I was talking to my friend Paul Chittenden about fighter pay and all of the craziness surrounding UFC salaries these days. Why does it seem like only the top few fighters are making any money, while the rest of the roster is fighting for scraps?
The conversation turned to how some fighters, despite a mediocre record, can still pull in big money, and how these particularly savvy fighters positioned themselves to make more money.
Paul helps athletes and business owners build their influence and monetize their brands. He’s loved MMA since UFC I and is particularly knowledgeable about helping fighters make more money.
Since I know many of you have ambitions to take your MMA passion to the professional level, I wanted to bring Paul over and get his thoughts on how fighters should set their careers up for financial success.
The allure of fighting for a living and making big bucks is a dream for many. Yet, many professional fighters are struggling financially.
Still, some fighters have figured out the secret to become a living legend, an MMA rockstar. And, they’ve made millions.
I’ve been studying top performers in sports and business for years. I’ve dove into how celebrities become celebrities and how influencers make money. I’ve analyzed and broken down Conor McGregor’s rise to fame.
After all this research, I’ve discovered a number of ways an MMA fighter can jumpstart their career, increase their influence, and maximize their earnings.
I’ll show you exactly how to do this in this article, but first, let’s look at fighter pay.
How Much Money do MMA Fighters Make?
The UFC is currently embroiled in fighter pay disputes.
From a casual fan’s perspective, they see the top fighters of the MMA world raking in millions per fight. The fighters at the top of the game are definitely making bank, but you may be surprised how much lower and middle tier fighters actually make.
Compared to other sports, MMA fighters are severely underpaid unless you are in the top echelon.
The average UFC fighter made $138,250 in 2018. However, this average is highly skewed by the large numbers pulled in by top fighters.
Out of the 589 fighters with disclosed payouts in 2019, only the top 350 UFC fighters made over $50,000.
Now, this is UFC numbers. Lower tier organizations are typically paying less than this.
How Do MMA Fighters Make Their Money?
Most MMA fighters have a day job to support their MMA career.
In most organizations, the bottom line is that fighters are paid to fight. Both the winner and the loser are paid a base salary with the winner taking a larger cut.
Some organizations pay a portion of ticket sales or even have the fighters themselves sell tickets. The fighter will buy the tickets at a discount and keeps the difference.
Some promoters will pay travel expenses like food, gas, and hotel.
Other sources of income can come from sponsorships, endorsements, merchandise, and teaching classes, private lessons, or seminars.
What Expenses Do MMA Fighters Have?
The fight game is much like owning a business. Unlike a job, where you take home your full paycheck after the taxman takes his share, MMA fighters have “job expenses” that are deducted from their winnings.
Like owning a business, they need to manage and balance their budget. Here’s an example, courtesy of Myles Jury:
Our example fighter is on a $10,000 / $10,000 contract. This means they get paid a $10,000 base salary and a $10,000 win bonus. He wins and gets $20k.
Our fighter has to pay for:
- Taxes – 30%, $6,000
- Management Fees – 20%, $4,000
- Gym Fees – 10% of purse, $2,000
- Coaching Fees – $1,000
- Travel Expenses – $1,000
Total Expenses – ~$14,000
Fighter Takes – $6,000
This example shows that fighter expenses take a large portion of their earnings.
Taking home $6,000 on a $20,000 pay day is tough. If he had lost the fight, of course the financial picture would be much bleaker. Fighters need to think like a businessman to supplement this income.
Going from Amateur to MMA Rockstar
Fighters are celebrities, even if this is your first fight.
A majority of fighters are focused on training and making ends meet. They neglect the steps needed to market themselves properly.
The beauty of combat sports is that you get to go toe to toe with another fighter while an entire crowd is there to watch you bang. Everyone in the audience is there watching you.
Look back in history. Men have always fought to show dominance and superiority. The gladiators battled it out in arenas full of spectators.
Every man (and sometimes woman) wishes they could be in that cage. They wish they had the talent, the discipline, and maybe even the balls to step into battle.
You are on a stage. At that moment, you are a celebrity – even in the amateur circles.
I’m going to show you how to take advantage of this.
The Two Rules for a Successful MMA Career
To make a successful run at a top tier MMA organization like the UFC or Bellator, there are two rules.
These same two rules are what the biggest names in the sport use to negotiate the highest salary.
They are simple, but sometimes at odds with each other.
