Luke Rockhold’s UFC career goes all the way back to the Strikeforce acquisition in 2013. He hasn’t been impressed with what has happened to fighter pay in the time since.
With the UFC’s compensation in the news once again thanks to a Dana White quote (which he wishes people would stop aggregating), the former UFC middleweight champion went off on the subject ahead of his fight with Paulo Costa at UFC 278 on Saturday.
Rockhold specifically took issue with a lack of increase in fighter pay relative to the UFC’s growth in recent years and a lack of health care support.
“I love fighting and I’m here to fight the best motherf***ers. This happens to be the place where it’s done. The company is f***ing growing and they’re implementing other little stupid-ass bonuses. $5,000 here, $5,000 there. $50,000, man. We’ve been stuck on this motherf***er for f***ing 20 f***ing years.”
“Back when [Georges St-Pierre] Jake fought [Shields], what was it, $100,000? It was growing. When Lorenzo and Frank [Fertitta] were running the show, there were real grounding wires. These guys, they don’t know what they’re doing. They’re letting Dana just run the show and suppress the sport. They need to grow, this whole f***ing thing needs to grow together.”
“Our lives are on the f***ing line. Healthcare needs to be taken care of. Our f***ing health needs to be taken care of. Mine has not been taken care of. There’s a lot of things that need to f***ing change, I’m just not going to be scared to say it. Everyone wants to get that title shot, they want to move up. I’ve f***ing done it all.”
“Yeah, this is business. Every business is like this. It’s about leverage. It’s a game of leverage and life. It’s about always keeping the upper hand. It’s not just here, it’s everywhere. If you let these motherf***ers think they have that leverage, it’s only going to grow above you. So it’s just people understanding their worth.”
There are more than a few fighters who agree with Rockhold, most notable among them UFC heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou, who has butted heads with the promotion and pursued other opportunities since capturing his belt.
Ngannou co-signed Rockhold’s statements on Twitter, specifically complaining about fighters’ inability to bring in extra money through sponsorships due to the UFC’s own deals in place.
This whole conversation started when White said fighter pay increases were “never gonna happen while I’m here” in an interview last week with GQ.
A number of outlets picked up the quote and ran stories on it, a common process in modern media, but White had a major bone to pick in the fallout while speaking with Yahoo Sports’ Kevin Iole:
“Fighter pay has gone through the roof since the sale in 2016. Fighter pay continues to go like this [raises hand].” So you think I’m going to sit there and go “fighter pay will never go up while I’m here?’ That is the dumbest f***ing thing I have ever heard.”
White is accurate that fighter pay has gone up in parallel with the UFC’s revenue, although it still represents less than a fifth of where the promotion’s total revenue goes, as Bloody Elbow laid out:
As Endeavor’s CFO Jason Lubin revealed during the earnings call, the UFC’s [compound annual growth rate] has been 21% a year since 2005. Since we know from disclosures in the Le et al v Zuffa, LLC antitrust lawsuit that the UFC’s revenues were $48.3 million back then, a 21% CAGR would come out to $1.02 billion in 2021. This would match the slightly more than $1 billion shown on Moody’s graph.
Lubin also disclosed that fighter pay had increased 26% CAGR since 2005. Since we also know what total fighter pay was in 2005 — $4.3 million — total fighter pay would have been around $178.8 million last year. That would be just 17.5% of their total revenue.
Those numbers also don’t reflect the issue Ngannou was harping on, as the UFC’s sponsorship deals prevent fighters from making money in other areas. Instead of being able to secure apparel deals like NBA players get with shoe deals, UFC fighters must enter the Octagon clad in Venum apparel.
How much fighters get from that Venum deal depends on their experience. Compensation ranges from $4,000 per fight for first-time UFC fighters to $42,000 for champions. Companies would almost assuredly pay more to have their logo visible on UFC fighters.