert Melendez, and best of luck to him when he faces down Anthony Pettis in the octagon. He earned it.