The UFC fight between Conor McGregor and Khabib Nurmagomedov in October last year was the latest example of the sport’s financial stature, with both fighters standing to earn well over $1million. McGregor and Khabib are, however, rare big earners in a sport that has tried its upmost to suppress the wages of its fighters. More than any other sport, the Ultimate Fighting Championship epitomises the emerging relationship between unprotected workers and powerful employers in the modern economy.
The UFC was created in the United States in 1993 by an advertising executive, a film producer, and a martial arts coach. The idea was to create entertainment, selling a unique style of brutal, no-holds-barred cage fighting on television, with rules added on the fly as a response to injuries sustained in the cage. As the 2000s wore on, the UFC purchased rival mixed-martial arts competitions at home in America and in Japan, establishing a near-monopoly in the world of competitive cage-fighting. It is this monopoly that allows the UFC to hold its fighters to such exploitative terms.
One of these contracts, leaked in 2013, contained a clause stipulating that the fighter’s deal could be completely cancelled in the event of a defeat. Another clause handed full marketing rights over the fighter’s name to the UFC, another stipulated that the fighter must gain the UFC’s consent over any tattoo-designs they wish to wear. An extension clause insisted that the fighter was duty-bound to commit to a further year of UFC fighting under the same financial terms if he was a champion by the end of the contract. At the time legal expert Zev Eigen argued that the extension clause would most likely be deemed ‘unconstitutional’ in the US, but it was never challenged in a court – fighters know too well the cost of taking on the UFC.
The UFC’s fighters are paid by the gig, on a fight-by-fight basis, with contracts typically rolling over eight fights. Over one-third of UFC fighters earned less than the average household income in the US, which is around $45,000 per year. As Scott Harris argued in a recent Bleacher Report article, the wages might not be considered low in other industries—but they are paltry when considering the short length of fighting careers and huge physical risks of cage fighting. The health insurance afforded is also minimal, with fighters expected to pay severe premiums (reportedly over $1,000 per injury) before being covered. Many newly-signed fighters must stump up these sums despite earning less than $20,000 per year.
While the financial reward is often minimal, the dream of one day signing a mega-deal to fight a Khabib, Rousey or McGregor ensures that fighters keep coming back. Many of these fighters, who usually pass under the radar of the media, work tirelessly in low-paid secondary employment, supporting families and trying to squeeze enough time out of their lives to make a successful fighting career possible. They are called to UFC tournaments at particularly short-notice, sometimes only having a matter of weeks to prepare for a fight. Their sheer desperation means the company has the upper hand in picking who fights, and as one fighter described to Harris: ‘when you keep a lot of your staff starving, they’re a lot easier to control’.
Functioning essentially as a gig economy for professional fighters, the UFC embodies the anxieties of neoliberalism like no other sport. Individuals lured in by the chance to earn a fortune work tirelessly in unprotected conditions, desperate to land a big contract that’ll turn their life around. The company hands out crumbs to fighters chasing a promise of the big time, raking in $700 million in 2017 while paying many as little as $10,000 per fight.
The latest attempt at unionisation, led by women’s fighter Leslie Smith, was launched earlier this year under the name Project Spearhead. The campaign promises to wage a long battle to sign up 30% of the UFC’s roster. At that point the National Labor Relations Board would have to decide whether or not fighters can be legally classified as employees of the UFC, rather than Uber-style independent contractors. As recent campaigns against the gig economy giants in the UK and abroad have shown—that is likely to be the only way to improve terms and conditions.