MMA Ratings Podcast

June 15, 2020

Jon Jones vs. The UFC: The Light Heavyweight Champion Has Emerged As the Unlikely Leader In Fighter Pay Reform

By Adam Martin

UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Jon Jones and the promotion he has starred in for over a decade are currently locked in an ugly, public contract dispute that has seen Jones emerge as the unlikely leader of fighter pay reform. Jones and the UFC failed to come to an agreement on the numbers for a superfight with heavyweight slugger Francis Ngannou, and ever since then, Jones has taken to social media to drop truth bombs on how flawed the fighter pay system is in the UFC. The bad boy of MMA has unexpectedly become the man leading the charge for a change in fighter pay.

The fighter pay system in mixed martial arts is deeply flawed and has been for the entire time the sport has been around. Back in the day, you could justify the low fighter pay because the sport was still emerging. But in the last decade or so, you just can't justify the ridiculously low percentage of the revenue that fighters receive compared to other professional athletes. In most of the big sports like the NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL, the revenues are split about 50/50 between the owners and athletes. In the UFC, it's an 80/20 split for the owners, and that needs to change now.

Jones, as well as fellow stars like Jorge Masvidal, are now leading the charge for a change in the way fighters are paid. After being OK with taking whatever iron-clad, below-value contracts the UFC offered them, the fighters are now being vocal about wanting to get their piece of the pie. Very few fighters in history have challenged the pay system in mixed martial arts, and for the few that have like Randy Couture, it was never successful. We have always needed a big, superstar fighter to be the one who leads the charge. Although no one could have expected it, Jones might just be that guy. The biggest heel in MMA is slowly transforming into a babyface in front of our very own eyes.

These fighters are finally speaking up after years of being underpaid. The UFC was sold for $4.2 billion a few years ago, yet the percentage of money paid to the fighters has barely gone up, despite the UFC signing a big-money deal with ESPN, having big pay-per-view sales, and introducing a Reebok apparel deal that was heavily in the promotion's favor. That needs to change, and with fighters like Jones leading the charge, the chances of the antiquated pay system may finally change for the best. It is going to be a long, hard battle with the UFC, but the seeds are at least being planted now.

There are numerous issues with the way the UFC pays its fighters that Jones has spoken publicly about. Jones has spoken about young fighters getting locked into long-term deals when they are coming up, only to be paid far below market value once they start to become stars. Another problem is the show and win pay system that needs to be abolished. Fighters deserve a flat fee to fight, not a second paycheck only if they win. The bonus system is also structured in a way to make the fighters chase extra money for good performances. It's like dangling a carrot from a string, but only a few fighters per card get the bonus money. All of this needs to be changed.

Ultimately, the crux of the argument from fighters like Jones and others is that the UFC doesn't pay out a high enough percentage of its revenue to the fighters. After all, its the athletes who have to step into the cage and fight. Yes, the UFC is the one who gives the fighters the opportunity to fight, and no one said that UFC owners don't deserve to make money. In fact, they deserve to make a lot of money for having a successful business. It's just that the UFC fighters deserve to make more money too. They deserve a lot more money, and they are finally realizing this fact.

Jon Jones has long been the bad boy of MMA. Between the PED suspensions, the drunk driving, and the other legal issues outside of the UFC, no one could confuse Jones for a saint. But perhaps Jones' legacy won't be all the bad stuff he did. Perhaps it won't even be all of his accomplishments inside the cage. Perhaps he will be the man who finally led to a change in the fighter pay system in MMA. 2020 has seen a lot of crazy things happen, but Jones emerging as the leader of the MMA labor movement has to be among the most surprising. There is still tons of work to do, but the conversation has at least started. Now let's see if Jones and the others can lead to some positive change.

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