- Be an Entertaining Fighter
Remember where the money comes from in the fight game – ticket sales and viewership. The Dana White’s are looking for the fighters who will “fill the seats.”
You Must Win Fights
Guys, this is obvious. To get to the big leagues, you have to win fights in the amateur circuit.
To stay in the big leagues, you have to keep winning, or at least win enough fights to keep up in the rankings.
Be an Entertaining Fighter
In 2005, the UFC was in deep financial trouble. On April 9th of that year, a single fight ushered in a new era in combat sports.
Forrest Griffin vs Stephan Bonnar were fighting on the undercard of the TUF Finale. If you haven’t seen it, watch this fight. It was 15 minutes of battle where they literally just beat the crap out of each other.
In fact, the TV ratings literally had a marked increase during the fight as fans called their friends to tune in to this crazy bloodbath of a fight.
The winner of the fight would be offered a UFC contract. Bonnar didn’t win, but the fight was so exciting that they offered both fighters a contract. See how that works?
Putting on entertaining fights is so important, the UFC actually has incentivised fighters throughout the organization’s history to be more exciting with bonuses, just like a salesman gets a commission to win business:
- Fight of the Night
- Knockout of the Night
- Submission of the Night
- Performance of the Night
Lastly, putting on entertaining fights can be a shortcut to the UFC. A good example of this if Derek Lewis. When he entered the UFC, he had only had 12 fights, his striking was not very technical, and he had very little cardio.
But, Derek Lewis had unbelievable power and a highlight knockout reel. His fights are crazy.
While entertaining fights may be the ultimate shortcut, refer to rule #1. Taking chances can sometimes lead to a loss.
Bonus Rule: Develop Your Own Fan Base
Your fan base can be a major asset. In fact, you can sometimes circumvent rules 1 & 2 if you bring in the fans.
This is why some UFC vets have staying power, even when on a losing streak. They spent years building up their fan base, and the fans love them. They will still pay to see their favorite “past their prime” fighter fight.
Many things go into the decision to cut a fighter from the roster, including the level of competition they are fighting. But having a fan base can play a big role.
When rising up, do everything you can to build your fan base.
How to Maximize Your Earnings as an MMA Fighter
It is clear that you will need a day job for extra income as you are climbing the ranks to a top tier MMA organization, unless like Conor McGregor, you can find a Dee Devlin or someone to support you while you focus exclusively on training.
At the same time, you should make every effort to maximize your fighting earnings.
Now, let’s get into the actual tips:
Tip 1: Develop Your Fighter Persona
The entire concept of martial arts is rooted with a deep tradition of history, heritage, spirituality, and respect. Classic martial artists may take offense to this tip, but like all sports, you also have to realize you are fighting as an entertainer.
Entertainers entertain. This couldn’t be any more evident than in the sport of Professional Wrestling which is quite literally defined as an athletic theatrical performance.
In professional wrestling, personas are known as gimmicks. The wrestler, or actor, portrays an outlandish character within a pre-written storyline. The fans may love or hate this character depending on the role they play.
A persona is a role or character that is made up to entertain the fans. The persona shines when the camera is on, but they are just a regular guy or gal in person.
Some MMA fighters are seeing the benefits of playing a persona. The most notable is the Notorious Conor McGregor who has utilized his ultra-confident, cocky, and trash-talking persona to become the MMA world’s highest paid athlete.
Colby Covington is the ultimate example. Covington was winning fights. It seemed his fight career was going well. Still, his contract renewal was in jeopardy. Why? Fans were indifferent.
One night in 2017 at UFC Fight Night Brunson vs. Machida, everything changed. Nice guy Colby Covington flipped the script and did a complete 180. He called out Tyron Woodley, and called the Brazilians in attendance filthy animals.
He became a Trump loving, outspoken, villain. He created a lot of fans and probably, far more haters. Like him or not, people tune into his fights.
With his new persona, Colby Covington has seen a marked increase in his pay days. He went from $21,000 per night guaranteed money to $300,000 per night guaranteed money and became a millionaire in the process.
Covington freely admits it is an act in this rare interview:
Colby admits that the fight game is a circus. If you want to make money in this sport, you need to develop a persona.
Your persona can be you amplified by 10X. You can make up something completely original. Will they remember your name?
