Growing UFC good for fighters’ wallets

Rashad Evans’ last job before he began the pursuit of a full-time mixed martial arts career usually became grim around 5 p.m.

“That’s when the pathologist went off duty,” Evans told about his stint as a security guard at a hospital in Lansing, Mich. “Bodies had to be moved to the morgue, and it was up to me at that point to take them down there. It was crazy. People were dying right in front of me.”

Evans was waiting for a police job to open up when he was tapped to join the second season of the “The Ultimate Fighter,” a combo reality show and MMA competition, in November 2005. He eventually won the heavyweight portion of the show. With a six-figure UFC deal in hand, Evans’ choice to ditch disgruntled patients and corpses was easy. Many others have left more established careers behind to pursue a sport still with no guarantees — not that there isn’t opportunity in a sport that’s still in its infancy.

Evans and his opponent — Phil Davis — in the main event of UFC on FOX 2 this Saturday likely will earn well into six figures for their light heavyweight bout. Junior dos Santos, winner of UFC on FOX 1 in November, took home $220,000 total.

Charlie Brenneman is on the lower end of the UFC pay scale. He was on the preliminary card last Friday for the UFC on FX debut and likely pulled in between $10,000 to $20,000 for the victory over Daniel Roberts. (Neither the UFC nor the Tennessee Athletic Commission release purse information.) Not bad for 15 minutes of work, but a little less secure than his former job as a high school Spanish teacher in Hollidaysburg, Pa.

“It was a hard decision (to commit to MMA full time) because you had to get all your ducks in a row,” said Brenneman, who, along with his older brother, Ben, won the first season of Pros vs. Joes. “I’m a pretty conservative person. I worked three years as a teacher, so I was able to save some money to make things a little easier. If you make the decision and don’t care about retirement or anything else, it’s easy. If you want to do it responsibly — which is the way I was brought up — it’s a little tougher.”

Since turning pro in 2007 and making his UFC debut in 2010, Brenneman has convinced more than just himself that it was the right decision.

“It took my parents a while to roll over on it, but now they’re supportive,” Brenneman said with a smirk.

The subject of fighter pay is a touchy one with UFC officials, and a spokesman for the organization refused to comment on the story.

Many within UFC are still fuming over an ESPN report that said fighters are seeing only a small percentage of the organization’s profits, something UFC co-owner Lorenzo Fertitta disputed in the report, as well as afterward. Fertitta said that the UFC is in line with most major sports and the fighters get about half of the revenue, which has led fighters to be paid about $250 million since the UFC became profitable in 2005.

“They built a company when nobody else believed in it,” said Glenn Robinson, who manages Evans and several other top UFC fighters. “That’s the only way this industry came about. Some people may say, `Well, it’s the only game in town.’ Maybe it’s because (UFC president) Dana White is that smart

"There have been plenty of competitors, and very few are still in business. The fact remains they resurrected something that was on its last few breaths and now people claim they don’t pay enough? That’s crazy.”

But fighter pay — more so than boxing — isn’t all about the purse. There are nightly bonuses paid out by the UFC for Knockout of the Night, Submission of the Night and Fight of the Night. On top of that, the main draws on pay-per view events often get a cut of the profits if the event sells well.

Then there’s the sponsors, a revenue stream that Evans told is just as lucrative as the checks cut by the UFC.

Fighters aren’t allowed to have conflicting sponsors in certain categories like motorcycles — where Harley Davidson is the official bike of UFC — or if a company is out of ethical or moral boundaries. The days of a fighter like Tito Ortiz being sponsored by a certain adult bookstore in Santa Ana, Calif., are over. Another recently banned category is guns, Jason Genet of the management group Ingrained Media wrote on his blog.

“The UFC takes a close look at which sponsors they want to be associated with,” Robinson said. “They will look at every sponsor on that banner to make sure you’re not trying to sneak one past them that hasn’t been approved.”

It’s the same sort of thing another sponsor-driven sport, NASCAR, polices.

Clothing and sports supplements companies remain the two most popular sponsors of MMA athletes. Evans currently has both — MusclePharm and JACO Clothing — as sponsors, companies he views favorably. That hasn’t always been the case.

“I look for something that I believe in first and foremost,” Evans said. “If I don’t believe in it and somebody asks me about it, I don’t want to lie. People watch what you’re repping. You have to tell them the truth. I know back in the day when I was with a (supplement company), they made a product I really didn’t like.”

While some sponsorship categories have gone away in recent years, the spotlight for the fighters has gotten brighter. Take Brenneman’s fight Friday. Until UFC’s new deal with FOX Sports that commenced late last year, his bout would have been carried only on Facebook. The preliminary fights for UFC on FX can now be found on Fuel TV.

“Monetarily, it’s helping out a little bit,” Brenneman said. “As the sport continues to grow, that will help us out a lot. We just want to get recognition and to be seen by however many more thousands of people helps us promote the sport as a whole.”

MMA fighters are an educated bunch. Evans, who has a psychology degree from Michigan State, and Brenneman could find a safer line of work — one that doesn’t involve the possibility of being choked out or suffering a broken jaw. Well, at least not on a regular basis.

Evans said if he left MMA, he might try to enter law enforcement again.

“It’d be hard to be a cop now,” Evans aid. “People know my face, and I wanted to do some undercover work.”