Earlier this month, Francis Ngannou, the UFC heavyweight champion, had a Twitter spat with Tyson Fury about potentially squaring off in some sort of hybrid contest using Queensberry rules and MMA gloves. The most pointed line of the back and forth came when Fury reminded his would-be opponent that climbing into the boxing ring would lead to him being knocked out but receiving "your highest purse to be so!" For his last victory in the octagon, Ngannou received $580,000. Less than five per cent of what Fury took home from his third clash with Deontay Wilder.
Amid all the trash-talking between the two combat sports, boxers at the top of their game know all they have to do is mention money to put mixed martial artists firmly in their place. When Tyrone Woodley, former UFC welterweight champion, fought Jake Paul, a YouTuber turned pugilist, last summer, his purse was $2m.
At his peak in his own code, it took the MMA veteran four defences of his crown to earn the same amount he got for donning the bigger gloves in the 21st century equivalent of a fairground gimmick contest. A stat that says a lot about the UFC’s lopsided business model.
As president and chief carnival barker of the outfit, Dana White has gained a hard-won reputation for underpaying fighters (he calls it incentivising), binding them to exploitative contracts (he justifies that by saying he saved the sport from bankruptcy), and not caring a job about their welfare once they have exhausted their utility (dismissing CTE as an occupational hazard).
Ironically, Paul, whose bizarre prominence is a triumph in the art of self-promotion, used his own oversized platform the other week to call out White with the following threat.
"I will immediately retire from boxing and fight Jorge Masvidal in the UFC if you agree to:
1) Increase min fighter pay per fight to $50K (it’s $12K now)
2) Guarantee UFC fighters 50% of UFC annual revenues ($1bn in 2021)
3) Provide longterm healthcare to all fighters (you previously said brain damage is part of the gig...imagine the NFL said that). There are many UFC alums who have publicly said they are suffering from brain damage.”
Rather than specifically deny or address the charges, White accused Paul of being stupid, taking steroids (a touch of the glass houses about that riposte), and having somebody else write the detailed critique. That somebody else may well have been Nakisa Bidarian, Paul’s manager, who was, in a previous life, Chief Financial Officer and Vice-President of UFC. Which explains why his former boss also ranted online about him having “a warlock nose and a big warlock wart on his face”, and called him a scumbag. So far, so childish.
If the calibre of insults suggests White learned a lot from Conor McGregor’s puerile antics, they also made him sound concerned. Maybe he should be. Bidarian knows the inner workings of UFC, a slick financial operation that makes the head honcho and owners vast sums each year while ensuring headliners like Ngannou must borrow money to set up training camp before title bouts. Not to mention the $5m Masvidal was offered to fight by Paul is a whole lot more than he has earned in total during nine years putting his body on the line for White.
“It was the best year we ever had,” boasted White about 2021 in an interview with the Las Vegas Review-Journal earlier this month. “We’re popping on every metric you can imagine. Sponsorship is through the roof. Social media, our numbers on pay-per-view, our numbers on television, arena records. This business is on fire… Trust me, everybody is making money. We worked through the pandemic and kept all of our employees and kept the fighters working. Fighter pay has continually gone up.”
Pay has gone up. Just not at the same pace as the skyrocketing profits. After a record-breaking 8.6m pay-per-view buys last year, White increased the price for UFC 270 on January 22nd by five dollars to $74.99. The customer is getting charged more, the revenues growing, yet fighters like Ngannou are desperately trying and failing to renegotiate their way out of punitive contracts. If the French-Cameroonian wins against Ciryl Gane nine days from now, he must give the company one more fight on their terms before his deal expires. If he loses, he's a free agent.
Ngannou’s contractual situation is complicated by the fact he’s represented by Creative Artists Agency (CAA), a direct competitor to Endeavor, UFC’s parent company. White has attempted to bully and deride CAA the same way he does everybody who crosses him. Indeed, he bristled so openly at Paul’s attack because he is usually insulated from criticism. Fighters are reluctant to speak out because their entire futures depend on him and a lot of MMA media pull their punches because they remain reliant on this hypersensitive megalomaniac for access.
For all White’s boasting, Ariel Helwani, an MMA journalist who famously fell foul of the Grand Poobah for committing journalism, pointed out last week that a potential clash between Jake Paul and McGregor, a beaten docket in his own sport these days, would dwarf all UFC bouts in 2022.
A timely reminder to White that the obnoxious Dubliner, his biggest ever box office draw, earned more from a single boxing match against Floyd Mayweather than from all his nights in the octagon combined.