by John Morgan on May 26, 2011 at 10:20 am ET
LAS VEGAS – For many MMA fans, it has become a post-UFC-event tradition: Wait for the night's salaries to be made public and then dissect them like some high-school biology project.
But of course, there's always that little asterisk at the bottom of our reports. The salaries, while reflective of each fighter's contract, don't include the UFC's famed "discretionary bonuses."
The UFC's procedure of compensating fighters through non-contracted payments often has drawn the ire of critics who assume the promotion must be doing something sinister with the procedure. Not so, said UFC president Dana White. There's nothing to hide. His company just happens to believe in sharing the wealth.
"We're the only promoters, and we might be the only bosses in the history of the [expletive] world that pay guys more than what the deal is," White told MMAjunkie.com (UFC blog for UFC news, UFC rumors, fighter interviews and event previews/recaps | MMAjunkie.com
Among the chief criticisms of the bonuses is that the numbers reported by the athletic commissions mean absolutely nothing. Without the ability to truly track what the UFC is paying its fighters, athletes and managers have no way of ensuring honest negotiations during contract talks, much less guaranteeing the UFC is ramping up its payouts as revenue and profits continue to grow.
White balks at the idea that discretionary bonuses make salary figures irrelevant.
"They don't mean nothing; they mean something," White said. "What goes to the commission, those are the deals that we cut. We go in, and we go into these negotiations that last [expletive] weeks sometimes. You hammer back and forth, and you hammer out these deals.
"So the discretionary bonus has turned into this thing where people think, 'Oh, they're doing this thing because they don't want the commission in. That number doesn't mean anything.' That number means everything. We negotiated with these guys to do this deal."
It's simple, White insisted. Just as the promotion recently added accident-insurance coverage for its fighters without any real need to do so, the promotion is also interesting in sharing the wealth when events turn out more profitable than expected – or when fighters turn in remarkable performances.
"There are different factors into why guys will get a discretionary bonus," White said. "There's never these deals made where it's like, 'OK, this what we're going to pay you on the contract, but then we'll cut you a discretionary bonus of this.'
"First of all, sometimes an event becomes bigger than we anticipated it to be. Sometimes there's more money involved than we budgeted or thought could happen. What do we do? We share with them. We're not going to go, 'Hey, listen. That's your [expletive] deal, buddy. You signed that deal. I don't care how big this event was,' even though that's our right to do. When you go in and you sign up fighters, and you do these things, and you go out and put on the promotion, 100 percent of the risk is on us – 100 percent of the risk. We go out and do all the marketing, do all the stuff. But if the thing becomes big, and it takes off, why would we not share with them and give them a piece of it?
"The other reason a guy might get a bonus is because me and (UFC co-owner) Lorenzo (Fertitta) are sick, insane fight fans, and we might be sitting there in our chairs, and when we jump up out of our [expletive] seat and start screaming, 'Holy [expletive],' we're writing that dude a check, no matter what. There have been many cases where the show didn't do what we thought they were going to do, but we felt that he deserved that extra money."
Some of the confusion may date back to a 2007 legal battle between the promotion and UFC Hall of Famer Randy Couture, who disapproved of the company's use of the bonuses. In describing his issues, Couture frequently referred to the discretionary bonuses as "off the books."
As the battle unfolded, UFC officials clarified that the income was indeed reported to the Internal Revenue Service, and the money was no different than performance or incentive bonuses received by workers in any number of industries.
It's no different now.
"It's no different than if you kick ass and knock the ball out of the park for your company this year, and when Christmas comes around, they're going to write you a [expletive] bonus if they're good guys," White said. "Hopefully they're going to do that for you.
"The way that we look at it, every event is its own business. Every event that we do is its own business. It has its own P&L. When a guy comes in, and he knocks it out of the park, we're going to take care of him. And believe me, that's what we're known for with the fighters now. They know when they go out and deliver and we go skipping out of the arena that night because it was such an incredible show, guys are getting paid.
"It happens a lot. It happens every event we do. Not to mention on top of that, we set a bonus number that night for the best fight, the best knockout and the best submission. And you can be a guy that gets that and ends up getting another one, too, just because everything went great, and we thought you deserve it."
But with fans and pundits alike often clamoring for increased fighter pay, would White consider releasing more information on these discretionary bonuses? Wouldn't the UFC boss want the world to know how well he's taking care of his employees?
"Nope," White flatly said. "[Fans and media] want to know what [the amounts are] so bad. It drives them crazy. It kills them. It's all they want to know. It's crazy how bad they want to know it. But this is the way I look at it – some of you might understand, and some of you might not – money changes a lot of things. When you're the guy that gets – and I'm just using this as an example, when you get a million-dollar bonus – let's say you get a million-dollar bonus. People come crawling out of the [expletive] woodwork, man. Every uncle, cousin, nephew, people you didn't know you were related to need money. Everybody comes asking you.
"The thing you guys have to understand is we don't always have a 100 percent awesome, rock-solid relationships with all of our fighters. There are guys that I love in this company, and there's guys I can't stand. I don't like them at all. But one thing you will never see, you'll never see these guys come out and start talking about their money or their bonuses or what they got paid. None of you have ever done a story where guys come out and say, 'Yeah, here's what happened: I fought a great fight, I came out, and this was my bonus.' You know why? Because they don't want you to [expletive] know, and they don't want anyone else to know, either. That's their business, just like you guys wouldn't want what you make every year reported in the paper. It's the same thing.
"We've become accustomed to it with professional athletes because in all of the other big sports, it's out there. You think they want it out there? It drives them [expletive] nuts. But that's the way these guys like it, and I don't blame them one bit. But man, it kills the media. They want to [expletive] know that money so bad."
Like it or not, White said the UFC is just fine with the way fighters are currently compensated. There's no funny business, according to White, no shady, tax-dodging tactics. Fighters, managers and the IRS all know what's going on behind closed doors. There's just no reason the rest of the world needs to know, too.
"The managers cut the [expletive] deal; they're the ones we did the contract with," White said. "We negotiated the contract with you. You negotiated the fight. You're going to show up and get this much money. You're going to win and get this much money. That's the deal. We negotiate this deal over weeks. Sometimes for months we negotiate these deals.
"The fact that we think, A), you fought a great fight and you blew us away that night, or B), the show did better than we expected, and you get a bonus, yeah, that's real sinister. 'That's sneaky.' It's the [expletive] dumbest thing that I have ever heard. The conspiracy theories that come up in this sport are asinine – literally asinine."