Tip 2: Own Your Audience | How to Grow Your Fan Base
As I mentioned in the Bonus Rule above, the biggest names in the sport have huge audiences on social media.
Ask any wannabe social media influencer, and they will tell you – it is hard to build an audience.
Not for you, aspiring fighter. You have a superpower, or two.
- As a fighter, people will want to follow you. You’re an entertainer!
- The MMA Promotion will promote you!
That’s right the MMA promotion’s product.. It’s like the circle of life or a you scratch my back, I’ll scratch your back kind of thing.
You and your upcoming match will be posted all over the internet, social media, and mentioned on the radio or on tv. You’ll be on posters. You may do interviews. The promotion will promote you growing your following.
In return, you should utilize these assets to grow your audience on your owned social media channels.
Pick your favorite social media channel. I’d suggest Instagram or Twitter, and get to work.
Here are a few things you can do to skyrocket your audience growth.
- Engage with your fans
- Collaborate with others
- Post at least once per day to keep your fans engaged.
- Mix it up: use photos, videos, live videos, and stories
The last two are self-explanatory. The first two are so important,we’ll go into a bit more detail:
Engage With Your Fans
When you’re driving your Ferrari down the Vegas strip, perhaps you can just post photos of your morning smoothie and rack up millions of likes.
Not today. We want to actively grow your following, and that means constantly engaging your fans. Respond to their comments. If they’ve tagged you in a post, mention them – say something!
When their friend sees you actually responded, they’re going to follow you too. Who doesn’t want to be connected to the cool local fighter – especially if they can say they knew of you before you made it big. “Dude, He’s from my hometown. I saw him fight in the local circuit!”
Collaborate with Others
Collaboration uses leverage to quickly build your following. Work with others who have a similar or slightly larger following than you to cross post, tag, or shout out each other.
This will allow both of you to gain new followers from the other’s audience. For example:
- Take a video of you sparring with another fighter in the gym, and post it to both accounts.
- Go on a local radio station for a quick interview and post a photo of you and the DJ. Have the DJ post to their account too.
- Any local businesses sponsoring the next fight? Stop by, maybe they’ll shout you out.
- Ask the promoter how you can help promote the fight. They’ll give you more exposure!
Be creative, and always think of how you can help and work with other people.
Tip 3: Sorry, You Probably Need a Job
Let’s face it, when you are first starting out, you’ll probably need to get a job to support your living & training expenses.
Rick Franklin taught high school math. Shane Carwin was an engineer.
If you want to put more focus on MMA, you may want to find a job with flexible hours. Even better, how about a job that is a benefit to your MMA career? Here are some ideas:
- Personal Training
- Real Estate Agent (Chael Sonnen, “Raging” Al Iaquinta and Aljamain “Funk Master” Sterling)
- Bouncer (Georges St-Pierre)
- McDonald’s (Anderson Silva)
Seminars are a great way to make some extra cash. Once you’ve made a name for yourself, you can travel around to different cities putting on wrestling, jiu jitsu, or stand-up seminars.
This tip isn’t glamorous, but you gotta do what you gotta do.
Tip 4: How to Get Sponsorships like the Wolf of Wallstreet
The UFC’s deal with Reebok was a huge hit to fighters’ sponsorship money.
In other promotions and on the local scene, good money can still be made by getting sponsors.
The thing is – most people completely suck at asking for these deals. I know, my work bag company gets at least one message per week (not MMA related, but similar pitches).
Let’s be clear. Adding a company’s logo to your shorts isn’t going to make them a ton of sales. 99% of people in the arena probably won’t even notice it is there.
You have to think about this from the target company’s perspective.
Approach this like a fight. Think strategically. Become a deal maker.
Do You Use this Product or Service?
Fight gear companies will literally check your social media feeds to see if you actively wear their gear. Are you really a fan? Or, just looking for money or free gear?
It will be 10X easier to secure a deal if the business knows you because you’ve done business with them before.
What Will They Get by Sponsoring You?
Don’t just offer to wear their logo. Offer to actively promote them.
You’ve been building your social media, so show them your feeds, follower counts, and engagement rates.
Post about their business. Be seen with their products or using their service. Recommend them.
Have professional images and photos. Be willing to allow them to use your likeness in their ads.
Think about what you can offer.
Will You Be Enjoyable to Work WIth?
Be likeable. Remember, your sponsor is doing more for you than you are doing for them.
