Free agency in mixed martial arts (MMA) is alive and well.
What was once thought of as a crazy dream, top fighters can now look elsewhere other than Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) to collect a paycheck for punching people in the face. Sure, that option has always existed; however, a few years ago, if you weren't with UFC, you weren't considered to be fighting at the the highest level.
That's the reason all up-and-comers and talented veterans wanted to either make it to the Octagon or keep plying their trade in the eight-walled cage to prove their worth. For some, though -- despite all of their talent -- their worth wasn't showing up in their bank accounts.
Accordingly, over the last two years, plenty of fighters have left UFC to sign contracts with other organizations. Specifically, Bellator MMA, which is UFC's biggest rival. And with the backing of a powerful, rich corporation like Viacom, Scott Coker and Co. are able to pay said fighters what they perhaps couldn't get with UFC.
Bleacher Report's Mike Chiappetta recently dove into the free agency world, speaking to several prominent fighters who left to Bellator MMA once their UFC contracts were up to see if the grass was indeed greener. As Matt Mitrione put it, once he had an eye-opening conversation with UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta in which he was told that he company was selling the production and the show (not the fighters), he knew it was time to bolt:
"The MMA business is very similar to the NFL business. There's no promise of loyalty. If you're not expecting the business aspect of things, you'll get your feelings hurt. I guess I'm the same way. I'm hurt because I displayed loyalty and none was given back. I guess it's just human nature to expect to give and to get back, but that's not the case when it comes to sports. When you know you have a value and you're worth something to them, you've got to monetize it. I've got to capitalize, and it's not fair to be criticized because I want to capitalize on it."
Mittrione went on to sign a multi-fight deal with Bellator MMA that will pay him six figures for each of his fights. On top of that, he is now free to earn even more cash through sponsors, something that became very limited with UFC's deal with Reebok.
As "Meathead" declared, once the glamour of being with UFC wears off, fighters begin to see that looking at other options isn't so bad. It's something he says a lot of people will likely learn the hard way, as they've been brainwashed to think UFC is the end all, be all in MMA.
"Some people are so brainwashed. They say, 'How dare you think about business like that?' If you cite money, you're a greedy pig. If you cite anything else, you're a scared p---y. It's crazy. The thing is, the UFC has become bigger than the sport, and what's bad about that is so many people want to be in the UFC that everyone else is an afterthought. There are guys in smaller organizations that their only goal is 'I want to go to the UFC.' And I'll tell them there might be more money in another place. And they'll say, 'It doesn't really matter. That's my goal.' But once people get to the UFC, they might get the disenchantment of what's going on. If you're a veteran in the UFC, you'll see it. Being famous and being in the UFC doesn't do you any good if you can't capitalize on it and monetize it realistically. It's not feasible for the most part. They took so much money from us and so much revenue-earning potential from us, it changed the entire landscape of everything. I don't understand why anyone would re-up with the UFC unless they're still caught up in the glamour of being in the UFC."
For Ben Henderson, meanwhile -- who left UFC last year to sign with Bellator -- he says he was treated well by UFC for the most part. But, at the end of they day, he needed to secure a bigger, more steady payday for him and his family. And though he was the recipient of a few locker room bonuses, it's something that is not guaranteed.
"When you talk about backroom bonuses and discretionary bonuses, they're awesome, they're cool, but it's not a steady salary, it's not promised. Some guys never get a bonus. It's all at the whim of the higher-ups. And you shouldn't have a problem paying your mortgage because of the whim of the higher-ups, because they didn't feel your fight was worthy of a bonus. That struck me as wrong. It's not right at all. Fighters are professional athletes. As much as we sacrifice, we shouldn't have to live hoping that we get a bonus, hoping that we did enough to impress them."
Sure, some have stayed loyal to UFC -- even if their loyalty has cost them millions of dollars -- and there are a select few who rake in the big bucks, as evidenced by this record-setting payroll for UFC 196. However, those types of paydays aren't the norm, as most fighters make a small percentage of the high salaries the likes of Conor McGregor, Ronda Rousey and Holly Holm command.
That's why you shouldn't be surprised if Bellator MMA has a roster full of ex-UFC fighters looking to make the most of their remaining time in the sport in the coming years.
To check out the rest of Chiappetta's in-depth piece -- which includes perspectives from Ben Henderson, Josh Thomson, Phil Davis and Mitrione -- click here.