In some sports, athletes are treated like sled dogs. In others, Ferraris. In the case of mixed martial artists, that needle moves. More than in any other sport, it’s all about the money.
In the early days of MMA, fighters were barely treated like dogs. “Human cockfighting,” the term that politician John McCain so ignorantly tossed around, was not that far off in the old basement gymnasium days. However, that began to change quickly.
From the early ’90s to the mid-2000s, MMA was still new, but things were slowly evolving. Then, after the first season of The Ultimate Fighter in 2005, things took off. The money was getting bigger, and pro fighters were fine-tuning with nutritionists, well-rounded coaching and managers that were starting to grow past the old sleazeball status.
Some promoters have grown to think that legitimizing MMA as a mainstream sport is all about them. However, in reality, it is these dedicated collegiate champions, martial arts black belts and even former pro athletes from other sports who have really legitimized the sport and the entertainment value. They have, to some degree, been compensated accordingly — at least at the highest levels. But this “fair compensation” has not come from the promoters.
Compared to other pro athletes, mixed martial artists don’t even come close to the level of compensation that even league-minimum players get in football, basketball, hockey and baseball. The best thing that a fighter can do, from a compensation perspective, is put on exciting fights and get sponsors who want to help them train full-time, pay for their gym memberships, expensive diet and supplement programs, and cover things like cellphone bills and rent while they are in between fights. The promoters often do not care what happens to fighters outside of the cage, unless it affects a card, of course.
The athletes are expected to be Ferraris in the cage, but they otherwise get treated like sled dogs — “just put your head down and mush.”
A little-known fact about The Ultimate Fighter reality show is that, while some of the challenge bonuses have increased and some added sponsorships like Harley-Davidson have sweetened the pot, the fighter compensation has remained pretty much unchanged over the last 10 years. This is the show and these are the fighters that have continuously drawn viewer interest to the promotion, but the only people making more and more money are the owners of Zuffa, LLC.
Ramsey Nijem was a finalist on season 13 of the show, back in 2011, losing only to Tony Ferguson in the finale. Since then, he has gone 5-3 in the Octagon, has fought on a couple main cards and has beaten guys who are now ranked in the top 10 of the lightweight division. However, he has still barely gotten a bump in pay.
“I’m still under The Ultimate Fighter contract, and that’s from 2005. And there’s no inflation built into that,” Nijem told Combat Press. “If there was no money being made by the UFC, I’d fight for free. With the money being made off my blood and sweat, my technical abilities — I sacrificed a limb for that, put on back-to-back performances — and I’m not getting paid for that.”
In Nijem’s last outing, he got his show pay and a “Fight of the Night” bonus. In a stellar main-card performance, one in which he sustained a severe injury that required surgery and sidelined him for several months, he made less than $70,000, and that’s before all of his associated expenses were paid. The gate alone was $700,000 and the buy rate was 125,000 — which is considered pretty light — due to a main event shake-up. Ferguson was on that card, too, and even with a win, he only walked out with $40,000, only $4,000 more than the guy he beat.
Outside of the promotional pittance that he was paid, Nijem, like all professional fighters, was able to live, train and sustain his lifestyle, which was by no means extravagant, off of his sponsorships.
During that fight, which came against Carlos Diego Ferreira at UFC 177, Nijem sustained a terrible injury.
“Toward the end of the first round, I hurt my elbow in a weird scramble,” explained Nijem. “I just landed on my arm and it completely tore up my elbow, so I had Tommy John surgery.
“I’ve just been recovering from my surgery. I had to do a lot of rehab, and it took a lot of time, man. It’s a really hard surgery to come back from, but I feel like I’ve come back stronger.”
Nijem made a switch to Tareq Azim’s Empower Gym in San Francisco a little while back. He made due with the limbs he had available and trained as much as he could while recovering.
“To be honest, not a whole lot has changed,” said the West Coast native. “I’m still training in California. I’m still training with Tareq, Gilbert Melendez, Jake Shields and all those guys. I’m still training with those guys, and I’ve spent a lot of time just refining my tools. I couldn’t use my arms, but I could use my legs — working on kicks, running, doing everything I could do to get back as soon as I can.
“I’ve been training back for a little while now. I was ready to fight at the beginning of June, but I didn’t get scheduled until the end of July. To be honest, in June, I was at 100 percent, so I’ve just been training for the last couple months. I finally got a fight, so I jumped into camp. So it’s working out, I guess. This is the longest I have not competed in a sport in my life.”
Nijem is all set for his first battle in 10 months. It takes place Saturday night at UFC on Fox 16. Originally, he was supposed to face Erik Koch in a main-card bout. However, Koch got injured and the UFC brass could not find a top-level replacement, so the company brought in a promotional newcomer and bumped them to the prelims.