Try not to be difficult to work with.
Get them complimentary tickets to your fight. Show some love!
Think about these questions when you make your offer.
Before we start pitching companies, let’s think about who we want to target.
Choose Your Sponsorship Targets Wisely
Your first thought may be to go directly to fight gear companies. Seems logical.
Don’t do it. These guys get 1000’s of requests and already have access to the top fighters.
You need to think outside the box. Start local and work your way up.
Think about things you need.
- Training – Can you get referral fees for bringing in people to your gym?
- Nutrition – Approach a local supplement store or restaurant to get help with food and supplement costs.
- Recovery – Think about a local chiropractor, sports medicine clinic, cryotherapy clinic or massage/cupping practice
What about other local businesses in your community?
Bryce “Thug Nasty” Mitchell was just featured in one of the funniest local auto dealer ads I’ve ever seen:
Tim Sylvia was the face of a hail damage company.
Lastly, stay out of trouble and keep your reputation clean if you want to work with lots of sponsors.
Platinum Mike Perry recently issued an apology for an incident in a Texas bar. Still, Mike could take advantage of this with some fun and creativity. How about working with a local bail bondsman? Playing the “bad guy” attacker in a local Krav Maga or self defense class ad?
Tip 5: Become and Get Paid as a Social Media Influencer
Last year, Paige VanZant admitted on Ariel Helwani’s MMA Show on ESPN that she earns more doing sponsored posts on Instagram than she gets paid in the UFC.
Ok, you’re not as pretty as Paige with your broken nose and cauliflower ears nor do you have 2.7 million followers.
Thankfully, you don’t need 100,000 or even 10,000 followers to make money as an influencer.
Micro influencer deals have recently started taking off. The number of followers you have can definitely influence how much you can make.
More importantly, it is the amount of influence that you have over your followers. This is mostly measured by the amount of engagement that you get on each post. ***See why engaging with your followers is so important now?
So, you have followers. You have a distinguished niche because you are a fighter. Your follower base is also fairly targeted. This is a good start for any brand’s influencer campaign.
How do You Get an Influencer Deal?
Getting your first influencer deal seems tough, but it is really pretty simple.
- Put out good content and high quality photos.
- Every once in a while, post something about one of your favorite brands. Tag them.
- Have your contact information in your bio so brands can get in touch.
- Start reaching out directly to brands.
One more thing to mention is the concept of Trading Up. Start with small brands, and then go on to a slightly larger brand. Keep trading up to get better and better deals.
Tip 6: Set up Your Own Shop for Merchandise Sales
Ever seen a UFC fighter in their cool walk out t-shirt with “I’d Love to Knock the Hell Out of You” (Hank Williams, Jr.) blaring in the background?
Today, it is easier to sell merch than ever!
In the old days, you’d have to make a good graphic, go to a printer, order a ton of tees, and get them to print your logo. You’d spend a lot of money, but what if you couldn’t sell them?
With the e-commerce explosion, entrepreneurs are starting to move to a Print-on-Demand model, or POD. Companies like Printful, Printify, & Spreadshirt will print one shirt, hat, or pillow with your face on it at a time.
You won’t have to worry about being stuck with unsold inventory, and you can make a few bucks while getting your name out there!
Not an artist? No problem either. You can go to a marketplace like Fiverr to find a designer to create a stunning graphic for a lot cheaper than you’d imagine.
Lastly, starting your own e-commerce store is easier than ever. Shopify is probably the easiest platform to get started on. Or, you could just sell t-shirts out of the trunk of your car.
Tip 7: Invest Your Winnings
Like most professional athletes, a fighting career is relatively short. What are you going to do after fighting is over?
Smart fighters are investing their winnings. You could invest in an education, put some money away for retirement, or open a business.
A lot of fighters open their own gym. This makes sense. They are experts in this area, and their name recognition will bring in students who want to be like them. The kids want to be associated with the local fighter.
Tim Boetsch opened a shaved ice business after seeing a family member doing well. The good news is that after the initial opening, the business allowed him enough time to train.
Paul Daley has an MMA gym and invests in real estate.
Invest in something that will generate cash flow in the future.
MMA isn’t the best paying sport, and most fighters do it for the love of the game.
Still, if you’re pursuing fighting as a career I think you should take Paul’s advice here into consideration. Try to maximize what you do earn so that you can focus on and afford the best training.