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UFC 268 exposes UFC’s biggest payout bottleneck: It’s belt or bust for top fighters

If it ain’t for a belt, it ain’t worth much. That’s how UFC’s set up its pay structure, much to the detriment of the athletes and the number of big fights that can be made.

UFC 268 goes down this Saturday (Nov. 6, 2021) inside Madison Square Garden in New York City ... and it is undeniably one of the biggest cards of the year. Not only are there two hype title fights in the offering with Kamaru Usman vs. Colby Covington and Rose Namajunas vs. Zhang Weili, but a banger of a pay-per-view (PPV) opener between Justin Gaethje and Michael Chandler.

But, the strength of this particular card belies a problem laying under the surface when it comes to UFC’s inability to keep its biggest stars active and happy. And each of the three main fights reflects one or more facets of that problem.

Look at Justin Gaethje vs. Michael Chandler.

Gaethje hasn’t fought since his Oct. 2020 title shot where he lost to Khabib Nurmagomedov in Abu Dhabi (watch highlights). He spent the first half of 2021 sounding pretty upset about his inability to secure a fight, while Chandler was getting all that “Dana White Privilege.” Of course, there’s almost always some sort of unmet demand or two at play when UFC won’t make a certain fight or book a certain fighter.

For Gaethje, it’s his insistence that a win earn him another title shot.

LIVE! Watch UFC 293 PPV On ESPN+ Here!

MASSIVE MIDDLEWEIGHT MATCH! Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) makes its highly anticipated return to Sydney, Australia, for the first time in five years on Sat., Sept. 9, 2023, with a 185-pound world title fight inside Qudos Bank Arena. In the ESPN+-streamed pay-per-view (PPV) main event, Middleweight roost-ruler, Israel Adesanya, plans to silence No. 5-seeded contender, Sean Strickland. In UFC 293’s hard-hitting Heavyweight co-main event, No-6-ranked fan favorite, Tai Tuivasa, locks horns with towering Russian, Alexander Volkov (No. 8).

Don’t miss a single second of EPIC face-punching action!

“If I don’t get the shot, we riot,” Gaethje said during the lead up to UFC 268. “We go to war. I have to be biased when it comes to this. I’m not going to be around here for much longer, so if I were to get snubbed again then, yeah, I’d have to do something about it. Whether that’s causing ruckus.”

Winning the title isn’t just a point of pride and legacy. UFC has carefully constructed its entire business around the belts being a fighter’s main route to fortune. No belt? No cut of the pay-per-view money. And if you’re not getting a cut of the PPV money, good luck hitting a seven-figure sum for your fight purse.

The financial incentives shift so much when you’re a UFC champion that we’re seeing top divisions grind to a halt as contenders angle for a shot at the strap. Welterweight is particularly ridiculous at the moment, as revealed by the UFC 268 main event between Usman and Covington.

“Chaos” fought once since his defeat to “The Nigerian Nightmare” back in 2019 (watch highlights). Jorge Masvidal managed to earn himself an immediate rematch with Usman off a one-sided loss. With UFC increasingly reluctant to renegotiate deals, fighters are hunkering down and holding out for a shot at the title ... and real money.

This extends into other divisions as well. Rose Namajunas vs. Zhang Weili 1 almost didn’t happen at all because UFC was trying to lowball “Thug.” And below Namajunas vs. Zhang at women’s Strawweight is former 115-pound queenpin, Joanna Jedrzejczyk, who defended her belt a staggering five times between 2015 and 2017.

She has basically said she’s not getting her face mangled without PPV points (or a proper equivalent).

But of course, UFC isn’t interested in making non-champions with PPV points a “thing.” That’s because UFC seems perfectly happy with the current myth that only champions (and Conor McGregor) deserve PPV points ... and not even all champions. Former double champ and Olympic gold medalist, Henry Cejudo, dropped his belts and retired because UFC refused to give him points, just in case you were wondering how tight-wadded UFC is about giving this/them out.

It’s hard to argue from a corporate perspective that what UFC is doing is wrong — getting away with paying its athletes 17 percent of revenue is a feat unparalleled in sports outside of the whole scammy college system. And with UFC’s deal with ESPN giving it a new-found stability no matter how good (or bad) its cards may look, the promotion is seemingly free to sit out any fighter who seems likely to mess up the budget ... now or in the future.

It’s too bad, though, and not just for the fighters, whose primes are short enough without extended periods of political bench warming.

One could argue that a modest bump in pay and a less adversarial approach to negotiating and matchmaking could open up UFC to more regular performances from its top athletes, and more “super” fights coming together. We see the results of UFC’s financial rigidness in then news way too much. Almost every card tells a tale before or after: fights not made, fighters not happy. The word ‘broke’ being used to describe financial situations more than legs and noses.

UFC 268 represents a collection of some of the greatest fighters in the world. For those following closely, it also reflects the current harsh realities of the promotion’s pay structure. It’s a miracle we get to see a night of big fights like this ... and a tragedy that the athletes carrying it will make so little from it.

Remember that will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC 268 fight card right here, starting with the early ESPN+ “Prelims” matches online, which are scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. ET, then the remaining undercard balance on ESPNEWS/ESPN+ at 8 p.m. ET, before the PPV main card start time at 10 p.m. ET on ESPN+ PPV.

To check out the latest and greatest UFC 268: “Usman vs. Covington 2” news and notes be sure to hit up our comprehensive event archive right here.

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