Monday, March 21, 2011

Social Stratification in Mixed Martial Arts


In March 2011, the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s (UFC) parent company – Zuffa L.L.C. – purchased the UFC’s primary and only serious MMA promotional competitor – Strikeforce. In doing so, some have argued Zuffa L.L.C. has cornered the major MMA market. By essentially eliminating the competition, high-level MMA fighters are now deprived of options where they make take their talents and leverage their individual worth. As the MMA industry in the United States (and to a large degree globally) currently stands, only those promotions under the Zuffa banner can pay fighters a substantial amount of money for participating in a fairly dangerous line of work.

This article will be the first in a series that examines a sample of fighters’ salaries from both the UFC and Strikeforce promotions as a means of analyzing the industry before the merger.

Social Stratification

Social stratification is a sociological concept suggesting that society is divided into different layers based on wealth, power, and prestige. Wealth includes the amount of resources an individual or group holds; this includes financial resources and social networks that can provide access to resources. Power is defined as the ability to influence one’s own life and the lives of others. Prestige refers to the degree of status one (or a group) holds in society (e.g., popularity, respect).

These three components, of course, impact one another. A group with extensive wealth tends to have more power in influencing other groups. If one has a low level of prestige, he or she will have less life chances to acquire a substantial amount of wealth. A group with very little power will have a difficult time advocating for greater rights and resources.

Within the MMA industry, those with the most wealth, power, and prestige are typically promotional owners. They stand at the top of the socially stratified MMA world. As noted previously, however, the number of major MMA promotions across the global landscape is extremely small. Thus one may argue that as the number of major MMA promotions decreases (or fall under the same management), the owners of the large MMA promotions increase their wealth, power, and prestige.

MMA fighters in contrast, generally have less wealth, power, and prestige than owners. Moreover, there are stratified levels of wealth, power, and prestige among the fighters. Certain fighters are more connected to the owners than others, are more (or less) popular with the fans, and may have better (or less) resources at their disposal (e.g., an effective agent or manager).

The prestige and resources a fighter has impacts the amount of income one can push for on a contract. An important resource for a fighter is also his or her record. Ostensibly, a lengthy winning record over quality opponents helps leverage more money promised for competing in an MMA fight, assuming the fighter is still in competitive form.

It is a common perception that MMA fighters who make it to the “big time,” either having competed in the UFC or Strikeforce promotion, make a substantial income. MMA fighters, however, only compete at most four times per year, and it is far more likely that they compete roughly twice per year.

A fighter’s number of competitions each year is contingent upon numerous variables. A loss may lead to being released from a promotional contract. It is not uncommon for fighters to be injured in practice and then need to drop out of a fight. Fighters may have personal and/or occupational disagreements with promotional management that influences fights booked (or more likely, not booked). In short, if a fighter sits within a low level of the stratified MMA industry, he or she may get minimal fights per year.

Additionally, fighters’ purses vary immensely, which will be the focus of this article.


MMA fighters do not have collective bargaining rights; they lack collective, organized power. Consequently, MMA promotions are not always required to release fighters’ salaries to the public after competition. However, commissions in some states require MMA promotions to make fighters’ salaries public. When this occurs, MMA websites typically report the information.

To collect data for this project, the available information was gathered from MMA websites for each fighter’s publicly stated earned income from UFC 100 to UFC 127, as well as a sample of Strikeforce fighters’ salaries who competed within the timeframe. Only major fight cards were examined for this project, essentially meaning cards that were held on a pay-per-view basis. As noted previously, following UFC 127, Zuffa L.L.C. purchased the Strikeforce promotion, thereby putting the UFC and Strikeforce under the same ownership banner.

For the UFC promotion, a sample of 15 fight cards were examined, in which 326 payouts (also known as a fighter’s “purse”) were made to fighters; fighter salaries for 13 UFC fight cards during this timeframe could not be located. For the Strikeforce promotion, a sample of 8 fight cards were examined, with 156 payouts. For Strikeforce, two payouts were discarded from the analysis (one in which the majority of the payout was reportedly given to charity and second of which was paid in advance of the competition), rendering this portion of the sample to 154.

Within the overall sample, a number of fighters competed more than once. For instance, Cris “Cyborg” Santos competed on four out of the eight Strikeforce cards examined; all four of her payouts were included and each was counted separately within the overall sample. Likewise as an example in the UFC, Brock Lesnar competed on three fight cards, and all three of his payouts were examined separately. The nine women’s matches were only in the Strikeforce promotion. Thus for women’s matches, there were a total of 18 payouts to female fighters; there were 462 payouts to male fighters, for a final sample of 480 payouts (N = 480).

Documentation was made if fighters won or lost their matches, and if a fighter won his/her match and was given a win bonus, what that bonus was in a dollar amount. For instance, in one match Fabricio Werdum was given $25,000 to “show” (i.e., compete), and since he won his match, he earned an additional “win bonus” of $25,000 for a total of $50,000. The $50,000 was the amount counted in the final analysis. The ratio of a win bonus relative to the “show” figure can fluctuate depending on each individual fighter’s ability to leverage a contract with the promotion. Chuck Liddell, one of the most popular MMA stars for instance, leveraged a flat rate of $500,000 to compete without any possible win bonus. Thus, even in losing his match, he still earned $500,000.

