Finances: Dana White, and the UFC’s locker room bonuses

It’s not often that Dana White is willing to discuss issues of fighter pay. But last week, for whatever reason, he saw fit to…

By: John S. Nash | 3 years ago
Finances: Dana White, and the UFC’s locker room bonuses
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

It’s not often that Dana White is willing to discuss issues of fighter pay. But last week, for whatever reason, he saw fit to share with Scott Fontana of the New York Post how much the UFC paid out last year in discretionary bonuses (or “locker room bonuses” as they are often called by fans even if they are never actually paid in the locker room.)

According to the UFC — after incorrectly giving Fontana the wrong amount initially — the UFC paid a total of $13 million in discretionary bonuses to fighters in 2020. This included the Performance of the Night bonuses, which totaled $8.4 million last year, leaving $4.6 million in additional discretionary payments by the UFC.

This $4.6 million total in discretionary bonuses was calculated by the New York Post to have averaged $5,044 per fighter per fight. This amount would fluctuate though, depending on – as the name implies – White’s discretion. The general practice, according to White, was to write a check from $4,000 to $25,000 for “everybody who delivered on the card.” None of it is guaranteed though, and it could all depend on a myriad of factors, including card placement, and how much — or how little — the UFC brass likes you or your performance.

Discretionary bonuses have been common knowledge for some time, with most of the reports involving eye-catching numbers. Daniel Cormier told Ariel Helwani a few months ago that he was paid $1 million for his first bout with Jon Jones. Based on the total amount given for last year, it seems unlikely that there were few, if any, million dollar payments.

I asked the UFC if they could share the number of post-fight discretionary bonuses that were paid out last year, or the share of fighters that received them, but have yet to hear back from them.

I tried to also ask a number of current fighters their experience with these discretionary bonuses, but as of yet none of them have gotten back to me, either.

A few former UFC fighters though did get back to me with recollections of their bonuses. In addition, I have asked fighters about this subject previously, finding them much more open to discussing it then.

In 2016, I conducted a survey on fighter pay that included questions about discretionary bonuses. This survey was done for the most part just after news had broken that the UFC had sold for $4 billion. In hindsight, this obviously played a major part in why so many fighters (and their managers, agents, and attorney) were willing to share with me. In the end, I gathered info on over 250 purses between January 1, 2013 and December 31, 2015 that were paid to around 70 UFC fighters.

To make sure the data more accurately conveyed how pay was distributed by the UFC, I divided the fighters’ purses into categories – prelims, main card, co-mains or featured fighters, and TV or PPV headliners – and then made sure to include a higher share of samples from those at the top of a card. I then polled them on the various forms of compensation, one of which was discretionary bonuses.

Most fighters reported some kind of discretionary bonuses. If we exclude “Of the Night” bonuses, then approximately 80% of the purses in our survey received a discretionary bonus.

The survey results were broken down further, based on whether or not they given to someone on the prelims, main card, featured on the marketing of a pay-per-view, in the main event of a televised event or on a pay-per-view.

Bonuses for polled fighters on the prelims ranged between 0 to $10,000, with both the mean and median average being $3,000. For a fighter on the main card, our poll showed that bonuses ranged between 0 to $50,000, with a mean average of $4,600 and median of $5,000.

For those at the top of the cards, we found a big split between those on the main event of a television card and those that were in the main event of a pay-per-view. Bonuses for fighters on television main events ranged from 0 to $50,000 with a mean average of $21,000 and median average of $25,000 according to the results of our polls.

For those featured on a pay-per-view but not in the main event, discretionary bonuses for the polled fighters ranged from $0 to $10,000 with the average being only $3,500. Those in the main event did much better, though, with the range being from $0 all the way up to around seven figures. The average discretionary bonus though for those in a pay-per-view main event was $193,000 and the median was $75,000.

As one can see, there is a wide range to the amounts given. The reasons for these variances are probably best explained by the fact that they are dependent on the subjective opinion of White and the UFC.

