Is Bellator Really MMA’s Number Two?

Bellator MMA

When A.J. McKee punched his ticket to becoming the organization’s first homegrown champ-champ, he broke the mold.

Not only did he begin his professional MMA career inside the Bellator cage, an unheard-of feat for an untested prospect, but he rode a wave of first-round finishes into the Bellator Featherweight tournament and churned that into a million-dollar bonus win.

It does beg the question: how many prospects have started their career in the UFC cage, won a belt after going undefeated, and walked away with a million dollars?

One can look back to “Suga” Rashad Evans, who won The Ultimate Fighter Season 2 and went on to become the UFC light heavyweight champion at UFC 92 in only his ninth appearance in the Octagon.

However, “Suga” entered the UFC after going 5-0 in stepping stone regional organizations like Gladiator Challenge. That’s not the same as starting your professional career in the UFC and going undefeated en route to becoming a champion.

The UFC’s pay scale has always been a point of contention for its athletes with a low “appearance fee” to “win bonus” ratio for non-champions. Although the UFC has branded itself as a top-tier organization, that distinction comes primarily through the work of its athletes.

Way of Martial Arts carried out a study to determine how much money UFC fighters are getting.

Because data for 2021 is not yet available, the following numbers are those collected from 2020.

UFC fighters made $147,965 on average in 2020. That is the 0.88% increase from $146,673 in 2019.

Two hundred nineteen fighters (38% of the roster) earned six figures in 2020, and the highest-paid UFC fighter was the former UFC lightweight champion, Khabib Nurmagomedov, with $6,090,000 (not including PPV bonuses).

UFC fighters make money mainly through the paychecks they receive after a fight. Each fighter signs a contract for a certain amount of fights, and they are paid a fixed amount of money each time they step inside the Octagon.

In general, we can divide fighters’ payouts into three categories based on the contracts they received from the UFC:
– Lowest Tier: from $10,000 to $30,000 per fight
– Middle Tier: from $80,000 to $250,000 per fight
– Highest Tier: from $500,000 to $3,000,000 per fight

In addition to the figures above, here is the list of highest paid UFC fighters (career earnings):

Conor McGregor: $15,082,000
Alistair Overeem: $9,569,500
Khabib Nurmagomedov: $8,680,200
Anderson Silva: $8,112,000
Michael Bisping: $7,135,000
Georges St-Pierre: $7,037,000
Jon Jones: $7,025,000
Mark Hunt: $6,304,000
Donald Cerrrone: $6,155,000
Junior dos Santos: $5,970,000
Daniel Cormier: $5,726,000
Vitor Belfort: $5,455,200
Andrei Arlovski: $5,409,000
Brock Lesnar: $5,080,000
Nate Diaz: $4,891,000
Mauricio “Shogun” Rua: $4,755,000
Rashad Evans: $4,735,000
Lyoto Machida: $4,585,000
Frankie Edgar: $4,568,000
Stipe Miocic: $4,488,000

Except for Nate Diaz, Andrei Arlovski, and Mark Hunt, every other fighter is a current or former champion.

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Beginning with the Reebok contract in 2014, the UFC instituted what it refers to as “fight week incentive pay.” That policy bundles together the outfitting policy, promotional duties, and the code of conduct for a per-fight bonus in addition to a fighter’s purse. The fight week incentive pay will see a bump with Venum coming in, albeit an incremental one.

UFC senior executive vice president and chief operating officer Lawrence Epstein told ESPN that the UFC would be boosting the pay scale by about $1 million annually.

Champions will now get $42,000 per bout in fight week incentive pay, compared to $40,000 under Reebok. Title challengers will get $32,000, compared to the old rate of $30,000. Fighters with 21 or more UFC fights get $21,000, up from $20,000. Athletes with between 16 and 20 fights will also see a $1,000 increase, from $15,000 to $16,000.

Entry-level fighters with between one and three UFC fights will now get $4,000 compared with $3,500 previously. Athletes with four or five UFC fights also get a $500 bump, from $4,000 to $4,500; athletes who have six to 10 UFC fights will go from $5,000 to $6,000; and fighters with between 11 and 15 fights get $11,000, compared with $10,000 under Reebok.

In contrast, Bellator MMA allows its fighters to retain their sponsorships, eliminating any ceiling. With A.J. McKee getting $1 million and two belts, the featherweight championship, and tournament, he is officially a giant unicorn in MMA history.

His ascension also makes a case for Bellator as the better business move while the UFC is the best popularity move.

Rhett Butler is a Boxing Writer Association of America Journalist, Play-By-Play Commentator, Combat Sports Insider, and Former Mixed Martial Arts and Boxing Promoter. The New York City native honed his skills at various news outlets including but not limited to: TIME Magazine, Money Magazine, CNN's Wolf Blitzer Reports, and more. RhettĀ hosts the PRITTY Left Hook podcast, a polarizing combat sports insider's take featuring the world's biggest names.