Finally within the UFC sample, “incentive” bonuses were documented. On each UFC fight card, a “Knockout of the Night” bonus is given to one fighter, a “Submission of the Night” bonus is given to one fighter, and a “Fight of the Night” bonus is given to two fighters. These incentive bonuses ranged from $50,000 to $100,000. The final value counted for each UFC fighter payout included incentive bonuses when applicable. On one card for example, Yoshihiro Akiyama received $40,000 to “show,” $20,000 to win, and $100,000 for “Fight of the Night,” earning him a grand total of $160,000 (the amount counted in analyses). Since he earned “Fight of the Night” by beating Alan Belcher, Belcher received his $19,000 “show” money and an additional $100,000 for also being in the “Fight of the Night.” Belcher’s $119,000 was likewise the amount counted in analyses.


The sample of payouts ranged from $500,000 at the top to $940 at the bottom. Interestingly, the two fighters who both earned $500,000 for one fight both lost. James Toney (a boxer turned MMA fighter for 1 competition to date) earned the top purse after losing to Randy Couture at UFC 118 via a round one submission; for beating Toney, Couture earned $250,000 (flat rate with no win bonus). Chuck Liddell lost at UFC 115 by second round knockout to Rich Franklin; Franklin earned $225,000 ($70,000 to show, $70,000 to win, and $85,000 for “Knockout of the Night”). The lowest purse of $940 was also given to two fighters, but within the Strikeforce promotion.

The following figures display the measures of central tendency and variance for the total sample and two separate promotions:

Total Sample (N = 480):

  • Mean: $52,703
  • Median: $20,000
  • Standard Deviation: $84,307

UFC Sample (N = 326)

  • Mean: $66,012
  • Median: $27,000
  • Standard Deviation: $92,164

Strikeforce Sample (N = 154)

  • Mean: $24,528
  • Median: $4,500
  • Standard Deviation: $55,068

When examining data related to income, the mean (mathematical average) is frequently a deceiving measure because it is skewed by outliers, such as the $500,000 payouts to Toney and Liddell. Thus, the mean figures for all three samples, while informative, do not offer the best measure that typifies MMA fighters’ purses.

In fact, the standard deviation is an indication of how widely the cases in each sample are dispersed from the mean. Because the standard deviation is large for each sample, we can say with greater clarity that the mean does not accurately represent on average what MMA fighters in these promotions earn.

A better indicator of average income data is the median, which stood at $20,000 for the total sample, $27,000 for the UFC sample, and $4,500 for the Strikeforce sample. Obviously, by examining any measure, one can see that UFC fighters tend to earn more income than Strikeforce fighters, and this difference is statistically significant at the .001 level (which is highly significant).

Perhaps, however, a more interesting analysis of this data entails examining how many fighters fall into different brackets of income level per fight. The following numbers represent the number of fighters earning purses within six income brackets:

  • 82 cases (roughly one sixth of the sample) earned $90,000 or more per fight
  • 80 cases in the sample earned between $38,000 and $89,000
  • 83 cases in the sample earned between $20,000 and $36,000
  • 66 cases in the sample earned between $11,000 – $19,800
  • 94 cases in the sample earned between $4,000 and $10,000
  • 75 cases in the sample earned $3,940 or less

To put this into perspective, 35.2% of the cases in the sample earned $10,000 or less per fight; 15.6% of the sample earned $4,000 or less per fight. On the other end of the extreme, 17.1% of the sample earned $90,000 or more per fight. Only 34 cases (7.1% of the sample) earned $200,000 or more per fight.


Within the MMA industry, status clearly plays a major role in fighters’ ability to leverage resources. James Toney is a professional athlete with an extensive professional boxing history, but who had literally no professional MMA experience. Yet, his boxing status enabled him to leverage a $500,000 payday despite losing very decisively to Randy Couture.

One then must ask, did Toney’s mere participation on a pay-per-view MMA competition yield significantly increased pay-per-view buys? If not, this certainly calls into question the fairness of Toney earning so much to lose so decisively when other, more capable and experienced MMA fighters produce more competitive fights.

These data also dispel any assumptions that most MMA fighters earn lucrative incomes as professional athletes. While it is true, most MMA fighters augment their competition purses with income through teaching combat sport classes and possibly by securing sponsorships, that supplementary income is not especially large, in particular for those fighters who do not have high status.

Furthermore, following competitions when fighters have received their purse money, they typically must distribute portions of it to their trainers, nutritionists, cornermen, and whoever else helped them prepare for the competition. One can see how fast the purse money would disintegrate if a fighter earned $10,000 or less for a competition (recall, that is approximately one third of the entire sample).

It is not terribly surprising that MMA fighters do not have collective bargaining rights, given that the sport is still less than two decades old. However, it is somewhat surprising that MMA fighters are not taking initial steps to organize so that they may secure collective rights in the near future.

As the situation currently stands, fighters are essentially at odds with one another in what is known as a “split labor market,” where those who rely on their bodies as labor within a capitalist system compete with each other to assert their value. This is commonly seen as a “divide and conquer” system that privileges management over workers.

The next series of articles relying on this data set will examine female fighters’ earned income relative to males’, as well as the impact incentive bonuses have within the UFC sample.

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