As White told Fontana, “There will be a night where some crazy s–t happens throughout the whole card, and then we have to pick what we thought [were] the $50,000 [bonus recipients], but somebody else was right in the running. They could have got it too. And it depends, I’ll write them anywhere from $10,000 to $25,000.”

Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC

Fighters repeatedly told me that while bonuses of at least “a few thousand” were very common, they also weren’t guaranteed.

According to the fighters polled in my survey, the median bonus back in 2013-2015 was around $4,000. Fighters headlining a televised event would typically get a bonus of $25,000. And a select few fighters in the main event of pay-per-views would get bonuses in the hundreds of thousands. While main event bouts on a pay-per-view represented only 3% of all the fights during the surveyed period they also accounted for over 50% of all discretionary bonus money paid to fighters.

Additionally, the “Of the Night” bonuses are apparently considered discretionary bonuses by the UFC. Thus, fighters receiving a Performance of the Night or Fight of the Night bonus are typically not given any additional bonuses.

As an example, Josh Samman — who sadly passed away shortly after I polled him — told me that he had received a $2,000 or $3,000 bonus when he beat Kevin Casey and $5,000 or $6,000 following his loss to Tamdan McCrory, but no additional money the two times he won a Performance of the Night bonuses.

Ryan Jimmo — who also tragically passed away shortly after I talked to him for the survey — reported no additional bonuses on top of his $50,000 Performance of the Night for the Sean O’Connell fight.

Fighters also reported that for whatever reason, the UFC sometimes decided to just not give him or her a bonus.

Jimmo informed me that he received no bonus following his win over Igor Pokrajac, a fight that was described as a “borefest” and saw fans booing because of the lack of activity. He also received no bonuses for his last two UFC fights. Jimmo told me that he thought the reason for this was not because of his performance, but because he had been vocal, both publicly and backstage, in his support for the fighters organizing and in his displeasure with the UFC’s — new at the time — Rebook outfitting policy,

For all his other fights in the UFC, Jimmo said he received $4,000 to $5,000 bonuses.

Zachary Makovsky also recalled not getting a bonus following a decision loss to John Dodson at UFC 187. This came after he had been paid a $4,000 to $5,000 bonus for each of his previous four fights.

“The only thing I could guess was that, after the fight, when I thought I deserved the decision, I asked Shelby what he thought about the decision. I had heard that most media outlets had scored it for me. Also that Mighty Mouse, who was sitting cageside, had also judged it for me. Shelby response was, ‘who cares? That fight sucked.’”

Leslie Smith also experienced the discretionary nature of the UFC’s bonus payment system. Following a loss via doctor’s stoppage at UFC 180, the UFC paid her the equivalent of what her win bonus would have been ($10,000). When the UFC was having trouble finding an opponent for Cris Cyborg, they gave her an additional $25,000 for taking the fight.

But, after asking Kobe Bryant at a UFC fighter summit about the importance of the National Basketball Players Association, she saw her discretionary bonus drop to career low of $2,000 following a win over Amanda Lemos. That would end up being her last fight in the UFC.

While many fighters described the bonuses as having an influence on their behavior — with the most common being reluctance to turn down fights or publicly voicing displeasure with a new policy, such as their Reebok athletic kits — many also said the UFC mostly left them confused as to how and when they were awarded.

After a decision victory over Tim Elliott at UFC Fight Night 60 that some in the media were calling a Fight of the Night contender, Makovsky was paid a visit by Dana White,

Anticipating that he was perhaps about to receive an additional $50,000 that night, he soon learned otherwise. “Dana told me that he thought about giving us the Fight of the Night Bonus,” Makovsky recalled, “but instead they were going to give it to Benson and Thatch. I was like, why are you telling me this?”

“He then told me ‘not to worry that they’d take care of me.’ So I was expecting a bigger bonus but I ended getting the same amount ($5,000) that I’d received for other fights, and Elliott got cut.”

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John S. Nash
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