Low pay for MMA competition makes perfect sense given its current state, but that is a hard thing for a lot of fans (and fighters) to accept. There seems to be a resurgent outrage over published salaries like UFC lightweight Ronys Torres’ $4000 payout for UFC 110. But fact is, despite being the greatest sport in existence, MMA is not established enough for fighters to be paid big bucks.
Part of the problem behind this empathy-in-overdrive is the skewed perception of professional athlete’s salaries. American major league sports have some ludicrously overpaid players–from the NBA’s $5 million average to A-Rods $100 million contract with the Yankees. Surrounded by such excess, it is easy to forget that those activities have a healthy hundred-years-plus head start on being accepted as legitimate sports; whereas kicking people in the face or forcing a sign of submission by squeezing the trachea are traditionally considered criminal offenses.
MMA–in its current form– has only existed since the advent of proper rules and regulations. That shortens the origins to around UFC 28 in 2000–the first to adopt the “unified rules” set out by the New Jersey Athletic Board. (Ok, there were smaller promotions that came first, and Pride FC started in 1997, but UFC 28 established the first mainstream event with the specific rules that are becoming universal in MMA’s biggest promotions.) Extreme youth for a sport is enough of a burden, but there are still legal hurdles to overcome. Only two provinces in Canada allow professional MMA, despite a huge fanbase in places like Ontario. It’s encouraging that MMA events are now legal and regulated in all but four U.S. states, but most still have not hosted a major event.
MMA as a whole is stuck right in the middle of an emerging-process. There is a lot of red tape to clear for a governing body to permit people to hurt each other in a new and exciting way. For a municipal government to host a professional MMA event, it has to indemnify itself against being sued by an injured competitor. Ridiculous as it may sound, a sore loser can sue cities for permitting him to compete in a high-intensity sport.
If a city has never hosted an MMA event before, there’s no precedent for what cautionary measures need to be taken. Also, promotions need clear guidelines from the city to keep the event legal–all of which needs to be overseen by a higher regulatory authority. Over time, the process becomes smooth and systematic, but the first attempt can be dragged down by bureaucratic regulations and become incredibly time-consuming.
In order for fighters to be paid more, the whole sport needs to grow. MMA promotions need to keep expanding their scope to bigger and better places to increase profits– which is happening, but slowly. While inevitability doomed in the long-term, prohibition of MMA in places like Ontario and New York is seriously hampering cash-flow (hence the recent schmoozing blitz by the UFC in both cities.) The point is that MMA, while awesome, is still small beans in the world of sports.
Presently, rookie fighter’s have a disturbing similarity to struggling actors. It’s as if there is a credit line attached to their name and image that determines a pay-grade. Whether it’s waiting tables, or engineering (see: Shane Carwin, the UFC’s resident Dilbert) athletes trying to break into MMA will likely find a day-job necessary. However, while MMA training is grueling, it’s not outrageous to expect fighters to work in between fights. UFC middleweight Chael Sonnen for example, is even campaigning for public office while training and working in real-estate.
Furthermore, fighters are not necessarily wallowing in poverty between events as the published payouts may suggest. They stay afloat by way of sponsors –as many that fit on their shorts, walk-in T-shirt, hat and mouth guard. A decent sponsor provides free equipment and nutritional supplements; a great sponsor provides steady paycheques for endorsements.
MMA is a viciously top-heavy sport. Fighters like Randy Couture and GSP compete 2-3 times per year and pull in a quarter-million per fight, plus a percentage of the pay-per-view revenues, sponsorship money and commercial endorsements. Conversely, even with mountains of skill and dedication, a promising young career can be derailed by a single inconvenient injury.
MMA will always have a stigma that keeps it from becoming ingrained like American football is to high school and college and hockey is to…well, everyone in Canada. But rest assured, someday the sport will grow to the point where MMA competitors will no longer struggle, but enjoy all the luxuries reserved for a NBA or even PGA champion.
Then after a few years, the fighters union will become corrupt and shiftless. It will declare arbitrary strikes that anger the fans and delay exciting fights. Meanwhile, fighters will remain indifferent; snorting coke and sleeping on piles of money with porn stars. Then one day, after MMA gets its first sex scandal–the revelation that GSP has had consensual relations with every woman in the western hemisphere–fans will know that MMA has finally made the big leagues. All in good time.