Imagine for a moment you are UFC Lightweight Tony Ferguson. Having spent over 4 years within the promotion, you ring up an impressive 10-1 record, with 7 wins in a row currently, and earn the title of The Ultimate Fighter in 2011. Over these 11 fights, you are one of only 3 athletes on the current roster to earn all 4 bonuses awarded by the promotion (Knockout, Submission, Fight and Performance of the Night). Of your 20 victories, you hold a total of 16 finishes, and have been finished once in your 23 fight career.
Imagine working your entire life to reach a goal, but being told that you need to do more because a bigger name sits in waiting. Whether it is Ferguson, Gray Maynard, Jon Fitch, or many others in recent years, it seems that more and more visibility and marketability are trumping success and talent within the UFC. Now surely many will be saying the UFC is about making money and any other cliche they feel is applicable here, but there is no fighter in the world that wakes up saying “I wonder how I can make the promotion more money today”. As much as the UFC wants to make money, so does every fighter competing for them, but sadly, it is becoming obvious that the fighters the UFC wants in the limelight will be the ones benefiting from the promotions global reach, while the others continue to work and hope they fit in at the right time in the company plans.
What exactly is the point of housing the world’s greatest collection of talent if the UFC continues to recycle the same fighters over and over again, while others eventually flame out due to time being against them. Building any type of winning streak within the UFC is a difficult task, so when you do, it would be fair to think you expect at least a chance to compete for gold. While the argument is that these fighters have only competed in MMA for a few years, many of them have spend years and decades perfecting their craft. To expect a prolonged level of excellence after this long is almost laughable when you look at the sheer number of fighters in the UFC.
Since the UFC held their first event in 1993, a total of 204 title bouts (interim included) have taken place or are currently booked. In these title bouts, a total of 62 men or women have held titles, and 152 men or women have challenged for these titles. If the numbers are accurate, approximately 1500 have competed for the UFC over the years, leaving the title challengers at a 10% mark. But while there has been 204 title bouts, many fighters have challenged for the title more than once. By division:
Heavyweight: 9 men with more than one title bout, for a total of 28
Light Heavyweight: 11 men with more than one title bout, for a total of 23
Middleweight: 4 men with more than one title bout, for a total of 8
Welterweight: 9 men with more than one title bout, for a total of 22
Lightweight: 6 men with more than one title bout, for a total of 14
Featherweight: 2 men with more than one title bout, for a total of 5
Bantamweight: 2 men with more than one title bout, for a total of 5
Flyweight: 2 men with more than one title bout, for a total of 4
Women’s Bantamweight: 0
Women’s Strawweight: 0
To put these numbers in perspective, here are the total number of title shots in each division:
Heavyweight: 38 (including UFC 196)
Light Heavyweight: 40
Welterweight: 34 (including UFC 195)
Women’s Bantamweight: 7
Women’s Strawweight: 4
So out of the 204 title shots in UFC history, a total of 46 men have accounted for 105 of them. In other words, nearly one third of all UFC title contenders have competed in over half of the UFC’s title bouts. 94 fighters have earned only one title shot of the remaining 99, which makes sense when you include title shots in multiple divisions.
So while 10% of the total amount of UFC fighters have earned a title shot, this number drops significantly when adding in multiple shots and challenging in different divisions to around 4 or 5% of all fighters. It is difficult enough to earn these shots within the UFC, but when the promotion chooses to award them to “marketable” fighters over deserving ones far too often, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain any type of acceptance for this practice.
With the UFC claiming to be worth nearly 2.5 billion dollars, some have countered this claim to only 1.5 billion, the fact is that the UFC is very, very wealthy. Considering the Ferttitas and Dana White purchased it for only 2 million dollars in 2001, a growth or either 1.5 or 2.5 billion is nothing to scoff at. But no sporting league or promotion will exist without athletes competing for them. The UFC has a long history of virtually handpicking “stars” and pushing them through the media machine at a rapid pace, and when that star fades, a new one is branded as the future and business goes on as usual. Look no further than Sage Northcutt currently.
With 2 career UFC appearances, neither a main event or a televised card, Northcutt took home a whopping $80000 for his UFC Fight Night victory over Cody Pfister. Going back to the previously mentioned Ferguson, currently ranked 5th by the UFC, he was able to take home $100000 ($150000 with his POTN bonus) for his submission victory over 7th ranked Edson Barboza during the TUF 22 finale. In Ferguson’s previous bout, his 10th with the promotion, he took home a total of $60000 dollars, as a top 10 ranked Lightweight.
While your earnings do not dictate whether or not you will receive a title shot, it is a telling sign of the push the UFC is giving you. In Conor McGregors second bout following his ACL injury, the Irishman took home a total of $150000 for his victory over Dustin Poirier at UFC 178. Only current UFC Flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson made more that evening, taking home a total of $183000 for his 5th world title defense. Obviously the investment in McGregor did pay off, but his skill was what made him a world champion within the UFC, not his marketability in the media and the business world. Far too many tremendously skilled fighters have been, or are being, overlooked for marquee bouts simply due to the fact that they aren’t a visible enough presence within the MMA world. But we have seen what happens when skill takes on marketability far too often lately, and the results speak for themselves.
At some point the UFC needs to realize that the most charismatic, marketable fighters are not always the best fighters. MMA is a sport intended to pit 2 martial artists against one another, with the better man or woman emerging victorious, not the ones that will generate the most Google hits and commercial endorsements. Sure, the UFC may make it’s money, but what about the athletes?
Look over most PPV events in recent years and you will see a revenue of at least 10 million dollars (based on 200000 buys at $50 per buy) with payrolls hovering around the 1 million dollar mark. Generally, well over 60% of this payroll will go to 3 or 4 of the 20 or 22 competitors regardless of the generated PPV income. With the new Reebok pay scale receiving scathing indictments from many and stripping major income from most fighters, it is becoming harder and harder to truly make the most money possible in a sport that can be brutal at best and unforgiving at worst.
Why should any athlete work day and night for years simply so a handful of UFC fighters receive the attention and subsequent financial windfalls that come with it? When any fighter such as Ferguson can run off 7 consecutive victories (or more in some cases) within the UFC and still be what seems to be at least 2 bouts away from a title shot, while others can receive multiple title shots in the same span of time, it becomes harder to view the UFC as sport promotion rather than a real life WWE.
It is difficult enough to earn a UFC title shot, never mind winning a title, solely based on your success and achievement. When the people that control these thing are the ones making it even harder though, difficult becomes almost impossible.