“It was crazy, man,” Nijem said with frustration. “They couldn’t find anyone to fight me. There’s all these guys talking about how they want to fight me. There’s probably been four or five guys who have called me out in the last year, but not one of them was willing to step up and actually fight me. They wanted to get the attention of sounding cool, but when [UFC matchmaker] Joe Silva calls them, they won’t even fight me. Everybody wants to act like a tough guy behind closed doors, but when it comes time to actually step up and fight, they all have excuses.”
The UFC ended up bringing in Andrew Holbrook, who trains with Chris Lytle and Pat McPherson at Indy Boxing and Grappling in Indianapolis. He may be undefeated, with all of his wins coming by submission, but he hasn’t fought outside of his home state. In fact, this fight will be in Chicago, which is only a few hours away. This is a weird situation for the UFC vet.
“Koch gets hurt and they find a guy who has never been in the UFC, and all I know is what I can find on the internet,” Nijem stated. “That’s all I know about him. I’ve never seen him fight in person, I don’t know his tendencies, and it’s kind of a shitty situation they put me in. On one side, if I lose, that makes him look good, but if I win, I’m supposed to beat him.”
In the past, this wouldn’t have been a big deal. However, while Nijem was out of commission, there may have been few changes in his camp, but the UFC went through a seismic shift. That shift affected the fighters in a big way, and few fighters made out better with the deal.
Earlier this year, the UFC went into an exclusive sponsorship deal with Reebok and revised the fighter compensation plan. Basically, fighters are compensated based on the number of combined fights they have under the UFC, WEC and Strikeforce banners, as well as on their merchandise sales, and they can no longer wear any sponsor logos outside of Reebok at any UFC event, including weigh-ins, press conferences and so on. The new deal does not limit fighters from having other sponsors, but they can’t represent those sponsors when it matters most. While the guaranteed pay from Reebok and the UFC is nice, the income streams between fights have dried up for many of the athletes.
“It’s been tough,” admitted Nijem. “There is no guaranteed money in this sport, and now that I’m fighting under Reebok, I can’t do a lot. I went to Costa Rica on vacation with my girlfriend for my birthday, so that was fun, but for the most part I just had to chill out. I was in a lot of pain. I had to be very careful with my money and move into a cheaper apartment, because I didn’t know when I was going to fight again or when my next paycheck was coming.
“It’s very strange, because it affects all of us, taking money out of our pockets, but we haven’t been compensated for it. Nobody would be bitching or complaining if there was more steady income. That’s the thing that’s really affected me. Any steady income I used to have from my outside sponsors, I’ve completely lost. I have no steady income at all. You have no idea how much money you’re going to make each fight, because while everybody wants to win, one person has to lose each time.”
For what would be considered the middle class of the UFC — the fighters that put on those exciting performances that are the backbones of the many cards — the Reebok deal and new pay structure appears to be a big pay cut. And, as was seen recently with the firing of longtime UFC cutman Jacob “Stitch” Duran, nobody can say anything about it, because the UFC will retaliate. Yet, many fighters have had to courage to step forward and cry foul, and the facts are the facts.
At the end of the day, Nijem is a fighter and he’s going to keep doing what he loves. While the UFC has proven to be able to do pretty much whatever they want in the past, this one could turn around to bite them. The promotion only has a few champs and a few up-and-comers, but it’s all the guys in the middle that truly make up the meat of the promotion and allow the UFC to continue to put on an event almost every week of the year. Those are the men and women that are getting their pockets picked in this whole shake-up.
Steady income or not, Nijem is ready to fight this Saturday night at UFC on Fox 16. He needs to compete as much as possible to keep the income flowing, so he hopes to make short work of Holbrook and get back in the cage as quickly as possible.
“I’m ready,” Nijem said. “My weight’s down, I feel good, and I’m mentally ready. I feel like I’ve done everything I could. I’m a fighter, man, at the end of the day. I’m not one-dimensional. As far as Holbrook, I feel he’s a one-dimensional wrestler who’s going to try to hold me down, and that’s not going to happen. I like the match-up. It’s not a very intimidating one. I’m ready to fight.
“I want to fight as much as I can, but it’s not up to me. It’s up to the UFC, because when I get scheduled, I get scheduled. Honestly, I need to fight, man. I need to make money. If I fight and finish, I’ll turn right back around. I haven’t fought for a long time. It’s hard to fight back-to-back, because you can get burned out, but I’ve been out for a long time, so I want to fight as much as I can until I’m tired of fighting.”
Nijem may be treated like a sled dog, but he fights like a Ferrari. He’s ready to bring the same level of intensity to the Octagon this weekend.
“I’m going to go out winning with the same fighting passion. I’m a born fighter, man. I’m a Palestinian. That’s what we’re here for. We were bred to fight.”
Nijem would like to thank his coaches and teammates at Empower Gym and Skrap Pack. He would also like to thank his family, friends and fans. Follow Ramsey on Twitter: @RamseyNijem
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